Select Page


This article examines Aboriginal languages, social organisation, changes in population over time, beliefs about territory, land occupancy and ownership, as well as attitudes to nature and the land embedded in the customs, laws, rituals and beliefs passed from generation to generation in the oral tradition of the Dreaming.


All modern Aboriginal languages are grounded in proto-Australian, almost certainly spoken for a much longer period than proto-Indo-European and probably the language of the original Pleistocene Aboriginal colonists. No evidence exists for any connection between proto-Australian and any other Asian languages. In Papua-New Guinea 800-900 languages are spoken but none of these appears related to those in Australia.[17]

Baron von Mueller

Australian language Groups – primary typological division

Pama–Nyungan languages yellow
Non-Pama–Nyungan languages mustard & grey

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Kwamikagami – Accessed 4 Sept. 2015

Research published in 2018[27] claims a link between all Australian Indigenous languages demonstrating their descent from one common ancestor known as Proto-Australian. All Australian languages are thus part of the same language family presumed to have spread from a small area in Northern Australia. The research also suggests that though many Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken at the time of European settlement, the indigenous Australian languages only spread after the end of the last ice age, some 10-12,000 years ago indicating that indigenous Australian languages were not the likely languages spoken by the first inhabitants of Australia.

Original research by Kenneth Hale suggests that Pama–Nyungan, an interrelated family of languages, spread and proliferated to extend over almost 90% of the continent, a further dozen or so language families being concentrated in the northwest where potential secondary gene flow (new waves of migration) is indicated.[13][14] The name Pama-Nyungan indicates the two most widely separated groups, the Pama languages of the northeast and the Nyungan languages of the southwest. Most Pama–Nyungan languages have several hundred speakers or fewer – many are threatened or have recently become extinct, and many people were multilingual.[1][2][24] The many different languages are probably a consequence of the separation and isolation of communities over long periods of time – in Australia the barrier of distance, and in New Guinea more a consequence of mountains and forests.

Perhaps 363 languages were spoken in Australia at the time of settlement (364 including Meryam Mir a Papuan language spoken in Australian territory) with 275 of those languages in the Pama-Nyungan language group and an additional seven languages in Tasmania.[25]

One delightful way of getting acquainted with Aboriginal language is through the novel Yield (2019) by Tara June Winch which includes a glossary of the Wiradjuri language. Wiradjuri is a Pama-Nyungen language of the Wiradhuric subgroup that is now being reclaimed and preserved.[28]

Social organization


Much has been written and said about the Aboriginal perception of a timeless world or one in which time operates with a circular rhythm. One fascinating recent finding is in relation to the remote Aboriginal Pormpuraaw community. Studies of the way humans spatial representation of the passage of time have shown that, without exception, time is represented in relation to the body, right left, front back. The Pormpuraaw, instead, arrange time according to cardinal (geographic or compass points), from east to west. That is, left to right when facing south, right to left when facing north, and so on. This shows an acute awareness of location within the physical landscape.[26]

Communication within and between groups was by means of songlines, travel, trade, ceremonial and ritual and especially the festive feasting and corroborees. Such communication linked the language groups across the country while The Dreaming passed on a metaphysical or spiritual explanation for existence along with ecological knowledge and a behavioural code that defined banned areas and activities, and designated sanctuaries. This, together with the use of protected totems helped ensure a secure supply of food.

Social structure

Though much time was spent in family groups marriage could occur across tribes although marriage was mostly pre-arranged within the tribe, some men having several wives and brothers sometimes exchanging wives.[19]

Authority within groups resided in older men, the ‘Elders’, whose high status was related to their experience, especially their knowledge of the Dreaming and the land.

Each Aboriginal nation tended to develop its own particular laws, religious beliefs, and history and although nations interacted for marriage, trade and other reasons it was not a single fixed culture but many cultures changing over time.

Ceremonies and rituals assisted mourning and connection with the ancestral world, rites of passage, economic exchange, and were also a means of passing on and reinforcing stories of the Dreaming. Males were initiated through graded levels of knowledge before they could take on the responsibility of being and Elder.

