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Pre-European history

The Indigenous peoples of Australia have the longest continuous history of any group of humans. They have occupied the Australian continent for at least 40 000 years. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time when Aboriginal peoples first settled Australia, and whether they migrated from another land, as there are no written records. The only evidence we have of when the Aboriginal peoples came to Australia is from fossilised human remains and other archaeological findings. Due to conflicting evidence there is a great deal of contention surrounding pre-European history of Aboriginal peoples. Some experts, based upon radiocarbon methods on fire and coal, the excavation of skeletons, and a sound knowledge of global sea levels, argue the continent has been inhabited for 55 000 years or more. Regardless of what sources and evidence one uses, the Aboriginal people have been a dominant fixture on the Australian landscape for a long time. See image 1

Prior to British settlement in 1788, it has been calculated that there were 750 000 inhabitants of the continent, living in communities scattered across the land. There were approximately 600 Aboriginal communities, which were divided into smaller clans. These communities differed from each other in a number of respects. Many of the communities spoke completely different languages, used different tools and weapons, believed in different spirits and behaved in different ways. To suggest that there was one, unified, cohesive Aboriginal group would be misleading. While the various Aboriginal communities differed in a number of ways, they all used similar techniques for explaining their relationship to the land and its history. See image 2

The Dreaming

The Aboriginal people made sense of the world through the stories of the Dreamtime, which were about a time referred to as the Dreaming. Each Aboriginal community had its own unique Dreamtime stories that had been nurtured and faithfully passed down to succeeding generations for thousands of years. These stories have been described as the first histories of Australia. The Dreamtime stories provide the law and custom underlying the functioning of Aboriginal society. They relate how the people of today are descended from ancestral beings that could be of human origin, but might also be part of the natural environment - koalas, emus, kangaroos or magpies - or derived from spirits such as the rainbow snake. The experiences of these beings explain the origins of the land itself.

The Dreaming legends, from all parts of the continent, indicate that almost every traditional group believed in a Supreme Being. This Great Spirit was known by different names in different areas. In some cases, a number of different communities adhered to the same Great Spirit. Byamee, Wandjina and Nargacork were some of the most commonly worshipped Great Spirits. From the legends we learn that in the beginning, the mighty Creator was responsible for creating every aspect of the Earth's environment. The mighty Creator organised the seasons, created the sun and moon, constructed the wildlife, and finally, made men and women. It was believed that the Great Spirit lived eternally, watching and protecting his followers affectionately.

One legend that touches on the benevolence of the Great Spirit is told by the Wiradjuri people, who lived traditionally in the area now known as Brewarrina, in New South Wales. The Wiradjuri people believed that Byamee, the Great Creator, delivered them spirit helpers. These spirit helpers took the form of men and helped the Wiradjuri people to construct fish traps in the river. Whenever an abundance of fish was caught the Wiradjuri people performed a special corroboree to give thanks. See image 3

The Rainbow Serpent appears in many of the Aboriginal groups dreaming stories. Almost every group throughout the land had strong ties with this great, mysterious being from the Dreaming. Many of the groups explain the creation of the land through the Rainbow Snake. It is believed that originally the land was very flat, and remained so, until the giant Rainbow Serpent slid across the landscape constructing mountains, deep gorges, rivers and valleys. Some groups credit the Rainbow Serpent with the creation of everything, stating it gave birth to men, women and animals. Even today the Rainbow Serpent is accorded much respect. The Aboriginal people believe the Rainbow Serpent is represented by a rainbow in the sky after a downpour.

Sacred colours

From the legends, it is clear that some colours held great significance for certain groups. For example, the colour red was sacred to some groups in Central Australia. This belief evolved from the Dreaming legend about Marindi, the dingo. The legend states that the Aboriginal people of Central Australia were tormented by a giant lizard, which regularly caused death and destruction. The unfortunate people summoned Marindi to help rid them of the giant lizard. Marindi defeated the giant lizard in a colossal struggle, drenching the Earth in blood. In recognition of Marindi's bravery the ancestor spirits magically stained the remaining Earth a deep red colour. This explained why there is so much red ochre in the centre of the continent. See image 4


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