Aborigines. Australian history, culture, religion and art

Term Paper, 2001

12 Pages

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3. ART




1.The Australian history


Australia has no native primate species, so humans must be immigrants. Australia is the oldest of the now existing continents, with land that has probably been above water for 1.6 billion years. It was originally a part of the super continent, Gondawandaland. During the most recent peak of glaciation, 18,000 years ago, the ocean was about 130 meters lower and a vast, wide plain connected Australia and New Guinea.

Paleological estimates on when the Aborigines migrated to Australia differ widely between 30,000 and a 100,000 years ago. At that time New Guinea was joined to Australia and to the peninsula of Malaysia. The island of Tasmania was also linked to the Australian mainland.

Gradually Tasmania and New Guinea became separated from Australia and the first inhabitants were isolated from the rest of Asia. Aboriginal people are thought to have migrated to Australia from Asia and Africa.

During this period Australia’s inland sea dried up and many of the rivers only ran in rare wet seasons, producing deserts in the centre of the continent. The climatic conditions throughout the rest of Australia ranged from tropical in the north to temperate in the south. The Aboriginal people who survived this climatic change developed techniques used in hunting and gathering which enabled their survival.

European contact

The isolation on the Aboriginal continent finished with the beginning of white exploration of the area. The first contact was with the Dutch on the west coast and then with the English when they established a penal settlement on the east coast. The impact of this and further settlements was devastating for the indigenous people. They were prevented from maintaining their lifestyles and culture because of European settlement on their land.

In 1688 and 1699, the Dutch and captain Dampier visited the West coast of Australia, but there was hardly any contact to indigenous people. The first intensive contact with the European was when the British people and Captain James Cook reached the East coast and built up a colony there.

At the European contact there were more than 100 tribal groups of Aborigines speaking approximately 260 languages and 500 to 600 dialects.


In 1770 the Australian continent was claimed for Britain by Captain Cook and the legal doctrine of Terra Nullius, a land without people, was invoked by the English. English law said that the way new territory was acquired should determine what law should govern it. When colonists settled unoccupied land they brought their laws with them.

The doctrine of Terra Nullius originally applied to empty land but had come to include land occupied by nomadic people who were regarded by Europeans as not using the land productively, because they did not farm it or have private ownership. Traditional Aboriginal systems of tribal land ownership were neither recognised nor acknowledged. This doctrine was used to justify introducing the English system of law as the sole law of the land.


European settlement of Australia commenced. Colonial and later national development was based exclusively on the English legal system. Aboriginal people were treated brutally, their prior rights to the land disregarded and they were not treated as equals with Europeans by the law.

As the colonies got independent from Great Britain during the 19th century, their governments either neglected or excluded Aboriginal people. Prior to federation, only Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania extended the franchise to Aboriginal people. The vote was only actually exercised by a small number of the Aboriginal population in South Australia.


In former times the Aborigines were considered dangerous. They had no value as workers because they were primitive and nomadic. Therefore they were used as slaves and partially eradicated from the landscape.

One example for massacres of Aborigines is the massacre of the 28 Aborigines at Mr Dangar's station 350 miles from Sydney. For some time a party of about 50 natives of all ages had been camping near that station in 1838. They were in perfect tranquillity, being very peaceable and honest. On the afternoon of Sunday the 10th June, however, a number of the white men, assigned convict servants living on the station, met together and surrounded the place where more than 30 of the natives were camped. They tied the whole of the blacks to a rope, and marched them to a convenient spot, about a quarter of a mile distant, where they deliberately put them all to death, with the exception of one woman and four or five children.

The following day the blood-thirsty crew scoured the country for more "game", knowing that the remainder of the tribe, some ten or twelve, were still in the bush. These blacks were never afterwards heard of, and it was concluded that they also had been captured and put to death.

Lots of Aborigines died during the overkill from 1788 to 1900. The white Australians considered this treatment normal and accepted at that time. There were many black wars but the invaders with their guns succeeded in killing thousands. Much of the remaining population was placed on government reserves, mainly administered as Church Missions.


The first Commonwealth Parliament passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902 which was progressive for its time in granting universal adult suffrage for men and women. However, it specifically excluded any aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific from Commonwealth franchise unless already enrolled in a State. The Aboriginal franchise was further reduced in practice by admitting only those Aboriginal people already enrolled in a State in 1902.


After Federation in 1902, Aborigines became a Commonwealth responsibility. The genocide of the previous 100 years was replaced by the ethnocide of the Government Assimilation Policy whereby Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their parents and raised on Church Missions or in white families.

Aborigines were not Australian citizens, could not vote, were not allowed to travel without permission, were not legally able to drink alcohol or to go into certain areas or buildings.

As a race, Australia’s Aboriginal population suffered much more human right’s abuses than the black Africans under the Apartheid regime of South Africa.