Social roles and responsibilities were related to age and gender but, overwhelmingly, from a sense of place within the spiritual history of a particular landscape.[4] Even so it was the connection by birth of an individual or group to a piece of land that defined their identity. Men hunted the larger game of wallabies, kangaroo, waterfowl, crocodiles, turtles, and fish while the women and children gathered plant foods consisting of fruit, seed, tubers and greens, along with smaller creatures like grubs, frogs, lizards, shellfish and burrowing animals, the women often having their own carved or decorated all-purpose digging sticks with a fire-hardened point that was used to extract roots and prise open burrows, the gathered food then being carried in woven bags and containers made from bark or wood.[6] A nomadic lifestyle meant that children, though cared for, were a burden so infanticide and abortion were quite common. In contrast European children were raised in larger families with shorter space between deliveries and as they were raised on milk from sheep, goats or cows, were weaned earlier.

Over most of history disease appears to have been rare except for the extreme vulnerability to European diseases, the zoonoses that had originated in domesticated animals. Migrating birds could have carried have spread some disease between continents.


Estimates of Aboriginal population size and its variation over the continent through history are highly speculative.

After Aboriginal colonization of the continent there appears to have been regional variation in population numbers reflecting land productivity, the greatest densities occurring along the coast and down river corridors, the lower densities in the arid centre.[15] Following the rise in sea level after the last Ice Age several important changes occurred.

Firstly, there was the arrival of the dingo. Secondly, between 6,000 BP and 4,000 BP there began the ‘small tool tradition’ which included a range of tools small enough to require hafting, a change sometimes theorised as a consequence of the shift from hunting the now largely extinct megafauna to the hunting of smaller animals. Thirdly, there is archaeological evidence for an increase in the density (intensity) of occupation through the presence of more sites, more artefacts, and therefore more people. Along with these changes came the likely spread into new environments and the greater use of different foods – it was also at this time that the woomera first appears. It has also been speculated that these changes might have been the result of a new wave of migration although this is not supported by the genetic evidence (see Migration).[12]

Evidence that the population of Tasmania was growing is provided by the presence of a greater number of middens during the last 3,000 years, and especially the last 1,000; islands off Tasmania were recolonised indicating a possible cultural vibrancy and population size. However, little is known for sure.[17]

Abortion was widely practised and also infanticide – especially that of deformed babies and twins or those conceived illegitimately. Breastfeeding continued for 3-4 years, the blind were cared for and the elderly would occasionally live to over 70. There was some cannibalism although this was not the motive for killing, other humans being eaten to acquire the spirit of the dead.[20]


Following European contact in 1789 current estimates indicate a mortality rate of about 80% after the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic. Further outbreaks occurred in 1829-1830, 1858 and 1869, other infections included ‘flu’ and tuberculosis.[16] Figures for Tasmania are disputed.


Each language group occupied an area of land with a strictly demarcated boundary as negotiated with the neighbouring language group, the preferred Aboriginal terminology for these territories being a ‘country’ and the people living in that country being designated a ‘nation’. This method of territorial subdivision meant that, in principle, all regions of the continent were occupied, including the arid centre.[3] A nation consisted of from about 20 or so people to several thousand with perhaps an average of about 450 people.[8] Based on these figures, if there were 363 language groups then the total population would have been of the order 363 x 450 or 163,350, probably an underestimate. Cultural anthropologists refer to larger groups within a nation as clans while the simplest and most prevalent social unit to occupy a defined area of land was the band which generally consisted of one or two extended families and their visitors, the men with one or more wives and a total number of about 14-33 people.

In Victoria’s Eastern Kulin nation, for example, the clan could consist of several hundred people but the basic operational band here comprised 15-20 people.[5] Terms like ‘tribe’, ‘family’, ‘clan’, ‘band’ and ‘mob’ have been used in a variety of ways with no current consensus on their precise meaning.[7] Though mostly nomadic, explorers and settlers occasionally observed villages with huts and sites where populations may have numbered in the thousands.[7]

Passing through the territory of another language group required negotiation, much like country border control today, and any breach of trust could have dire consequences. People living in each country were nomadic within that country, having no home base, although the time spent at any particular location could vary from just a few days but when food was plentiful a semi-sedentary lifestyle was adopted, remaining in one spot for several months.

