The Australian Aborigines—A Unique People
By Awake! correspondent in Australia
AUSTRALIA can be described as unique, with its magnificent marsupial the kangaroo and its cuddly koala, which is so much at home perched high in the plentiful eucalyptus trees. The original settlers, however, known as Australian Aborigines, are even more unusual than the country.
“Aboriginal” and “Aborigine” are not used in a derogatory sense. The terms come from the two Latin words ab origine, which mean “from the beginning.” These original, indigenous inhabitants of Australia are known as Aborigines—spelled with a capital A to distinguish them from the original occupants of other lands.
When the first European settlers arrived toward the end of the 18th century, the Aboriginal population was an estimated 300,000. Two hundred years later, a 1991 census lists fewer than 230,000 Aborigines out of a total Australian population of almost 17 million.
Who are these original inhabitants of Australia? Where did they come from? Why can they be described as unique? And what hope for the future do many of them now enjoy?
Early Life in Australia
Most anthropologists agree that the Australian Aborigines originally came from Asia. They probably made the final stage of their migration by raft or boat from southeast Asia, landing along the north coast of Australia. “They were not complete nomads,” Malcolm D. Prentis pointed out in his book A Study in Black and White, “but rather semi-nomadic: that is, they camped at different temporary campsites within their own identifiable territory.”
The Aborigines were remarkable conservationists who cared well for the environment. An Aborigine explained: “We cultivated our land, but in a way different from the white man. We endeavored to live with the land; they seemed to live off it. I was taught to preserve, never to destroy.”
Prentis wrote in agreement: “The well-being of the flora and fauna and that of the Aboriginal group were linked: prosperity for one meant prosperity for the other. This was practical: for example, flourishing kangaroos meant better food supplies for the Aborigines but the killing of too many kangaroos was in the long run not good for the Aborigines.”
Aborigines also excelled in other ways. Linguist R. M. W. Dixon noted in his book The Languages of Australia: “In terms of social organisation, however, it is Europeans who appear to be primitive by comparison with Aboriginal Australians; all Australian tribes had elaborate and well-articulated kinship systems with precise rules for marriageability and for specifying roles for every sort of social occasion.”
Music and Hunting
Unique to the Aborigines is a musical instrument called the didgeridoo, sometimes spelled didjeridu. The word literally means “drone pipe,” which fittingly describes the sound it produces. Rather than carrying the melody, the didgeridoo provides a type of bass and rhythm for ceremonial gatherings and night dances known as corroborees. The instrument usually provides a droning background for a songman with his clapping sticks.
Didgeridoos are made from carefully selected hollow tree branches. The most popular length is from 3 to 5 feet [0.9 to 1.5 m], but some instruments range up to 15 feet [4.5 m] long. Usually one end of the instrument rests on the ground while the seated player blows through the other end, which is held to his mouth with both hands.
Since the deep, resonant sound of the instrument is continuous, the player must blow into the mouthpiece end while at the same time taking in a fresh supply of air through his nostrils without any interruption to the sound. This is a skill similar to that which must be mastered by a musician playing a tuba. It is known among players of wind instruments as circular, or cyclic, breathing and is a skill not easily mastered.
For hunting, the Aborigines made good use of something else that is unique—the boomerang. It was developed as a hunting instrument and a weapon of war among the Aborigines. But for many tourists today, it has become another well-known symbol of Australia. The most familiar boomerangs are curved weapons that return to the thrower if thrown correctly. However, there are some varieties that are not the return-to-sender type. These are more accurately known as the kylies, or killer sticks.
To begin with, Aborigine culture had no written form of communication. Thus, Kevin Gilbert, an Aboriginal poet and artist, explained: ‘Art was the most effective language of communication for Aborigines and the most universally understood.’ He claimed: “Art communicates more effectively and has more significance than the written word.”
Therefore, visual and performing art communication became intrinsically bound up with the way of life of Aborigines. This meant that their art served two purposes: It provided a means of reinforcing verbal communication, and it also served as a memory aid to recall stories of tribal history and traditional religious matters.
With the absence of canvas, paper, and the like, Aboriginal art was painted on rocks, in caves, and on bark. The predominance of colors common to the earth stand out in all their art. They used colors that were dominant in the area where the paintings were created. The paints were made from material of the ground.