The Aborigines were forced to conform to European values and way of life. Until 1949, the Australian government tried to assimilate the indigenous tribes.


In this year, the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended to grant all Aboriginal people the Commonwealth vote. Enrolment was voluntary but once enrolled, voting was compulsory. Despite this amendment, it was illegal under Commonwealth legislation to encourage Aboriginal people to enrol to vote.

Western Australia and the Northern Territory extended State votes to Aboriginal people in this same year.

The movement of 1967

In 1900 the Aborigines became the Commonwealth responsibility, but only half a century ago, in 1951, Paul Hasluck, the Minister of Territories wanted to make Aboriginal life better.

Still many years later, namely in 1967, there was a movement of Aborigines led by the activists Kath Walker and Charles Perkins. The movement was supported by the Labour Party, the Unions and Australian young people. It claimed the Australian citizenship for Aborigines.

Within freedom rides, demonstrations in the cities and marches to Canberra, the Australian capital, the movement reached a referendum. This referendum was successfully passed by the

Australians and brought the Aborigines the Australian citizenship, the right to vote and the right to hold positions of power.

In 1968, the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs was established as an affirmative action to implement support schemes for the advancement of the interests of Aboriginal people.

In 1971, the first Aboriginal person, Neville Bonner (1922 - 1999), was elected to the Federal Parliament in Australia. After many years of itinerant work, he stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Senate election in 1970.

In 1971 Neville Bonner was appointed by the Queensland Parliament to replace the Queensland Liberal Senator, Dame Annabel Rankin, who had retired from Federal Parliament. This appointment made him the first Aboriginal person to sit in the Australian Federal Parliament. At the 1972 election he was returned as a Liberal Senator for Queensland. Senator Bonner continued to represent Queensland as a Liberal Senator until 1983.

Government policy

In 1949, the new Prime Minister Robert Menzies made first attempts to change the assimilation policy.

Since the early 1970’s, it is tried to find new ways of living together Some parts of the country were given back to the Aborigines and medicine and education support has been established.

A Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody was established in October, 1987. This was a response to the extraordinary high numbers of Aboriginal deaths while in police and prison custody. From this commission, 339 recommendations came to reduce these numbers. The Commonwealth Government provided over 330 million dollars to fund the State’s implementation of the commission’s recommendations.

Slowly during the 1980s, organisations and government programs were formed to provide funding and counselling to assist Aboriginal children to find their long-lost families.

Unfortunately, the damage that was inflicted will not soon be erased. An entire culture was nearly exterminated.

However, by June 1998, the end of the 10 year funding period, many of the key recommendations had still not been implemented and the number of deaths had risen rather than decreased. The Federal and State Governments have stated that they are committed to reducing the numbers and are now reassessing how this goal is to be achieved.

The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal children from their families was established in May 1995 in response to efforts made by major indigenous agencies and communities.

Up to the 1970’s, the government’s child assimilation policy had gone on. The many children removed from their families became known as the Stolen Generation. State governments have formally apologised to their Aboriginal peoples but as yet, the Commonwealth Government has refused. On 23 Oct 1998, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Dr John Herron, stated in the media that the Commonwealth would never apologise.

The flag

The Aboriginal flag was designed by Harold Thomas. It was first hoisted at Victorian Square, Adelaide, South Australia, on National Aborigines’ Day on 12th July 1971. It was later used at the Tent Embassy outside the Federal Parliament in Canberra in 1972. Today the flag has been adopted by all Aboriginal groups and is flown or displayed permanently at Aboriginal centres throughout Australia.

The Aboriginal Flag is divided horizontally into equal halves of black and red with a yellow circle in the centre. The black symbolises Aboriginal people and the yellow represents the sun, the constant renewer of life. Red depicts the earth and also represents ochre, which is used by Aboriginal people in ceremonies.

Situation today

Since 1996, there is a National Tribal Elders Association which is a more traditional style of government for the Aborigines.

Before the Europeans arrived, the population of the Aborigines was approximately 300,000 people. Shortly after the European arrival, massacres, racial wars and diseases had decreased the number of Aborigines to 150,000. Nowadays, there are 230,000 of them.

As a result of the isolation on their continent, the Aborigines were still hunters and gatherers having limited use for the modern concepts of agriculture or trade when the Europeans came to Australia.

They live in small clans with strict kinship rules. Their main problems are a high infant mortality rate and bad health, education, housing, alcohol abuse and unemployment issues.

Aborigines make up only 2% of the Australian population whereas 40% of all juveniles held in detention centres in 1995 were Aborigines. The life expectancy for Aborigines is 15-20 years less than for non Aboriginal Australians. Aborigines are 12 times more likely to die from diabetes than non Aborigines. They suffer from blindness at 10 times the rate of white Australians. 13% have no water supply. The unemployment rate for Aborigines is 38%.

