Aboriginal Australia Research Paper

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Until recently, it was commonly believed that Aboriginal Australia changed very little from 40,000 years ago until the arrival of the Europeans—that the society remained in stasis with the natural world. The current view, however, is that Aboriginal peoples changed with the natural environment while they exerted control over it.

Aboriginal Australia has been viewed traditionally as a classic example of hunter-gatherer, that is, pre-agricultural, society—a continent of people in equilibrium with the natural environment. More recent perspectives, however, by anthropologists, archaeologists, ethnohistorians, and indigenous people themselves have helped dispel this stereotype. Today it is recognized that a wider range of sociocultural variation existed across the continent and through time than had previously been thought, overlapping in many ways with horticultural and agricultural societies like those of nearby Papua New Guinea. Aboriginal peoples had considerable control over the natural environment and its resources and managed these in ingenious ways.

Society, Religion, Demography

Although over two hundred Australian languages and many dialects were spoken across the continent, Aboriginal society shared many similarities. Society was kinship based; clans (descent groups) inherited land that was overseen by totemic ancestors shaped in the primeval Dreamtime (in Aboriginal belief, the time of creation). Complex patterns of kinship and social networks bound together large sectors of the continent. Trade, exchange, and ritual provided a further binding force. In some cases, trade and exchange networks extended from one corner of the continent to the other. Basically egalitarian, Aboriginal society also had powerful and influential elders—men and women initiated into the hierarchies of the religious system and its cults. A conservative estimate of some 300,000 for the Australian Aboriginal population at the time of European settlement has been suggested, but more recent studies, which allow for the decimating effects of introduced diseases and conflict (byproducts of colonialism), have increased this three- or fourfold. More fertile sectors of the continent, such as the southeast and the eastern and northern coastlines, were densely populated in comparison with other parts of the world inhabited by hunter-gatherers.

Resource Management

Land and resource management practices were central to Aboriginal economies. These involved use of fire, processing techniques, and storage. For example, more intensive and costly strategies, in terms of energy expenditure, were aimed at stockpiling stores for lengthy, populous, intergroup ceremonial occasions that ran for weeks and months of each year. In arid and semi-arid Australia, which comprises two-thirds of the continent, grass seeds and other seeds were managed, stored in quantity and made into bread on a daily basis. In these harsh regions, extensive loose, open social networks cemented relations between far-flung peoples, operating as elaborate safety harnesses that could be called upon in times of need. In richer, humid regions, like the tropical north and temperate southeast, social networks were bounded territorially, reflecting denser, more competitive populations. Here, a sedentary way of life also was more common. In Victoria and the Murray River valley, for instance, villages were constructed, often atop large earth mounds. Intensive fishing was undertaken day and night, and extensive drainage systems were dug to control eel runs and their productivity. Along the tropical coast and its offshore islands, specialized fishing societies flourished that focused on hunting dugongs (aquatic mammals similar to sea manatees) from seagoing canoes. Plants were managed in a form of domiculture (symbiotic relationship between humans and undomesticated plants) centered on more sedentary base camps.


The Tasmanians were isolated from mainland Australia for some 12,000 years, but were linked biologically, linguistically, and culturally to southeastern Australians. There were also some differences reflecting no doubt their cultural isolation and history. For example, apart from along the humid west coast, settlement appears to have been more mobile than in environmentally comparable areas of southeastern Australia. Population densities were also lower than in the latter areas. Fishing no longer was practiced and equipment was generally less extensive, as befits more-mobile economies. Archaeological investigations suggest that during the last 4,000 years rain forests were more extensively utilized, coastal strategies rearranged, and populations may have expanded on the west coast.

Aboriginal Arrival in Australia

Plentiful, well-dated archaeological sites support that Aborigines colonized Australia some time before 40,000 years ago, when both Papua New Guinea and Tasmania were connected to Australia (Greater Australia). Earlier dates, however, are continually being entertained and heatedly debated. For example, recent redating of a Lake Mungo (New South Wales) skeleton, which was originally dated to around 30,000 years, has arrived at dates of twice that age and more. All skeletal data can be linked to the present indigenous population.

Linguistically, Australian languages share much in common and have little close association with languages outside Australia apart from some in Papua New Guinea. Archaeological data indicate that by 35,000 years ago occupation stretched from the tropics to around the temperate Tasmanian glaciers. By 30,000 years ago, most major environments of the continent were peopled, with the arid core being populated shortly after. The human population appears to have had little dramatic effect either upon major vegetation patterns, vulnerable to Aboriginal burning practices, or fauna. People and now extinct Pleistocene fauna (including megafauna) appear to have coexisted for tens of thousands of years. After the glacial maximum 18,000 years ago, the numbers and use of archaeological sites increased in many environments of Greater Australia. This general trend may be a reflection of climatic amelioration and continues throughout the more humid period after 10,000 years ago, becoming most marked in the last 4,000 years, even though climate at that time became drier and more stressful. In general this trend suggests increasing Aboriginal population sizes and densities even in the face of climatic reversal. Archaeological evidence of related cultural changes begins after 18,000 year ago but is most marked in the last 4,000 years. For example, from 4,000 years ago cemeteries in southeastern Australia, which begin around 13,000 years ago, are larger and more complex, and painted rock art styles in northeastern Australia become highly regionalized. At this time also, in arid and semiarid regions use of grass seeds is intensified and many environment are more intensively occupied, including the harshest deserts, some offshore tropical islands, tropical rain forests, and southeastern wetlands and highlands. This suggests increases in population sizes and densities and more intensive, more territorial socioeconomic patterns.

On reexamination, therefore, Aboriginal Australia, although culturally unique, also begins to demonstrate in many subtle ways some of the same patterns and trends found among hunter-gatherer peoples on other continents. Prior notions of a timeless people in a timeless land have given way to more dynamic portrayals.


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