The First Australians – Aboriginal People of Australia

Seaborne settlers

No-one is sure when the Aborigines first arrived in Australia, but it was at least 50000 to 60000 years ago. The oldest dated site so far discovered is in Kakadu National Park, which was occupied about 50000 years ago. It seems probable that successive waves of immigrants arrived over thousands of years, but whether they gradually made their way around the coast to colonise the country, or moved inland along river systems, is not clear. Whatever happened, they had reached the area around Sydney by 42000 years ago, the areas around Perth and Melbourne 40000 years ago, the interior of the continent 38000 years ago and Tasmania by 30000 years ago.

The first settlers must have arrived by boat, since at no time after the evolution of humans was Australia linked by land to the rest of the world (apart from New Guinea). It seems likely that people living in southeast Asia gradually made their way south, sailing from island to island until they reached the shores of Australia. Sea levels were much lower then because of an ice age, and the maximum distance that needed to be covered in a single voyage would not have been more than about 60 kilometres.

The land the first Aboriginal settlers discovered was very different from Australia as it is today. Not only was it 2.5 million square kilometres larger, but it was also possible to walk dry-shod from the northern coast of New Guinea to the southern tip of Tasmania. The inland was also much wetter, making it more attractive to humans.

Last of the nomads

A way of life that had existed virtually unchanged for at least 2500 human generations finally came to a sad end in August 1977. In that year the last two nomadic Aborigines finally left their tribal lands in Western Australia’s remote Gibson Desert and moved into the township of Wiluna.

Warri Kyangu and his wife Yatungka belonged to the Mandildjara people. They had married in the 1940s against the strict rules of their group and had fled into the desert to escape punishment. There they led an isolated existence for many years, bringing up four sons on their own.

After World War II, most of the Gibson Desert Aborigines gave up their traditional way of life and moved into Wiluna. When Warri and Yatungka’s four boys reached manhood they too departed for Wiluna, leaving their parents alone in the desert. The couple had no trouble surviving, as long as conditions were good. However, in the early 1970s, the Gibson was gripped by a severe drought which dried up water holes and killed most of the game. By 1977 the tribal elders at Wiluna, who had long forgiven the couple’s transgression, were becoming concerned for their safety. They therefore asked members of an historic expedition to take a senior member of the tribe to search for Warri and Yatungka. The couple were eventually found, camped near an almost-dry water hole, reduced to a diet of quondongs (a native fruit). Both were extremely thin and suffering from a variety of complaints. They agreed to accompany the expedition back to Wiluna, as it was clear that they could not survive on their own for much longer if the drought continued. Gathering up all their worldly possessions, they turned their backs on 50 years of history.

Warri Kyangu (above) and his wife Yatungka were the last Aborigines to live a purely nomadic life.

Restored to fragile health, the couple lived among their people at Wiluna for the last years of their lives. Warri died on 28 April 1979, and a heartbroken Yatungka followed him to the grave less than four weeks later.

Echoes from another age

The world’s earliest known cremation took place 25 000 years ago on the shores of Lake Mungo, 50 kilometres south-east of Pooncarie in New South Wales. The body of an Aboriginal woman in her early twenties was cremated on a pyre, after which her bones were gathered, smashed and buried. Measurements taken from the bones that could be reconstructed have shown that they belonged to an individual who was smaller and more slender than the average Aboriginal woman today.

Tools and other remains found near the burial site have enabled archaeologists to piece together a picture of the way of life enjoyed by the woman and her companions. Land that is now semi-desert was then a series of seasonal lakes, bordered by sand dunes. Groups probably came there when the lakes were full, and stayed for a few months. They ate fish, mussels, emu eggs, birds and some mammals. Remains of ovens and campfires suggest that food was cooked in much the same way as when Europeans first arrived.

Evidence gathered from around Lake Mungo shows that Aborigines camped there for at least 20000 years. The earliest tools date from 35000 years ago, and the lakes eventually dried up some 15000 years ago.

Tower of Babel

More than 200 distinct languages, and some dialects, were spoken in Australia before white settlement. Now only about 100 languages are still in regular use. Members of most tribes could make themselves understood to neighbours (in much the same way that an Italian or Portuguese speaker can communicate with a Spaniard), but not to individuals from further afield.

Most Aboriginal languages are still only poorly understood by white scholars, with dictionaries usually containing only a few thousand words in everyday use. It has been estimated that a comprehensive dictionary of Aranda, a language spoken in central Australia, would contain more than 30000 entries.

Many Aborigines have to learn to speak several forms of their everyday language for use in special situations, such as when they are in the presence of someone with whom they have a ‘taboo’ relationship (for example, their mother-in-law). In Dyirbal, a language from the Cairns rainforest region, the everyday word for wallaby is bargan, while in the mother-in-law language it is yungga. Severe penalties may be imposed if a correct word is not used at the right time.

Some languages have secret versions that are used among initiated men on certain special occasions. One such language is tyiliwiri, an advanced initiates’ version of the Walbiri. It is an ‘upsidedown’ language, in which ‘I am sitting on the ground’ would be expressed as ‘another is standing in the sky’. There is an upside-down equivalent in tyiliwiri for everything that can be communicated in the everyday language.

What does it all mean? 

A striking example of the fundamentally different ways in which Aborigines and Europeans view the world was provided during a visit to Canberra by Frank Gurrmanamana, an Arnhem Land tribal elder, in 1978. Conducted around his first major city by prehistorian Rhys Jones, Gurrmanamana was unimpressed by escalators, jet planes and all the gadgetry of modern life. He was far more interested in the meaning of the street patterns mapped out over the city. What were the relationships between the streets and the people in the houses? Who carries out the appropriate rituals which embody religious and social ties to the landscape? It was inconceivable that these relationships did not exist in the city, and the idea that land could be sold off like any other commodity was totally alien to Gurrmanamana. He was also disturbed by the apparent lack of rules governing who could marry whom among the people he met. White people, Gurrmanamana concluded, mate as indiscriminately as dogs.