Were Aboriginal Australians Nomadic: Fact or Fiction?
One of the first ‘facts’ commonly taught when it comes to Aboriginal culture, history and people is the notion that prior to invasion all Aboriginal people were nomadic. This is an idea that exists and flourishes, despite being fundamentally flawed in nature. For the majority of Aboriginal people who did not live in Australia’s arid regions it was an entirely inaccurate description of how those people lived. Let’s break that down into the simplest of terms. Imagine that you’re an owner one of Australia’s many large cattle stations. Of which, some stations are so large in size that herding cattle and other animals is sometimes done with the aid of helicopters. On such a property it can take a whole day or more to drive a car from one end of the station to the other. To oversee such a property you would live in a large farmhouse, and that would be where you would spend most of your time. You would also have one or more outstations, where you would travel to and work, and perhaps spend a few nights, before returning to your main station house. Would you classify such a landowner as nomadic, or even semi-nomadic? Realistically the answer is no. This is the conundrum we are faced with when examining how Aboriginal people are described in history books and in the general consciousness of most Australians.
We are a continent of many nations, and our cultures are presented on television, on the internet, and in classrooms in a typically narrow view, based only on the cultures of desert peoples. Each of the continent’s many Aboriginal nations have their own distinct borders. These are marked by mountains, rivers and other natural landmarks, in addition to stone arrangements, ‘ring trees’ and other artefacts. Crossing into a neighbouring nation’s lands without permission would incur a punishment, based on that nation’s own particular set of laws. Roaming the countryside by random whim with impunity was never a possibility, regardless of whether you were from the coast or the desert. Whilst it’s true that people did travel outside of their own countries, it’s also important to note that this was done only by consultation and invitation. The Bunya feasts of Queensland are a prime example of this. People from many nations across the north of what would become New South Wales would travel to the mountains in the South East of Queensland, where they would take part in a triennial feast and celebration, eating the roasted nuts of the Bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii). A great surplus of food and good will were common reasons for cross-territorial incursions.
Different environments produced varied demands on the people who lived within them. Arid parts of the continent could sustain fewer people, thus a more delicate balance in managing resources was required, which meant that a semi-nomadic lifestyle was a reality for those living in such environments. However, in coastal and riverine country where the largest Aboriginal populations around the continent were based, people were not nomadic. They did not randomly roam within the borders of their own nations. Movements were based entirely on an understanding of the seasons and the environment, and such movements were limited. If your clan belonged to an inland part of your nation’s territory it was unlikely you would travel to the coast unless you had a specific reason. For example, in many parts of New South Wales and Queensland you might note when the Processionary Caterpillars (Ochrogaster lunifer) are clustering on trees in large numbers. You would know that this event coincides with the time of year that the mullet begin to cluster in large numbers along the East Coast of Australia, thus providing an abundance of food and a reason to venture to the coast. In simple terms, you had one home, but you travelled elsewhere when your ‘diary’ (the environment) occasionally offered up opportunities. Today such opportunities are still exploited, but nobody considers a person a nomad when travelling to take part in a strawberry harvest, a wine tasting in the country, or going interstate to attend a music festival.
Permanent structures which were occupied for the greater part of each year were found in many parts of Australia. The Gunditjmara people in western Victoria are known to have lived in permanent villages, comprising a number of stone walled huts. Matthew Flinders noted seeing the large, well-built huts of the Yaegl people as he passed by the mouth of the Clarence River in northern New South Wales in 1799. Simple bark lean-to’s were common, but they also coincided in each territory with more permanent structures. They were simple accommodation when in transit, and were used temporarily as evidenced by their fragile construction. The majority of structures that people lived in were of a much more substantial nature, and many forms of abode could provide sleeping quarters for a number of individuals, and in some cases as many as 16 people.
The way that Aboriginal people are presented by the media and by educators desperately needs to change. We’re dealing with 220+ years of repeated misconceptions and a lack of consideration for the true complexity of Australia’s traditional cultures. We are more than the Aboriginal peoples shown on television, who happen to always live in the desert, or in the far north of Australia.
For further reading:
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-21/traditional-owners-seek-unesco-world-heritage-listing-budj-bim/6714424 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/oct/09/australia.barbaramcmahon http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/s805459.htm http://www.aerc.uq.edu.au/content/gunyah-goondie-wurley-aboriginal-architecture-australia