More than just bush – Indigenous Culture


Okay, there are probably quite a few things that Tony Abbott will be remembered as saying:
and while his statement about Australia being nothing but bush is probably not the most significant (if indeed you can give them a rating, but then again I’ve never been able to list things of importance, significance, or any other reason that you would give things a rating) it does give us an idea of the conservative view of Australia. In making the statement that Australia was ‘nothing but bush’ gives the idea that the indigenous cultures of Australia are insignificant and simply do not add anything to the cultural diversity of the world. Mind you, this was a statement that came out of the mouth of a business-friendly politician, which also indicates that there is only one thing of important – profit. If something doesn’t turn a profit, then there is no use for it. Okay, one’s cultural heritage may be of interest to the anthropologist, or the tourist, however in the big scheme of things, it is basically irrelevant.
Mind you, that doesn’t mean that the indigenous culture of Australia has been suppressed. If you travel to many of the tourist spots around Australia you will discover various works of art on display, and even for sale. However what is going on is the commodification of the indigenous Australian culture, and the diversity across the various nations are basically ignored in favour of what people now see as being Aboriginal. For instance, when many of us think of Aboriginals we think of boomerangs and didgeridoos, and the occasional painted individual dancing around a campfire. However, the actual nature of the culture, or how it differs across the continent, is irrelevant. In a way, it is similar to the modern view of Native American society – they are Indians, they wear hats full of feathers, and they live in teepees – any difference between the nations is ignored, replaced by the simple modern viewpoint.

South Australian Museum

While I have already written a post on the South Australian Museum on my TravelBlog, when I walked into the Aboriginal Gallery I felt that it deserved a post all of its own, and not on my Travel Blog but rather on this blog, namely, because it is going to be more anthropological then a story about someplace that I have visited in the past (though if you read my travel blog you will notice that I do tend to write more than just a description of places that I have visited – if I wanted to do that I would simply have posted something on Trip-Advisor and Yelp). Another thing that I wanted to do is to try and create an understanding of Aboriginal culture beyond what the bulk of society believes – their culture is more than just boomerangs and digeridoos, it is a story of a pre-industrial society that managed to survive and flourish in a harsh and barren environment.
As I have hinted above, there is much more diversity to the original inhabitants of Australia than what many of us acknowledge. Sure, we may know that the American Indians were made up of different nations such as the Sioux, the Comanche, and the Apache, however, this was also the case with the Aboriginals. One of the misconceptions that we have of Aboriginal society is that they were nomadic, which suggest that they wandered all over the place. Sure, they may not have built towns or cities, however, they were not as nomadic as some people believe. In fact, they had their own territories and treaties with neighbouring tribes. The tribes had their own culture, beliefs, and laws. While there may have been similarities between the tribes, we must remember that the Australian continent is huge, and a tribe on the Eastern coast would not necessarily be anything like a tribe on the Western Coast. In fact, it is highly unlikely that any such tribes would have even met each other.
Also, the location of the tribe, and the type of land in which they inhabited, would determine what they had developed. For instance, a tribe living in the middle of the Simpson Desert would have no idea how to make a canoe, while a tribe living in the north, where there are lots of waterways, wouldn’t have developed the same skills to find water in a barren landscape. Also, the tribes living in the north would have had much more European contact (with both the Dutch and the Portuguese) than did the ones that lived in the South (who didn’t encounter Europeans until sometime after settlement). In fact, there was even limited trade occurring between the tribes to the North and the European merchants.

A Brief History

I can hardly call myself an expert on Aboriginal history, however, one cannot necessarily rely upon the natives to have a detailed account of their history. In a way, before the arrival of the Europeans, the Aboriginals lived in what was known as the Dreaming. Originally I understood this as being sometime in the distant past, however, it seems to represent the time before colonisation. I remember seeing some graffiti that was around Salisbury when I was a kid that said “10000 years of Dreaming, 200 years of nightmare”. What the arrival of the European settlers did was to bring a sense of history. Sure, the Aboriginals had art and painted pictures, but they saw no need to actually record history since change did not exist. They lived in a culture that passed stories down by word of mouth, and similarly, treaties between tribes would also be remembered as such. It should be noted though that the tribes in the north, who had been meeting with the Dutch had painted pictures of their ships.

Most of what we know of pre-colonial culture has come about through anthropological study. Sure, we still have the Aboriginals around to teach us about their culture, but the only way we can learn about their history is through archaeology and studying their stories. The belief is that they first arrived in Australia after crossing from Papua New Guinea. From there, over thousands of years, they spread out over the country. Mind you, it wasn’t the case that one lot came over and nothing happened until the arrival of the Europeans. No, other groups and tribes kept on coming. In fact, one such migration resulted in the dingo coming over and becoming a part of the Australian fauna, which I must admit is interesting – we criticise the Europeans for introducing the rat, and the cat, to Australia, but have no concern as to the Aboriginals introducing the dingos. Then again the Aboriginals were much too respectful of the land than were us Europeans – we released rabbits for sport, and the foxes to go and catch them.

Anyway, while the anthropologists have probably written quite a lot about the Aboriginals colonisation and settlement of Australia, as I mentioned much of that is speculation. To the Aboriginals, they lived during the Dreaming. This was a time when they were masters of the land, a time that seemed to have no beginning and no end. Sure, they had their mythology, which was passed down through the generations, as well as the stories of their interactions with neighbouring tribes, but there was no history, life went on as it had been going on for centuries – there was no progress because there was no need for progress. Everything that they needed they had access to, and there was no need to create technology to make their lives easier. Mind you, there were probably other reasons why they didn’t develop sophisticated farming techniques, but then again when you can hunt and gather enough food to feed the tribe such techniques are not needed.


