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Top 3 Things To Do In Australia - Meet The Indigenous Culture

Updated on March 25, 2010

Spirituality is a crucial aspect of Australian Aboriginal culture. Stories date back to the beginning of time, a period known as the Dreaming, or Dreamtime. During the Dreaming, supernatural ancestors emerged from the spirit world to roam the then-featureless land. Their activities shaped the landscape, and many of the spirits eventually assumed the form of landmarks, people, and animals. Each Aboriginal group has its own Dreaming stories that explain the creation of its lands and all natural phenomena. These narratives also contain the laws and moral codes on which all social customs and religious practices are based. For each group, certain sites represent key episodes in the stories and therefore have particular spiritual significance. Many remain off-limits to travelers, but at some, the local people are willing to explain their beliefs and the significance of the site to outsiders.

Archaeologists explain the presence of Aborigines in Australia in terms of the great human migratory movements. Most argue that the first migrants reached the coast of northern Australia about 60,000 years ago, crossing from Indonesia via a land bridge that formed when the sea level was more than 400 feet lower than it is today. By about 40,000 years ago, most parts of the continent had been settled.

Traditional Aboriginal society was based on small groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers, but lifestyles varied according to the environment. Peoples living in fertile regions tended to be more sedentary, whereas groups living in arid areas moved frequently to take advantage of seasonal supplies of food and water. By doing so, they ensured that the local ecology was allowed to regenerate.

Common to all groups was a deep belief in equality: there is no evidence of the formation of political hierarchies, although social distinctions were made on the basis of age and gender. Kinship was defined by a complex series of rules and bonds, and the combination of kinship and Dreaming affiliation often dictated marital eligibility and religious duties, including the stewardship of sacred sites. Social connections with other groups were established through trade and at regular ceremonial gatherings. On meeting, groups would exchange and compare not only goods such as ocher and flint but also Dreaming stories, frequently in the form of songs. Connections would be established, with one group's Dreaming ancestor appearing in the song of a neighboring people or the story of one ancestor being continued in another group's narrative. In such a way, the Dreaming stories linked widely separate peoples and formed an intricate, continent-wide web of oral culture, sometimes called the songlines.

By the time Europeans arrived in the late 18th century, Australia was inhabited by more than 300,000 people speaking approximately 250 languages. Captain James Cook saw many Aborigines as he sailed up the eastern coast of Australia, yet, on August 22, 1770, on Possession Island off the Cape York Peninsula, he claimed most of the continent for King George III. The implication of this, that the land was undeveloped and therefore uninhabited, became the basis of the infamous legal fiction known as terra nullius, a Latin term meaning no one's land, that was used by settlers to justify the seizure of Aboriginal land until as late as 1992.

Continued In: Top 3 Things To Do In Australia - Meet The Indigenous Culture, Part 2

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