Territorial boundaries were known to everyone and were strictly applied and permission was generally needed to cross these boundaries, sometimes on pain of death. Even so, neighbouring tribes would congregate for ceremonies and also sometimes for hunting but also while harvesting food, lighting ‘clean-up’ fires, and during times of need. Large groups of several thousand would sometimes gather for feasting and corroborees when food was seasonally abundant – as occurred with eels, bees, beetles, the four-yearly maturing of Bunya-bunya (Araucaria) nuts, and the Bogong moths so rich in yellow fat (and tasting like sweet chestnut when roasted) that body weight would greatly increase over the period of the feast. Each nation might be subdivided among the group and specific zones of and care passed on to children.

Though in the process of land management some areas might be ignored for many years, they were not forgotten. Management of each region was a sacred responsibility of its language group. The nomadic lifestyle tended to work against the formation of major population centres: there being a continuum of regions, each patrolled by its people.

Property & exchange

The Nomadic lifestyle facilitated trade of goods from distant regions, exchange of stories, renewal of distant relationships and a means to engage in seasonal harvests and feasting when food was seasonally abundant, marriage, reinforce knowledge of the Dreaming trails, discuss fire management and water-hole maintenance as well as the social engagement of ceremonies, rituals and songs.[9] For aspects of trade and society see Technology, trade & economics Neighbouring elders shared the stories of their surrounding countries, mediated occasional redistribution of population, and assisted with specialist knowledge of fire management while making tactful suggestions if they noticed any neglect in the land care undertaken by their neighbours.


Europeans arrived in the new continent with memories of Celtic structures like Stone Henge in Britain’s Wiltshire and the imposing monumental architecture of the classical world. The Aboriginal lifestyle had no need for such grandiose statements. Explorers Stuart, Grey, Mitchell and others observed quite elaborate huts at a number of locations arranged to form ‘villages’ with popuations sometimes exceeding 1,000. John Staurt mentions beehive huts, log huts, and in the Gulf region both grass-domed shelters and stilted huts, others constructed with overlapping paperbark or palm leaves. At lake Condah in Victoria huts were constructed on stone foundations.[21]

Historian Gerritsen points out that reports by explorers of such settlements were possibly suppressed because they would weaken the case for colonial disposession.[22]

Food storage

Though food appears to have been mostly obtained and consumed in the course of a day, Pascoe refers to the use of crude baked clay vessels and food storage in animal skin caches, tree hollows and rock wells including some meat, oils and eggs as well as plant products. A variety of preparation and preservation techniques were used.[23]


Aboriginal artistic expression was mostly explored through the memorized narration of The Dreaming and the ritual of dances, ceremonies (especially those marking rites of passage), body painting, rock art, and music.

The Dreaming & law

In spite of the linguistic diversity and local variability in accounts of Creation and other oral tradition, Aboriginal culture had a similar underlying spiritual belief-system inadequately referred to in English as ‘The Dreaming’ which established the spiritual relationship between peoples, the group history, features of the land and the law. Families in each region passed from generation to generation the accounts of the Dreaming and their ancestors in relation to particular localities, totems, sacred sites, and the land. Totems formed the basis of relationships between individuals, society, nature and time.[10] Sometimes tribes would specialise in particular food types, possibly serving as a totem for the group.[11]

The Dreaming explained how in the beginning of time, at the Creation, spirit creator-ancestors (who were not austere and perfect divinities but fallible beings like the gods of the ancient Greeks) gave land and sea substance and form, sometimes being transformed themselves into features of the landscape, plants or animals. Human spirits could also pass into the landscape so the land had a historical spiritual dimension that extended back to the dawn of creation. Spirituality was therefore intimately associated with the physical world and the presence of ancestors within the landscape gave it a spiritual timelessness.