The Tribal Farm

However, to say that they didn’t have a system of agriculture probably doesn’t do any justice to the craftiness of the Aboriginal people. What they didn’t have were fences. The thing with those of us in the west is that people would put up a fence and exclude all others, and make the statement that that land belonged to them. There also developed a system of hierarchy, where one would lay claim to a section of land, and then bring in servants to work the land for them. In turn, they would generate surpluses to trade with others, and the more of a surplus one had, the more trading power that they wielded. However the aboriginal people didn’t work like that, they didn’t have a sense of property because they saw themselves not as owners of a piece of land, but as custodians of the Earth. In fact, they had a better understanding of the way the Earth worked than us Europeans who would clear the land to grow as many crops as possible, or raise as much livestock as possible.
However, the Aboriginals did farm the land, both with livestock and with plants. It is just that they didn’t do it the way we did it, by creating farms. Instead, they farmed the land by planting their crops in the bush, and making these crops a part of the bush. Also, because they were used to a nomadic lifestyle, they would regularly move to a different part of their territory, an area where the crops they had planted in earlier seasons had reached maturity which allowing the crops that have been planted later to continue to grow, As for livestock, they also understood that as well, it is just that they didn’t create paddocks and fenced them in, but rather they allowed them to roam free across the land, going out and catching them when needed.
The Aboriginals weren’t just hunter-gatherers, they were also very skilled fisherman, though no doubt only those that lived near watercourses where fish thrived would have developed such skills. However catching fish can be a difficult skill at best, even with a modern fishing rod. Still, the Aboriginals were able to develop tools, such as fishing nets, as well as spears, that enabled them to be able to take advantage of the bounty that the waters offered them. Mind you, one simply cannot make a net without knowing how to create rope, which is something that the Aboriginals clearly knew how to do.


The thing about the Australian Aboriginals is that they were very familiar with the lands in which the lived, which meant that they not only know what plants were edible, or where to find water, but also what plants had medicinal purposes. Unlike modern medicine, they didn’t have huge textbooks from which they could use as reference materials, rather they had to rely upon memory, and upon word of mouth.
This is the thing about these indigenous cultures and one strength that they have over us – their ability to recall facts. Okay, we have books and the internet, but that has the effect of making us lazy. We don’t need to remember anything anymore because all of that knowledge is available to us at the touch of the keyboard. Okay, while the Aboriginals did write on cave walls, they didn’t have a written language – namely because they didn’t have access to the materials required for a written language – and that includes chisels to permanently record things in the rock (though many aboriginal paintings that are incredibly old).
However, it is not just the memories that are used to pass down their myths and legends, but also knowledge as to the healing properties of the herbs and other plants in their locality. Food and water were commodities that were needed quite regularly, however, medicine is only used when somebody is sick or injured, therefore such knowledge only comes to play at specific times. Still, the fact that the Aboriginals were able to remember such facts is amazing in and of itself.



Water is essential to life, and this is much more so when one lives in an arid environment like Australia. However, one thing that we seem to take for granted is not just that we can turn on a tap and have clean, drinkable, water gush out of it (and even though Adelaide water has a bit of a taste, you can still drink it without getting sick), but the fact that we can store it. The problems that the Aboriginals faced when dealing with water was that they had no way of storing it. It goes without saying that until the Europeans arrived they didn’t have any form of glassware, nor did they have any metal objects either – everything that the Aboriginals had was made of either stone or wood.

This creates a problem because if you don’t have anything to store the water in, there isn’t actually any way of being able to boil it. Sure, the Aboriginals could simply store the water in the ponds, creeks, and lagoons where they found it, but they couldn’t put it in a bowl, take it to the camp-fire, and boil it. Okay, they may not have had the same problems that people who only have access to dirty water these days have, but they still weren’t able to purify it, and they certainly weren’t able to cook with it.
Yet despite all of this they were still not only able to survive but also thrive – even in places where water is incredibly scarce.

The Art of War

Unfortunately, the modern white Australians view the Aboriginals as a very violent lot – and this has a lot to do with the initial reactions to the arrival of the settlers. Mind you, their reaction to the settlers was not surprising, considering the original colonists were also a pretty violent bunch, being composed of convicts and soldiers. Actually, the convicts that landed up in Australia generally weren’t the worst of the worst – they tended to remain in England and usually faced the death penalty – the convicts that landed up in Australia tended to be the poor, and the political.
However, even though the Aboriginals didn’t have access to guns (because you needed to be able to work with metal to be able to build guns, as well as know the chemical compounds that produced gunpower – though that would have not been beyond their capabilities – if they knew where to look), but they did have their own forms of weapons. Okay, spears and boomerangs were generally used in hunting, but the fact that they also have shields indicate that there would have been times when they would have gone to war with neighbouring tribes – this is an unfortunate fact of the world in which we live.
Yet these spears that the Aboriginals used where somewhat more than just pointy sticks. Unfortunately the picture of the spear of an indigenous warrior sort of denigrates him somewhat. In fact, they had more than just spears because they also had a device known as a spear-thrower – an object that was designed to increase the range of a said spear. Also, if you look closely at the heads of the spears you will also notice that they would create all sorts of barbs.


Anyway, I think I will leave it at that, but one thing that I can’t leave out is the good old boomerang.

While this post may reference the Native American Indians, the structures at the Mesa Verde National Park is further evidence of the sophistication of indigenous cultures.

I also found this really interesting post on the Aboriginal use of the stars to travel across the country.

Creative Commons License


More than just bush – Indigenous Culture by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.


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