The deeply rooted history of the Aborigines in today's Australia


Aborigines' is a term which was introduced by the invaders who conquered Australia. The name is derived from Latin and means “from the beginning”, which is a very true since Aborigines were the first human inhabitants of Terra Australis Incognita. They arrived from Asia about 60,000 years ago and their civilisation is considered to be one of the oldest in the world.

“From the beginning”

Aborigines prefer naming themselves in their own language and the names differ according to the place a given tribe lives. The South-Eastern Aborigines call themselves “Koori”, the tribe in the South-Western part is called “Nyungar”, Southern Australia's inhabitants are called “Nanga”. There are also names like: Wonghi, Yolngu, Murri or Yamadi for some other, smaller areas of the land (1). However, you cannot find one common name for all the tribes. The name “Aborigines,” then, serves to distinguish the nation of the natives from the invaders.

There are two beginnings in Australian history. The first one took place when the first human beings arrived there. It happened about 60,000 years ago, although the latest research proves that there were human settlements in the NorthWest area even 115,000 years ago. That was the time when Australia was attached to New Guinea and to Asia. The whole land mass was called Gondwana but the indigenous people of Australia identify it with an ancient continent Mu (2).

'Aborigines' is the name given to the dark-skinned people by Whites who arrived in Australia in 1788 (3). This is the other beginning - the beginning of the growth of another culture and of economic development in the country. Before that time the life of the natives was completely different. As we can tell by their names, they were the inhabitants there 'from the beginning' and their life did not change dramatically over thousands of years. The philosophy of living in peace with the land and with all its creatures was their main principle. That was conducive to a certain type of behaviour, i.e. the land itself could be cultivated, animals could be hunted and all the goods could be used mutually but responsibly.

In peace with the land

There was no need to exploit the fruit of the land or for aggressive behaviour towards other tribe members. Actually, their peaceful behaviour was obvious and constituted through via their tribal beliefs and social structure. The native inhabitants of the land - Aborigines - believe that they have been part of the land since "Dreamtime." They believe that sometime in the distant past the Ancestors woke up and that was the beginning of the existence of the Earth. The Ancestors were superhuman beings sleeping under the surface of Earth. Once they appeared on the Earth, the sun began to shine. They freed humans and breathed life into them. Life started. The Ancestors performed many marvellous deeds; composed stories and set a code of behaviour. After these acts they returned to the rocks. Some of them took the shape of trees, rocks or animals. This strong belief is partly responsible for the Aboriginal's respect for every living creature and every feature of the countryside. The land was worshiped as the source of food and as a shelter for the tribe. This deep attachment was often expressed in various songs.

The deep relationship of love to the land proved that it did not only give life but that it was life itself. The idea of Dreamtime and ancestors living in their spiritual forms was realised in the respect paid to the land and the elements. What was also shocking for the new inhabitants of Australia - the Europeans - was the Aborigines' lack of desire to possess some other tribe's territory. Aborigines believed that their own territory had fixed boundaries that were strictly connected with movements of the ancestors and validated by the stories about the movements, and therefore there was no reason to desire the country of another group; it was meaningless since the stories of creation related only to that particular part of the land.

Continuity above change

The places that were visited by ancestors, where they stopped and rested during their long journey across the land, were of special significance. The movement of ancestors across the tribal territory in the formative period created a feeling of importance connected to the sites. The places were sacred and they became an important element of religion since the tribes organised pilgrimages there. However, not every member of the tribe could take part in this ceremony. Only the initiated men of the tribe could approach the places. The land was then also a scene where religious life and events took place. The religious beliefs were strongly rooted in Aboriginal society (4). The main doctrine was the idea of the oneness of the land and all that moved upon it. This point of view, completely different from that of Western Europeans, entailed peaceful behaviour towards all living creatures. To some extent the indigenous people served the land. Everything was based on a balance between human beings and nature. Natural species and humans were all part of the same ongoing life force. So all natural things were in unity. Human beings and living creatures were all derived from the ancestors, which put them in an equal position in the world, i.e. on the Earth. Thus the lives of the Aborigines were shaped by their Dreamtime stories, which contained explanations of both how the world came to be and how people must conduct their behaviour and their social relations. The existence of Dreamtime meant that the Aborigines followed tradition above all else. There were changes in their society but still continuity was valued above change. People did things the way their parents did and tradition was respected as the reflection of the deeds of the great ancestors. There was almost no room to question the fixed order, which provided no opportunity for any revolutionary changes. Struggles for wealth and power, so common among Whites who were to arrive in Australia, were not known. When any trouble did erupt, it was mostly connected with domestic affairs, not with political matters. The conflict was minimised by the perennial kinship system that obliged the young to pay respect to the elders.

Authority of the elders

Society then was governed by those who proved themselves to be the most valuable, wise and dedicated to the continuance of the group traditions. There was no particular leader but rather a kind of egalitarian diffusion of power among about a dozen men. The power of tradition and kinship rules supported the authority of the elders. The legal system existed to maintain order. When a trouble occurred the injured person was allowed to throw a spear at the offender. Later the dance of reconciliation was danced and it ended the affair. In some groups some fights were fought until blood was drawn or, in some serious disputes, until a death resulted. Other groups performed non-violent reconciliation (5).

The traditional communities in which Aborigines lived were small-scale societies where everybody knew each other. Each group was marked by a strong solidarity. The kinship ties provided security and intimacy. The most important factor integrating the society was not economic but mental. Each community was held together because all the individuals shared the same points of view on what life should be. The intimate relationship with nature and its non-materialistic philosophy made the Aboriginal culture unique and difficult to understand for white Western culture. Sometimes it was difficult for Aborigines to survive. People were afraid of sorcery and troubled with gathering food. Yet the sense of purpose and certainty given by the religious life and the closeness to nature made up for these difficulties. Aborigines survived for over 50,000 years stressing continuity over change.

by Katarzyna Jagodzinska



(2) Mudrooroo Nyoongah, Mitologia Aborygenów. Translated by K. Jagodziñska (Poznañ: REBIS Publishing House Ltd., 1997), p.6

(3) John H. Chambers, A Traveller's History of Australia (New York: An Imprint of Interlink Publishing Group, Inc., 1999), p. 3

(4) Richard Broome, Aboriginal Australians (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1983), p.15

(5) Mudrooroo Nyoongah, Mitologia Aborygenów. Translated by K Jagodziñska (Poznañ: REBIS, Publishing House Ltd., 1997), p.253.

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