To understand the impact of the arrival of the white man on the Indigenous population of Australia requires understanding of how life was lived prior to that time.
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The first settlers are thought to have arrived around 40,000 years ago via Papua New Guinea. The central dry areas didn't attract settlers until around 25,000 years ago and the population grew proportionately quicker around 10,000 years ago as the climate improved.
It is estimated that prior to the arrival of British settlers the population of Indigenous Australians was distributed similar to that of the current Australian population, with the majority living in the south east centred along the Murray River.
The expression ‘indigenous population’ incorporates both Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. The Torres Strait Islanders possess a heritage and cultural history distinct from Aboriginal traditions; the eastern Torres Strait Islanders in particular are related to the Papuan peoples of New Guinea, and speak a Papuan language.
The indigenous languages of mainland Australia and Tasmania have not been shown to be related to any languages outside Australia. In the late 18th century, there were anywhere between 350 and 750 distinct groupings and a similar number of languages and dialects. At the start of the 21st century, fewer than 200 Indigenous Australian languages remain in use and all but about 20 of these are highly endangered.
It is estimated there had been over 600 Aboriginal land and language owning groups before colonisation. The basic social unit within Aboriginal society was close knit tribe consisting of extended family members whose day to day living was defined by a set of complex social laws, customs and beliefs all of which differed from one group to another according to their creation ethic or Dreaming.
In the world's oldest continent the creative epoch known as the Dreamtime stretches back into a remote era in history when the creator ancestors known as the First Peoples travelled across the great southern land of Bandaiyan (Australia), creating and naming as they went.
Indigenous Australia's oral tradition and spiritual values are based upon reverence for the land and a belief in this Dreamtime. The Dreaming is at once both the ancient time of creation and the present day reality of Dreaming. There were a great many different groups, each with their own individual culture, belief structure, and language. These cultures overlapped to a greater or lesser extent, and evolved over time. Major Ancestral spirits include the Rainbow Serpent, Baiame, and Bunjil. The Yowie and Bunyip are also well known Ancestral beings.
One version of the Dreaming story runs as follows:
The whole world was asleep. Everything was quiet, nothing moved, nothing grew. The animals slept under the earth. One day the rainbow snake woke up and crawled to the surface of the earth. She pushed everything aside that was in her way. She wandered through the whole country and when she was tired she coiled up and slept. So she left her tracks. After she had been everywhere she went back and called the frogs. When they came out their tubby stomachs were full of water. The rainbow snake tickled them and the frogs laughed. The water poured out of their mouths and filled the tracks of the rainbow snake. That's how rivers and lakes were created. Then grass and trees began to grow and the earth filled with life.
Aboriginal creation or Dreamtime concepts signify that nature and culture were formed at the same time by totemic spirits or ancestors who, in the Dreaming, came from the sky, underground and sea and formed the earth, rivers, valleys, hills, rocks and inlets, and established their existence. These areas are classified by Aboriginal people as secret and sacred sites which are simultaneously linked to totems. The totemic spirits or ancestors were believed to have had animal and plant as well as human qualities and are prototypes of the various natural species.
Traditionally religion, culture, law, society, economy and the land are inextricably linked and Aboriginal people today see issues holistically. Land is often said to be the essence of Aboriginal spirituality.
Family groups or clans were either patriarchal or matriarchal in nature and individual membership was determined by these factors. Men and women could not marry into the same clan and each clan’s area contains a number of sites of spiritual and sacred significance. Clans and particular individuals had responsibility for these places. They had to care for these sites, keep unauthorised visitors away and perform a range of ceremonies. One such ritual brings back the ancestral beings or powers which, when released, renew the land and all life in it.
Elders, both men and women, who had been through the initiation process and learned the sacred knowledge, were the ones who jointly made decisions for the welfare of the secret and sacred sites and the ceremonies linked to them and each clan. Those responsible for the ceremonies were accountable to the whole clan for their correct performance at the right place and time as negligence could cause great harm or bring ‘bad luck’ to their people.
It might take 30-40 years for a man or woman to work through a full series of initiations, during which they would go through the process a number of times. As women have their own ceremonies, there is distinctly men’s business and women’s business.
Within these parameters each member of the family had responsibilities and roles to others and themselves. Lines of communication and social activity were determined by an intricate set of kinship laws based on gender and age. Responsibility for education, child rearing and discipline lay with all adults as a group, with some members having more significant roles than others. The survival and strength of Aboriginal society lay in group dynamics rather than the dynamics of individualism as found in most western cultures e.g. there are no kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers or chieftains in Aboriginal society.
Although the culture and lifestyle of Aboriginal groups have much in common, Aboriginal society is not a single entity. The communities have different modes of subsistence, cultural practices, languages, and technologies. However, these peoples also share a larger set of traits, and are otherwise seen as being broadly related. A collective identity as Indigenous Australians is recognised and exists along names from the indigenous languages which are commonly used to identify groups based on regional geography and other affiliations. These include: Koori (or Koorie) in New South Wales and Victoria; Murri in Queensland; Noongar in southern Western Australia; Yamatji in Central Western Australia; Wangkai in the Western Australian Goldfields; Nunga in southern South Australia; Anangu in northern South Australia, and neighbouring parts of Western Australia and Northern Territory; Yapa in western central Northern Territory; Yolngu in eastern Arnhem Land (NT) and Palawah (or Pallawah) in Tasmania.
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The indigenous way of life is a gentle one. Communities would work as a group and they continually moved around as they lived off the land and would move to where the food sources were – a seasonal path. The philosophy of only getting the food that you need at the time that you need it was respectful to the environment that they felt they were a part of. All living things are equal. They never farmed to an extent that the environment couldn’t recover from it. They took what they needed, when they needed it.
As all things were shared, nobody was better or worse off than anyone else – the community existed as a unit with all the parts being equal. People worked at what they were best at and the loads were shared.
Considering that the indigenous population have been here so long, it is interesting to put that alongside white history to see the differences. Moving from what is considered a primitive state to the modern society has been a period of incredible change. Think back 2000 years to when the Roman’s were running things through to how things are in modern society. Over that time, the indigenous population have continued to live pretty much the same way throughout. They live in the moment and work with nature to live alongside and within the environment with respect for all living creatures that they shared the environment with.
This isn’t a culture of greed or of ambition - it is a society that has a solid foundation based upon living with extended families and in harmony with the land and environment.
The laws that govern each tribe and how tribes reacted to each other were clearly defined. People paid for their crimes and the justice could be harsh. The rules were to be true to yourself and those around you and work to your strengths and for the good of the tribe. If those doctrines were followed then all would be well.
For 40,000 years this society had survived and then in a matter of a few years, the white invaders had undermined the whole structure that Indigenous population lived in. To help get an understanding of the time scales: If Aboriginals have been in Australia for 24 hours, then the equivalent time that white people have been here is 8 minutes.