Nowadays the Aborigines have started to practice their original ceremonies again. They have also brought back many aspects of their way of life.

Australia now has a policy of multiculturalism, which is completely different from the former policy which stamped Australia as an Anglo-European country in Asia. Australians now appreciate the beauty of Indigenous Art, understand the diversity of the Aboriginal tribes, and clans and their traditions, value the contributions Aboriginal culture has made in areas such as tourism, law, and caring for the environment. Australians also and promote the advancement of Aboriginal issues such as health, housing and social justice, and respect Aborigines as the original owners of this island continent.

Many Aboriginal painters and dancers, actors and story tellers have taken that culture to the world stage so now the global community can both share the wonder that Australia’s Aboriginal peoples are, as well as know the plight that still afflicts them in their own homeland.

2.Culture and Religion


Kinship ties are very important to Aboriginal people, they are integral to their identity and lifestyles. Lifelong bonds of affection, duty and loyalty to family and friends are forged early and these also shape an individual’s identity. People have a sense of their place in the family and clan structure and act accordingly by, for example, offering condolences at a funeral according to a strict hierarchy.

A strong sense of identity is also shaped by a sense of belonging to a place or country. Many Aboriginal people have a very strong sense of belonging to the place of their or their ancestors birth.

Aboriginal people cared for their land. The elders of each clan passed on information to succeeding generations about the boundaries and the way the land was managed. Territories were based on language group and clan associations. Clans would visit neighbouring clans for social and economic reasons, after first seeking permission via a messenger person or smoke signal.

The Aborigines live all over Australia. Their culture and language are mainly the same everywhere. They have set up a complex system of trade routes. They trade items for goods and also barter. They have even traded with Indonesian sailors.

Still, they are mostly gatherers and hunters. For hunting, spears and Boomerangs are used. A Boomerang is an angled piece of wood that returns to the thrower when the target is missed.

Owing to the wandering habits of the Aborigines they never formed anything like regular settlements or villages. Their dwellings were of the rudest description, and were rarely occupied for more than a few days at a time.

Between individuals, and sometimes families, in the same camp, fights arise suddenly and from most trivial causes on which occasions the courtesy and good nature usually subsisting would be rudely thrown aside for what a stranger to Aboriginal customs might consider the deadliest hatred and malignity.

The quarrelling Aborigines start skull-cracking then which mean serious injury and perhaps death to any other humans. But as soon as any of the combatants has received a hurt, an attempt is made by their friends to stop the fight. After that, the parties who had quarrelled would be greater friends than they were before.


One very important part of the Aboriginal culture are rituals. Whenever something important like birthdays, marriages e.g. happens, a ritual is celebrated. Ceremonies and rituals also play a special role in the lives of people who were trying to keep storms under control or try to bring about rain.

One of the most important rituals was the initiation of a boy or a girl into tribal adulthood. This is a long ceremony which takes away childhood. Initiation was never a once only ceremony. The first initiation, for example, lasted at least three months.

There were usually two or three initiation ceremonies for boys and young men, each one of very much importance. The duration of the girls training was less severe than that of the boys but until the initiation tests were passed boys could not be men and girls could not marry.

Initiation tests involved subjecting the boy or girl to pain, fear, and times of intensive secret religious instruction and further ordeals such as circumcision and teeth pulling. Children who were put into the initiation process were pampered by their tribe and when they came out of the process where expected to be self controlled adults.

The Dreaming

Aboriginal art and culture derives from the Ancestral past - the Dreaming. Dreamings are Ancestral Beings, spirits that moved about the unshaped world in the Dreaming period, such as the Honey Ant, Witchetty Grub, Bush Plum, and Possum Dreamings.

These Beings formed the landscape and its peoples, as well as creating the laws of social and religious behaviour. After that, some of them went into the sky or into the ground, or merged into hills, rocks, or water holes. But although these beings died, their spirits live on. In Aboriginal belief, they are just as alive today as they ever were, and they will continue to live on into the future.

The greatest of the spirit beings were gods and goddesses. The fertility mother, called the Great Mother, and other Old Women, such as the Djanggau Sisters, the Kunapipi or the Gadjeri, were particularly important.

The idea of Dreaming relates to the idea of eternity in religious belief, to the patterns of life that were established in the beginning and continue to be vital and relevant now and in the future. All ritual activity is determined by the Ancestors; every step of a dance, every verse in a song, and every pattern in a design.

Animals have sacred powers, and the land is central to Aboriginal people’s beliefs, identity and values.

The Dreaming is used to explain how life came to be and how both social and physical structures evolved. It is about the land and tells why sacred places came into being. It is used to define Aboriginal people’s spiritual being.


