Aboriginal Society Pre Settlement

  • Category: History
  • Words: 1639
  • Grade: 75
Historians prefer to believe that Aboriginals came to Australia from South East Asia (Broome, 1974:9). It is certain that Aborigines have been here for more than 50,000 years and Broome (1994:10) believes that this may be increased to 120,000 years, either way there is no doubt Australian Aborigines were the original inhabitants of a previously uninhabited continent. Early anthropologists saw Aboriginal religion as the simplest least developed most infantile form of human consciousness (Charlesworth, 1989:1). Aboriginal myths and rites were placed into the category of magic but this was the view of aboriginal society through western eyes, and no connection between Christian gospels and the bewildering beliefs, myths and rites of Aboriginal people could be seen (Charlesworth, 1989:1).

Broome (1994:11) argued that what is known about traditional aboriginal society is somewhat speculative, with most information coming from Europeans who observed Aboriginal society in a process of change, rather than its traditional uninterrupted form. Broome (1994:15) argued that the lives of Australian aborigines were shaped by their dreamtime stories; these were both an explanation of how the world came to be and were a framework for how people should conduct their behaviour and social relations. Broome (1994:15) believed that the existence of the dreamtime meant that aboriginal people followed tradition above all else. There was definite change in aboriginal society over time, but continuity was valued above change. As a result of this Aboriginal society was stable over long periods of time and Broome (1994:15) argued was rarely disrupted by struggles for wealth and power.

Sharp (1958:7) argued that Aboriginal society lacked the special institutions and organizations that exist for the purpose of government, however one needs to remember that these required institutions and organizations only exist in Western eyes. Hiatt (1987:177) argued that Aboriginal political life was characterized by a uniform distribution of rights, privileges, and duties throughout a social order based on kinship and suffused by an egalitarian ideology. Aboriginal conceptions of correct behaviour have a basis in the cosmological and metaphysical speculations that have come to be known as the Dreaming. The existence of a supernaturally sanctioned moral code does not imply the non-existence of government authority; indeed as Hiatt (1987:177) argued there were numerous instances where the two flourish side by side.

In short Aboriginal religious beliefs in existence before settlements were not so explicit and unequivocal, nor sanctions so unerring, as to constitute a complete set of instructions automatically followed by all (Hiatt, 1987:177). Dreamtime formulations manifested a deep concern with understanding what man is, rather than prescribing how he ought to behave. If as Hiatt (1987:177) argued Traditional Aboriginal society truly lacked government, the reason is unlikely to be found in the content of traditional religion.


The Aboriginal population was widely dispersed throughout Australia; desert regions carried smaller populations who were able to survive a comfortable existence in what was available within the harsh environment. Along the more fertile regions the population increased as the land was capable of carrying more people in a smaller space. Clarke (1992: 4) argues that the balance between population and the capacity of tribal territory to support this population appears to have been carefully preserved.

The exact time at which the rigid tribal territories became established is unclear, however as Clarke (1992:5) points out no Aborigines actually owned land in the European sense. Aboriginal people existed upon and were responsible for maintaining tribal lands. As Aboriginal culture was non-expansionist Clarke (1992:5) argues that the territory of one tribe had no significance or any meaning to Aboriginal people in adjoining areas and tribes. This does not mean that conflict over territory did not occur, but rather as Clarke (1992:6) believes that traditional Aboriginal society was introverted, peaceful and in possession of a healthy respect for custom and familiar ways.

It is interesting that within tribal territories several small groups or clans could exist. These clans Clarke (1992:6) believes periodically came together as a unit for the purposes of trade, marriages and religious ceremonies. All members of a tribe were either close or distant relatives, thus the very harshly adhered to marriage laws existed in an attempt to prevent inbreeding.

With the sketchy information about traditional Aboriginal life, it is difficult to identify legal rules. This task is made even more difficult with local and regional variations. The Australian Law Reform Commission (1987:195) believes however that there were some rules of fairly common application. Some offenses were breaches of traditional and supernaturally sanctioned laws; others did not have this significance. Uninitiated persons, women and children committed an offense against sacred law if they saw objects forbidden to them such as certain Tjuringa (sacred objects) a sacred place or a sacred ceremony or dance. The punishment for such an offense was decided upon during a meeting of ritual leaders. In extreme cases the punishment was often death, in other cases the offender might be speared which may have in turn also resulted in death.

