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Technology, trade, economics

Trade is a way to move resources from places of plenty to places of scarcity for the mutual benefit of the traders. There is the additional benefit of fostering social and political interaction and, in this, Aboriginal culture was no exception.

The main resource, food, was only occasionally transported between groups who would meet seasonally at its source in times of plenty. At these sites there would be communal feasts notably those for the Bunya nuts (SE Qld), Bogong Moth (Namadgi NP, ACT) and general goods (Oenpelli, Arnhem Land).  Trade was also centred at the intersections of trails.[13]

News about gatherings was conveyed between tribes by messengers. Most trade was in utilitarian items and ornaments and as much about social, ritual and ceremonial factors as the goods themselves, as stories, song, and dance were included among the traded items.[13]

Baron von Mueller

Baler shell

Baler shell (Melo diadema) Native fishermen would eat the flesh then trade the shell for use as a water carrier or for decoration
Courtesy AQIS


Exchange of goods was achieved through a barter economy operating between groups across a network of waterholes (bora).[8] Within ‘tribes’ there was a simple division of labour, the men hunting large game, while the women and children gathered plant food and smaller animals especially those in burrows. Women beyond child-bearing age were the major providers for the group, plants making up a major part of the diet in desert regions.[7] Within a particular band or family group there was an agreed order of food allocation depending partly on who had collected the food and partly on the accepted social hierarchy although no-one would be left out. Efficiency in resource allocation (mostly food) was achieved by being aware of the seasonality and location of the food supply, including the seasonally optimal time for Corroborees and political gatherings.[6]

Without metal or pottery there was no boiled food although fish was steamed between leaves. Most small game was covered in coals and lightly roasted, larger game might be prepared in earth ovens or holes in the ground where fire embers were covered with leaves, the game laid on top after removal of entrails (eaten separately), covered in greenery then earth or sand and left until cooked. Daily needs demanded little further specialization, division of labour, or administration.

Ancient Aboriginal trade routes
Ancient Aboriginal trade routes

Courtesy: Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH)

Traded items

Major items traded across the continent included marine and freshwater shells, notably the engraved pearl shell and baler shells (Melo diadema). There was also coloured ochres and clays, resin and gums, fish-hooks, obsidian, axe stone (probably the heaviest item traded along with lighter grinding stones (quorns) like those used to prepare Nardoo (Marsilea sp.) in Arnhem Land) along with pichuri, fibres and strings, special timbers and firs – mainly pelts of possum, kangaroo rat, wallaby and kangaroo. The women, especially, would trade in mats, ornaments, baskets, net bags and digging sticks. For hunting and warfare there were spears and spearpoints, shields, boomerangs, and throwing sticks. [4][12]

Unusual goods from distant places were always popular. Sometimes particular resource sites, like those containing ochre, would be controlled by one or a few families. In the Torres Strait, where island gardens sometimes produced an excess of storable root vegetables like yams, there would be trading with clans on the north Australian coast.[5]

At the time of European settlement a quarry on Mt Wilson 70 km to the north of Melbourne was being mined by Wurundjeri man Billibellery and stone axes crafted, the axes from the site used to peel off tree bark used in the construction of canoes. Some of these axes were recovered from Swan hill 300 km to the north.[19] At Melton Mowbray in southern Tasmania the chips and debris of a chert quarry covered an area of about 4,000 m2[19]

Resource distribution

As nomads any material goods, including food, were an additional weight to carry and so little was produced in excess of daily needs. This maximised travel efficiency and minimised the social organisation necessitated by additional items needed for daily life and trade. Australian Aboriginals did not use camels, horses or any means of transport, not even the wheel: they walked. As a people the First Australians, to get to Australia from Africa, had walked the full distance, arriving about sixty thousand years before triumphant Enlightenment Europeans sighted the continent from their ships. Resources were all obtained from the land and land management was carried out by walking the tribal territory. Adjacent tribes would meet and councils would be held for the organisation of marriages, trade, and the exchange of skills, songs, dances, and ceremonies – but walking was what life was all about along the trading trails that linked waterholes.

