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Investigating Australia's Physical Environments

Indigenous Australians - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - have the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on Earth, dating back over 50 000 years. The Dreamtime lies at the heart of their culture and explains the creation of the universe and all the features and people found within it and the relationships that exist between them.

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The Dreamtime and the Dreaming

The Dreamtime refers to the ‘time before time’ when all things were created by the spirit ancestors. These were not humans but supernatural beings who wandered over the featureless surface of the Earth. Their journeys created the landscape, and they live on - in the rocks, plants, animals and people that exist today. The Dreaming is the continuation of those spirit ancestors in the relationships between all living and non-living things. Dreaming stories contain valuable lessons about how to survive, where to find food and water, and how to avoid danger.

Each Aboriginal group has its own knowledge which is considered sacred and is passed on by elders in stories, music and art. The distinction between land and people made by non- Indigenous cultures is puzzling to Indigenous groups. Although their languages and stories vary, all Indigenous Australians regard the physical and human elements of their environment as part of the same inter-connected ‘country’. This word, when used by Aboriginal people, refers to a spiritual place that gives and receives life, and has its own consciousness.


Getting Technical

The ‘A’ in ‘Aboriginal’ is capitalised similar to other designations like ‘Australian’. The word ‘aboriginal’ with a lower case ‘a’ refers to an indigenous person from any part of the world. As such, it does not necessarily refer to the Aboriginal people of Australia.

‘Aboriginal people’ is a collective term used to identify the original people of Australia and their descendants. It does not, however, emphasise the diversity of languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. This diversity is acknowledged by adding an ‘s’ to ‘people’ (‘Aboriginal peoples’). ‘Aboriginal people’ can also be used to refer to more than one Aboriginal person.

In Australia, the ‘I’ in ‘Indigenous’ is capitalised when referring specifically to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. You use the lower case ‘i’ for ‘indigenous’ when talking about indigenous peoples in an international context.

Creation stories

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Aboriginal people do not have a single story of creation but in many Dreaming stories there are animals or mythical creatures that change to become landforms such as mountains, gorges, lakes or rivers. The Rainbow Serpent is particularly significant as it is found in different forms in all Aboriginal cultures.

A Rainbow Serpent story

Long ago in the Dreamtime, before there were men and women, animals and plants, the world lay still and smooth and flat. The Rainbow Serpent, who was the mother of us all, lay in a deep sleep in the very centre of the Earth. Then one day the Rainbow Serpent suddenly awoke, and broke through the surface of the Earth. She travelled all over the land, forming mountain ranges and deep channels with her body. Great rains filled the deep channels where her body wound its way. The places where she did not travel remained flat and became the deserts.

Then the Rainbow Serpent began to call on all living creatures to come out from the centre of the Earth and populate the land. She called on the birds and the animals. And finally she called on the human tribes. She told them to live in peace and harmony with their fellow creatures and reminded them to respect the rocks and trees, and the very earth itself, since all of creation has a spirit. She told them to pass this knowledge of Mother Earth to their children and to the children yet to come - for men and women were now the caretakers of the land.

Then the great snake descended into the great ocean, where she guards the fish and other water creatures. And the people know that if they take more fish than they can eat, or kill for greed or pleasure, or abuse the laws of the land in any way, the great mother serpent will come out of her hiding place in the water, and punish those who have broken her laws.

Landforms and legends

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Throughout Australia, Indigenous groups have stories that explain the formation of local landforms. The names of the landforms are usually different from those used by the Europeans that ‘discovered’ them more recently. In some cases, such as with Uluru and Kata Tjuta in the Northern Territory, Aboriginal heritage has been recognised and the traditional name has become the accepted one.

The common theme in all the stories is the spiritual presence that continues to inhabit the landforms. In traditional belief systems these spirits continue to influence life and can punish wrong-doing with storms and other catastrophic events. Therefore, Indigenous people treat the land with respect and protect it from harm. They regard themselves as custodians of the land - never owners.

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