There were traditional laws in existence for marriage. These rules permitted and even encouraged marriage to some relatives and prohibited marriage with others. Arranged marriages were the norm, affection and attraction were often subservient to kinship obligations (Australian Law Reform Commission (1987:197). In controlling population growth various methods were used by Aboriginals. Unwanted children and children who would not feed properly were killed. A twin of an infant whose mother had died was also killed. Older people who could no longer keep up with the tribe or fend for themselves were often abandoned (Clarke, 1992:4). Clarke (1992:4) argues that children were kept on the breast for several years as a method of birth control, and that there is also evidence that some Aboriginal women were knowledgeable of safe abortification and this was used to end unwanted pregnancies.

The management of the Aboriginal population was a necessity with women playing a major role in food gathering activities, thus they were unable to be full time mothers. Anything that affected the activities of women has as Clarke (1992:4) argues a direct effect on the well being of the tribe and its ability to survive at all and was therefore controlled.

Just as the clans of a tribe met for trade purposes so did adjoining tribes. Clarke (1992:7) argues that the existence of trade effected a degree of specialization of function, in that some tribes with a specialty in manufacturing boomerangs for instance supplied these to other tribes who did not bother to manufacture them for themselves. The traditional Aboriginal economy was centered on trade but rather as Clarke (1992:7) argues it was structured on sustenance husbandry. This led to using the term "˜hunter "“ gatherer' being used to describe Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal people practiced a form of agricultural and animal husbandry, which was more accurately described as fire-stick farming rather than hunter gathering (Clarke, 1992:8). Perhaps the most specialized and sophisticated of all economic systems, was the exploitation of macrozamia nuts and other cycads. Although highly toxic untreated these plants are exceptionally high in food value. Many species produce huge quantities of kernels yielding more food per acre than many cultivated crops. Aborigines not only increased the size of the stands with careful use of fire to clear competing vegetation but they also found a way to clear the kernels of all toxins, thus making them edible (Flood, 1983:201).

Fire was probably one of the most important parts of traditional Aboriginal life. Fire was used to clear tracks and aid in the hunting of animals where they were killed trying to escape flames. Fire was also used as a long-term survival strategy. After firing the bush would regenerate, new grass would attract kangaroos and other herbivores for future hunting. Fire also encouraged the regrowth of eucalypts and edible plants for future harvesting. The ashes left behind would act as fertilizer (Flood, 1983:213). In different regions different fire regimes were used and adapted to local needs. Aborigines never put out their fires. Indeed Clarke (1992:8) argues that Aborigines possessed no methods of controlling fires once they had begun an as such they were inevitably left to burn out on their own or until it rained.

Fire-stick farming is a rather passive form of existence and it is often questioned why Aborigines never developed any form of tillage or cultivation of cereal grains or fruit (Clarke 1992:9). The very term cultivation however has a very distinct European ring to it, as Gott and Conran (1991:1) argues if one looks more closely at how Aborigines gathered plants then cultivation is obvious although perhaps not deliberate. In gathering plant foods aborigines would thin out dense clumps or patches of plants, it seems probably that the practice of leaving some plants in the ground was to ensure regeneration, as thinning out promoted the growth of the remaining plants, whilst the regular digging turned ash from burning into the soil thus fertilizing it. Tubers often left or discarded often-left seeds after burning occurred, thus planting occurred. The spreading of cultivated species also occurred in traditional Aboriginal society when tubers and seeds were traded from camp to camp and tribe to tribe. Although this form of cultivation is not at the scale of European cultivation it is cultivation nonetheless and most certainly aided the survival of Aborigines.

It came to be seen that while technologically and materially Aboriginal culture is of extreme complexity and subtlety. In deed it has been argued that the Aborigines deliberately chose a simple technology and style of economic life so that they could devote themselves to the elaboration of a rich and intricate social and religious life (Charlesworth 89:5).
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