Dreaming paths & trading routes

Aboriginal trade routes, based on the movements of Dreamtime ancestors, were known as Dreaming paths or trails which were also linked through storylines and the Dreaming: their storylines passing through Aboriginal nations and creating connections across the length and breadth of the continent. When trade was expected fires were sometimes lit on high ground to both guide the trading parties and let people know that traders were expected: they were only extinguished when trading was completed.[10]

Trading routes followed natural features of the land,especially those that would provide resourcesfor travellers on their journeys such as waterways, valleys, ranges and the coast.

Dreaming paths guided people along trails to resources, especially waterholes, soaks and meeting places. These were the routes along which goods and knowledge would pass:[2] they were sacred and ceremonially sanctioned routes that featured in songlines, dances and map paintings. Stories about them would include mention of the geological formations and other features encountered on the routes as they had been created by the spirit ancestors in the Dreamtime and in this way ‘storylines’ or ‘storystrings’ etched the trails into aural history for future travellers. These paths were the trade routes that criss-crossed Australia and passed on the Dreaming and cultural values. Desert people walked for months distributing ochre. Explorer Giles observed among the few possessions of a central Australian, a marble from Adelaide, a pearl shell from the north coast, possibly sourced to Malaysia. Historian Bill Gammage has reported Kimberley and Torres Strait shell passed through the Great Sandy Desert to the Nullarbor, and shells from Papua found in western New south Wales.[3]

Aboriginal knowledge of the land and the dreaming paths was harnessed by explorers, surveyors, troopers, stockmen and plant collectors who could take advantage of the watering places that occurred at intervals along the routes and steer a way through neutral territory and along the margins of tribal territories. Among those who took advantage of Aboriginal skills were: Flinders, Mitchell, the Jardines, Kennedy and Hodgkinson as well as stockmen and others who used Aboriginals as trackers, stockmen, guides, scouts and interpreters and as a means to forestall any potential conflict with native people. In this way dreaming paths became the European stock routes, drover runs and coachways … and eventually roads and major highways.

Among the better-known dreaming paths was one extending from the Kimberley to the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia along which passed pearl shell, red ochre, wooden dishes and other ornaments, and the Pituri Road with ramifications covering much of the continent from the Gulf of Carpentaria to southern and central; Australia, the most popular source being near Bedourie (its name possibly derived from the Aboriginal name for the plant) in SW Qld where it was processed, but extending into the Channel Country and Eyre Basin with a central meeting point for trade in autumn at Goyder’s Lagoon.[14] Kerwin reports an estimated length of the road as 3,800 km challenging in extent and antiquity the famous European trade routes like the Silk Road, Incense Road and other ancient trade routes.[15] Engraved pearl shells used in initiation ceremonies and rituals were also traded over 3,000 km from the Dampier Peninsula south to the Great Australian Bight and the Baler shell, Melo diadema, from Cape York south as far as Flinders in SA.[11]

The Bundian Way is an ancient 265 km long track used mostly by Aboriginal people of the Monaro and of the South Coast used for thousands of years and linking the high country (the highest part of the Australian continent on Kosciuszko at Targangal) with the coast at Eden at Bilgalera (Fisheries Beach), Tullemullera (Twofold Bay). The track, a major route within a network of trails, used on the way to summer seasonal feasting corroborees on the Bogong moth (Agrotis infusa) at Nurudj Dujurund (Snowy River) in summer and springtime whale migration on the Eden Coast. Aboriginal artefacts have been found at key locations like the Monaro yam fields. Archaeological finds along the route have been made at Cascade Hut and the Tin Mine Hut indicating that settlers followed the paths and stations formerly used by the Aboriginals.[20]

Early white settlers used Aboriginal guides along the track, exploring the land and looking for pasture.

Corroborees were an important part of Aboriginal communication and social organisation, helping to maintain kinship ties, conduct business and trade, share knowledge and resources or make alliances and settle disputes. The track is still a place for Aboriginal cultural activities. The Bundian Way is a Heritage Site of State Significance in New South Wales.[20]

any early European explorers and stock routes followed the former Aboriginal trails which, in turn,followed the paths of the Dreaming ancestors. The following table gives a broad indication of what appears to have been some of the major trails.