Totems are best understood through the idea of the Dreaming. They can be regarded as a philosophy. The totem (symbol) in the form of an animal, a plant, an object, or some natural force, such as wind, is a visible expression of the Aboriginal people’s relationship to their gods and mythical characters and to the natural environment. In some areas, a person's totem was regarded as being of the same flesh as the person, and the person could not eat it. Men and women claiming a particular animal as their totem were responsible for performing special increase rites and seasonal renewal rites designed to increase the number of the animal.

Aboriginal Stories and Corroborees

The Aborigines tell stories about the time before they were around. Those stories are used to explain how life came to be and how both social and physical structures evolved.

Some of the story titles are "How the Echidna got its spikes", "Why the Emu can’t fly" and "How the Kangaroo got it’s tail".

Corroborees are some kind of parties. The people sing and beat sticks or weapons together. The dancers tell stories about fishing, hunting or legends of long ago. Some dancers use the movements of animals and paint their bodies to look like animated skeletons.

Corroborees are mostly held by the men, but sometimes by men and women together or by the women alone. Night was the time always chosen for these national entertainments, the light being supplied by the moon or by large fires.


The Western concept of art as fine art, something that is divorced from the sphere of the everyday, has little applicability to Aboriginal belief or practice.

Aboriginal art is an expression of a complex religion and culture. It is an integral part of a ritual life that encompasses the totality of an entire belief system.

The Didgeridoo

There are over 40 different names for this instrument, including Yidaki, Didjeridu, Ihambilbilg and many other.

The Didgeridoo originated in the northern parts of Australia. The instrument has enjoyed world wide popularity and Didgeridoo players can be found all over the world. The instrument is created from a eucalyptus branch which has been hollowed out by white ants or termites nesting inside. The Aborigines walk through the bush, tapping on various branches listening for a hollow sound, or looking for a dry hollow branch on the ground. When a hollow branch is found it is chopped off, and a mouthpiece from gum or wax is fitted to the end after it has been painted.

Didgeridoos are 1 to 2,5 metres long. You play it using circular breathing, which some people can’t do. When you blow into it, you have to make your lips vibrate. Some people are able to make bird and animal noises.

Many stories are told about the origin of the Didgeridoo. My favourite one is the one that tells of a group of friends who were sitting beside the fire talking. One got up to get some more wood. He then picked a branch up and felt that it weighed very little. He looked inside and saw that it was hollow, and there were termites inside the branch. He blew them out into the sky and the Didgeridoo was heard for the first time. The earth reacted to this wonderful sound and the termites formed the stars in the heavens.


The act of painting in Aboriginal belief serves to activate the powers of the Ancestral Beings. This, in turn, defines and reaffirms the artist's spiritual identity, as well as reproducing Aboriginal culture over time.

All aboriginal paintings have a meaning. The Western concept of art as fine art, something that is divorced from the sphere of the everyday, has little applicability to Aboriginal belief or practice. Aboriginal art derives from the ancestral past - the Dreaming. The Aborigines tell stories and express their culture within their paintings.

Nowadays watercolours and oils are rather used to make a painting than charcoal, ochre, gypsum, chalk clay and bark as they were used in former times.

Rock engraving is the oldest and most lasting form of traditional Aboriginal art, and is found in large parts of Australia. Many different methods were used, including rubbing, scratching, drilling and pitting. Mainly stone and wooden implements were used depending on the texture of the rocks. Sand drawings were used for illustrations for stories, maps of a landscape, indicating landmarks and distances to be travelled. The aboriginal artists used natural pigments.

Body painting is a group activity associated with various ceremonies. The painting begins several hours before the ceremony, and is accompanied by singing to call on spiritual powers of the ancestral. The body is greased, and then the traditional designs are applied, with the index finger and painting sticks.

Sometimes an Aborigine had a bowl and that person had engraved his or her own personal totem in it to show their spiritual meaning of body painting. Aboriginal art uses many symbols, which are read in many different ways. The artist is the only one who can fully understand the meaning behind the painting.

To say in within a poem

I am born of the land, my soul is the sun

Nature is my mother, I am Mother Nature's son

The wind is my spirit, running wild, running free Water is my mirror, reflecting visions in me

I am like a great river that slowly runs dry

Polluted and abused, I am the river - slowly - I die

I am a child of the earth created from dust

I live for this land, taking only what I must

I am a hunter of animals imitating their stance I am what I hunt, I am its spirit in the dance

I am a painter of wall, I am an artist of dreams

Depicting mythological creatures and spirits in my scenes

I am from the Never Never, a time long gone by

The dreaming is my creation, I am at home when I die

I own no land for the land owns me

That's how it has been, how it always will be

For I am - what I am - I am - Aborigine By Stephen Clayton 1993

12 of 12 pages


Aborigines. Australian history, culture, religion and art
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Peter Voithofer (Author), 2001, Aborigines. Australian history, culture, religion and art, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/103581


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  • guest on 4/6/2003

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