The Physical Environment of the Aborigine

by Jessica Ratcliff

"Down Under" on "The Lonely Continent", otherwise known as Australia, there is a land, people, and culture perhaps closer to the original roots of humanity than anywhere else in the world. Here reside the few aborigine tribes which remain from the original populace of this isolated continent.

Australia is a unique island in the South Pacific, approximately the size of the continental United States, though in comparison, it is very sparsely populated. The natives here continue to lead unusually primitive lives, filled with tradition and the ways of their ancestors, and seemingly unaffected by the modern world. Although we have little written record of their history, we can still find out about their roots first-hand, passed on by not only oral tradition, but tradition in practice as well, a continuity far surpassing any other contemporary culture.

In looking at the culture of the ancient aborigine, one must first consider the climate and geography in which he lived and worked. Although we recognize that geography and climate are important, perhaps we often underestimate the extent which an environment impacted cultures long ago, when societies had only minimal clothing and less intricate shelters than we have devised today. A climate and topography would not only have an effect on what a people ate, but how they ate, worked together, and built their own distinct social relations. Topography plays the important role of creating limits, and on the other hand, of creating goals and advantages.[1] In the case of the Australians, nature was such a big part of their lives that they became very in tune with its advantages and disadvantages, learning all of the secrets of their worthier land.

Australia, like any country its size covering a wide range of latitudes, experiences a variety of climates. It can basically be divided into five major geographical regions. Surrounding most of the coast of Australia lies the Coastal Plains, a thin strip of land which is fertile on the southern coast. In the west, there are the Eastern Highlands. Even here, in the only mountains in all of Australia, there isn't snow all year round. The Great Barrier Reef, essentially a huge coral dam, is unique to Australia. Not only does it provide a place of sheltered waters good for small boats, but it provides an area for fishing as well. The largest region by far is the Western Plateau. It takes up over half of the land area, but contains only a small percentage of the population due to its desert and semi-desert conditions. The next most-significant portion of the continent is known as the Central Plains. Originally, there was a large inland sea here, and many salt lakes and rivers still remain during the wet season. The Central Plains today has such variety within itself as to provide possibilities for the farming of cotton, sugar, cattle, and wheat in various different regions. The most interesting aspect of the Central Plains is the collection of artesian wells, or underground springs, located largely in the east. Regardless of the lakes and rivers during the wet seasons, Australia receives very little or very unreliable rainfall, and thus is poor farming land. Without the use of these underground reservoirs, many societies would not be able to survive.[2]

Rain, therefore, was a big issue among Australian aborigines. They needed water to survive, and drilling holes into the ground was just one way they were able to best make use of their environment. They would carry the water back in large seashells, or perhaps even the skull of a defeated opponent. (One mark of Australian culture was that they took advantage of everything available to them in nature!)

Physical survival in Australia was unique compared to the surrounding Pacific Islands, largely because the aborigines in Australia were completely nomadic. Their main concern was the gathering of food, day after day, whether this was accomplished by fishing or hunting or picking plants and berries. The diet of the ancient aborigine consisted of ants, grubs, caterpillars, lizards, frogs, snakes, rats, possums, kangaroos, emus, eggs, and fish. Some tribes are known to have been cannibalistic,[3] though this was often for ceremonial reasons. They also ate plants and berries, particularly yams, gathered by the women of the community. Food-gathering was divided among a community fairly equally according to age and gender.[4] The men and older boys hunted with their spears and boomerangs for larger animals, while the women and children picked plants and berries. Regardless of the job, however, everyone in an aborigine society worked to contribute. They never developed a way to preserve food from one day to the next, but were content to structure their lives around this daily ritual of getting food. This left little time for leisure, perhaps, but maintained a good basis for survival. The aborigines did have pastimes, of course. The art of storytelling was not only an enjoyable experience, but it helped to pass on the traditions of the ancestors. Often, these stories involved the conquest of food.

The aborigines lived in make-shift huts, ideal for their constantly mobile lifestyle. Sometimes, if the weather conditions were not too harsh, they would not even build huts. Communities would simply "set up camp", sleeping around a fire with no built shelter at all.[5] Hopefully, though not always the case, the people would be able to avoid burning themselves of the flame. They never came close to building an agricultural community, raising domestic animals, or otherwise producing their own food. Instead, they were able to accept what nature gave them as it came.

There are many reasons that the aborigine tribes became, and continued to be, such nomadic people. Some regions had not enough water to survive without moving, while others had so much that the efficiency of agriculture proved unnecessary. "Australian peoples were compelled to move about in order to obtain enough of the food (and in some cases water) they needed to survive."[6] This wandering tradition also had a large effect on the social customs of the communities. The aborigines lived in small communities, migrating together and sharing the work load in a fashion full of order and structure, though remarkably lacking in hierarchy. Perhaps once a year, two or three communities would merge for a time, often for food shortages or the performance of specific rituals. Because of these rare but logical combining, and because of the lack of competitive tensions among most aborigine tribes, the Australians really had little incentive to build a community based on efficiency and farming. This small but significant interaction aided the people not only in nutritional ways, but also by allowing opportunities for minor trade and for the search for spouses.[7] The rules about marriage among tribes were very particular, as you will read later, and minor interactions allowed these traditions to stay alive.

Constant travel gave Australian societies an interesting twist in the way of social relations. As mentioned earlier, they had no way of preserving food, so every meal was hunted or fished or trapped on the day it was eaten. Also, they placed little value on material goods such as weapons, since they could not carry abundant amounts of wealth from place to place. Because of this, social inequality due to wealth was not there. There was an aspect of social ranking, but this was much more subtle, and was based on skill and heritage rather than material things. The weapons one had were all made of stone, wood, and animal tissues, and although they were simple and few, they often served more than one purpose. The notorious boomerang could be used for hunting, warfare, or recreation. Although they would have had abundant metal deposits, the aborigines never implemented metal-working into their system of weapons and tools.

There was some inter-tribe trade among the Aborigines, largely because of the diversity of the natural resources in the land. By trading, communities could get fish, even if they lived inland, or they could get materials for tools where resources were scarce. There was enough need for this trade that, even if relations weren't good between tribes, efforts were made to make it work. For example, a tribe might bring their goods to a pre-arranged site, leave them there, and upon return would find new goods in exchange.[8] This way of using the barter system to aid survival and avoid conflict was very typical in Australian societies.

This is the way that Australian tribes fought their way for survival. Although comparatively few tribes remain in the world, the ones that do continue to live in tune with nature, and in tune with their history.