East coast
c. 3,000 km
Torres Strait, NE Cape York, Great Dividing Range, Victoria
Included major bora grounds
bunya nuts down Great Dividing Range
South-eastern routeMurray-Darling Basin to Port Augusta and the East coast
A major stock route
Axe heads, twine, possumskins
Cape York to South Australia routeWestern coast of Cape York to Normanton, inland rivers connecting to the Murray-Darling
Includes the Birdsville Track and its many storylines
Kimberley to Eyre Peninsula routeCentral Australian route with three branches from the Kimberley: SW to Tennant Creek and Mt Isa; Victoria and to Daly Rivers along the Route and Eyre reached through present-day Tanami Track and Stuart Hwy.
Kimberley to SW Australia & NW to Arnhem LandConnects to southern route through Central Desert dividing into two branches: Alice Springs SE to Lake Eyre via Oodnadatta track; SW to Ooldea
Pituri RoadChannel Country in SW Qld, Mulligan River and Pituri Creek to Rockhamption

Trade routes

Major trade routes (after Kerwin, pp.110–112)


Of special interest in Aboriginal trade is the fact that, because there were no domesticated animals to carry critical resources, trade was largely confined to ’luxury’ items enhancing cultural and social development but not its physical aspects which require bulk foods and materials.

Maps & navigation

Sand and other drawings were used by Aboriginal nations for many purposes one being their use as maps using lines, figures, circles and symbols representing features of the land, this being one of many ways of providing navigational instructions along with toas (ornamented sticks symbolically passing on all kinds of information including details of land ownership, acting as signposts and indicating where people were along with features of the land and where people could be found), message sticks and many other devices including song, stories and dance.[9]

Commentary & sustainability analysis

Walkabout was the way that Aboriginals gained food (water), water, energy, and materials (artefacts) while facilitating social connections and reinforcing the spiritual connection with the land. This was, at once, a trading system, transport system, and an effective method of resource collection and distribution. Tools from the land combined with muscle-power were the instruments of production.

As an extremely simple economic system its throughput was well within the assimilative and regenerative capacity of its environment, with the possible exception of some impacts produced by fire and hunting and there was a fair and efficient allocation of the resources needed for day-to-day living.

As a hunter-gatherer economy it was based on a wide array of tools and poisons. It involved cooperation in hunting, sharing of the spoils and a division of labour based on gender. Movement of the group would depend on seasonal local abundance. As always, the impact will depend on the technology used, the size of the hunting population, the vulnerability of the prey and the consequences for the ecosystem. Food supplies were protected for the future in various ways: by protection of juveniles, totemic prohibitions. Archaeologists recognize two phases of stone tools: big tools early and small tools later, starting about 4,000 years ago which appears to be a time of technological change with greater use of hafted tools, possible first use of spear-thrower and other changes possibly due to the use of smaller food resources.[22] Late Holocene increase in population is supported by evidence of increased travel distances for food; use of new ecological zones and micro-niches; broader food selection requiring greater preparation, including move to foods at lower trophic level such as smaller animals, birds and reptiles, and wider range of plant foods; increasing disease, species extinction, resource scarcity, and sedentism.[21] Overall ‘Aboriginal populations in Australia increased significantly during the last 5,000 years [with]… greater use of … kangaroos, wallabies, plant foods and shellfish’ [16] and on whether Aboriginals had an important impact on Australian vegetation ‘In the long term, probably not; in the last 5,000 years, almost certainly …[17][18]

In general terms population was controlled by the amount of food available which in turn was dependant on the water supply, all regulated by the leanest time of the year. Diets of Aboriginals living in a traditional lifestyle that have been recorded in detail indicate ample energy intake with a more balanced, varied and nutritious diversity of foods than Europeans. For example, mulga seed has more protein than peanut butter, yams grow very large with the food value of sweet potatoes and a witchetty grub is equivalent to a medium pork chop.[15]

The nomads scorned by early white settlers were poor in material possessions but rich in spirit, leading a secure and healthy life ideally suited to the environment”[14] Insofar as wealth is defined by the perception of ‘having what you need’ rather than what it is possible to have, or what other people perceive as wealth, then it is likely that many Aboriginals were even content with their material life. It is hardly surprising that, when confined to white man’s daily work regimes in a single locality, it would become necessary to ‘go walkabout’ the time-honoured method of social interaction, trading, and managing the land.

Key points

  • Trade of Aboriginal tribal society represents the simple economy of the nomadic hunter-gatherer whose trade was carried out almost exclusively by walking

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First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . minor edit 3 January 2022


Uluru from Helicopter
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Corey Leopold
Accessed 15 October 2020

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