Probably the most unusual feature of their art is that almost all painting consists of dots and lines. Even backgrounds, which at first may appear as a single color, on closer examination reveal an intricate pattern of dots of varying colors.
A workshop presentation titled Marketing Aboriginal Art in the 1990s says that in the 1980’s “Aboriginal art . . . made the quantum leap from ‘ethnographic art’ to ‘commercial fine art.’” Others tell of the demand for this acrylic dot-style painting and extol its rise in popularity.
White Australians generally have misconceptions about Aboriginal languages. Some, for example, believe there was only one Aboriginal language and that it was very primitive, consisting of only a few grunts and groans. But nothing could be further from the truth!
Actually, there were at one time an estimated 200 to 250 Aboriginal languages. However, more than half of these have become extinct. Today only about 50 of such languages are spoken by groups of 100 or more Aborigines. And the number of Aboriginal languages spoken by 500 or more persons is now less than 20.
Rather than being primitive, the spoken language of Aborigines is highly developed grammatically. In his book The Languages of Australia, Professor Dixon wrote: “There is no language, among the 5,000 or so tongues spoken across the world today, which could be described as ‘primitive.’ Every known language has an intricate structure, so that description of the main points of its grammar requires several hundred pages; every language has thousands of lexical words in everyday usage.”
Barry J. Blake wrote in a similar vein of Aboriginal languages: “They are highly developed instruments of communication, each just as adequate for describing Aboriginal experience as English or French is for describing European experience.” Supporting this conclusion, Aboriginal journalist Galarrwuy Yunupingu stated: “Very few white people have ever tried to learn our language, and English is incapable of describing our relationship to the land of our ancestors.”
In the 19th century, translation of parts of the Bible into two Aboriginal languages was made. The Gospel of Luke was translated into the Awabakal language and parts of Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospel of Matthew were translated into the Narrinyeri language. Interestingly, these translations rendered the name of Almighty God as “Yehóa” and “Jehovah,” with variations of the name according to the syntax that the language demanded.
Today, much emphasis is being placed on the restoration of Aboriginal languages and the creation of a greater awareness among the non-Aboriginal population of Australia of the value, richness, and beauty of these languages. Therefore, many are now pleased to know that the Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs has authorized the production of dictionaries in 40 Aboriginal languages. This will include not only those currently being spoken but also many no longer in use that are to be researched from archives and other historical sources.
Responding to a Marvelous Hope
When whites came to Australia at the end of the 18th century, they almost completely wiped out the native population. However, today there are several rural towns that have a high proportion of Aboriginal residents, and there are still some entirely Aboriginal settlements, mainly in outback areas. Life for these people is often bleak. “We no longer belong to the past,” wrote one Aborigine, “nor have we a satisfying place in the present.” But she added: “The future holds hope for many of us.”
The reason for this is that many original inhabitants of Australia are now rejoicing to read in the Bible—perhaps in their own language—that the wicked will soon be no more and that the earth will be given back to those of mankind who will take good care of it. (Psalm 37:9-11, 29-34; Proverbs 2:21, 22) The Kingdom of God will accomplish this. This Kingdom, for which Jesus Christ taught us to pray, is a real heavenly government. (Matthew 6:9, 10) Many Aboriginal men and women are now busy telling others about the grand blessings that God’s Kingdom will bring to mankind.—Revelation 21:3, 4.
One Aborigine explained regarding many of her fellow Australians: “They are discerning that a view held in common by whites, Aborigines, and most other people on earth is erroneous. It is that Australia belongs to Aborigines by right of original discovery or to the whites by right of conquest. Neither is true. It belongs to Jehovah God by right of creation.”—Revelation 4:11.
Indeed, our Creator, Jehovah God, does own Australia and all the rest of the earth. And in fulfillment of the prayer Jesus taught, God’s Kingdom will come, and the entire earth will be turned into a global paradise inhabited by people of all races and nationalities who love and serve the true God.
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The didgeridoo is a musical instrument unique to the Aborigines
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A display of Aboriginal art
By Courtesy of Australian Overseas Information Service
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Many Aborigines are now sharing the good news of God’s Kingdom with others