Teachings and stories of the Dreaming are passed down the generations through dances, ceremonies, and rituals. ‘Songlines’ described the paths along which creator-ancestors moved to bring places, animals and plants into existence. Ancestors are constantly recalled and experienced in the present.

As with other religions and belief systems the Dreaming passed on a code of behaviour, the ‘law’, and disobedience was punished. In general the Dreaming held that the fundamentals of existence are beyond challenge or improvement and that the world must be left as it is found. Leaving the land as it is found does not mean leaving everything alone, rather intervening actively to protect it and its life through its various cycles. Land care is the driving purpose of life because the land contains the sacred spiritual truth of the human and creator-ancestors.


A totem is an animal, plant or object in the landscape that is spiritually closely bound to a person or group of people. Respect for totems is demonstrated through ceremonials and other rituals. Connection with the land is strengthened by totems which provide a spiritual life-force stemming from a Creator Ancestor. People sometimes assume the name of their totem, say Emu Man or Fire Woman, and totemic relations are among the first facts established when Aboriginals met.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

The detailed relationship and use of plants is described in two articles dedicated specifically to the Aboriginal use of plants. Suffice it to say here that Aboriginals lived in a direct relationship and dependency on plants that they would have been acutely aware of. Apart from the spiritual significance of the land and totemic significance of many individual plants, they were also the source of their medicines, clothing and tools. Plants were also the source of food for the animals they ate and the greens, fruits and seeds that made up the rest of their diet. Today most Australians know the names of only a few native trees, common garden plants, some weeds, and most vegetables and fruits (although they probably would not know how or where these vegetables and fruits were cultivated), the Aboriginal would have been aware of, not only the various kinds of plants but also their many uses, properties, and where they grew.

A nomadic lifestyle appears to have been most efficient with a group or band size of between about 10 and 35 people, the mobility needed to locate seasonal food supplies restricting both family size and the number of goods that could be transported. Beyond this size and the organisational and authority structures become problematic. It has been suggested that these numbers are reflected in the size of many modern sports teams. This must be compared to the scale of settled communities and the much larger and more environmentally destructive technologies that can be assembled in one place by the specialized division of labour and massive projects that can be achieved by large populations. However, it should be pointed out that aggregation of people into groups of several thousands may have occurred more frequently than suggested by the occasional corroborees based around feasting.[18]

Key points

  • Aboriginal language groups (nations) occupied regions (countries) with known boundaries so that, in principle, the entire continent was under human management. Though not privately owned or demarcated with any physical structures like fences, was nevertheless regarded as the territory of a particular group of people and therefore any use of land outside such territories was a matter of negotiation
  • The many Aboriginal languages, a consequence of minimal communication due to small widely separated and isolated groups, are grounded in Proto-Australian which is unrelated to languages in Asia and Papua-New Guinea; over 90% of the continent except for a portion of north affected by possible trade and migration, speaks languages in the Pama-Nyungan group
  • The current estimate of the number of languages spoken at European settlement is 364 and a total population of around 164,000
  • Ancient Aboriginal society encompassed, on the one hand, many nations and cultures differing in both time and space with their own laws, religious beliefs and history but, on the other, a commonly structured belief system and a technology with (except for the use of fire) little environmental impact when compared with that of western culture
  • Contact with other groups was for trade of goods from distant regions, exchange of stories, renewal of distant relationships and a means to engage in seasonal harvests and feasting when food was seasonally abundant, marriage, reinforce knowledge of the Dreaming trails, discuss fire management and water-hole maintenance as well as the social engagement of ceremonies, rituals and songs
  • The Dreaming provided an explanation of the origin of the world and its contemnts, also a set of laws regulating social relations, land occupation, and land care; it also explained the deep sacred and spiritual significance of the Aboriginal relationship to their origins and ancestors, the land, and the natural world
  • Social roles were mostly related to age and gender, also by birth and totem
  • There still exists disagreement about the use and elaboration of elaborate dwellings, extent of settled communities, use of cultivation and food storage


First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . revised 26 September 2020


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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email