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Australia was one of the earliest centres of civilisation in the world with its beginnings around 65,000 years ago. What was once the unknown continent was inhabited by Indigenous Australians also known as Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders.
Clear archaeological evidence indicates that Australia’s first people were living in Southeastern Australia 40,000 years ago. At Lake Mungo in the Lake Mungo National Park in New South Wales a male skeleton was found in 1974. This male corpse, now known as Mungo Man, lived there all those years ago.
Lake Mungo is one of several dry lakes in the World Heritage listed Willandra Lakes Region. Red ochre was found on the skeleton and this discovery indicates that there was some form of ritual practised at the time.
Pigments such as ochre tell us a lot about the past. Not only does the ochre found on the corpses indicate that there were religious rituals all those years ago but it implies that it was used for art – cave painting, decoration of objects, and body painting.
So what was happening over 40,000 years ago is still happening today.
At Malakunanja II,a sandstone rock shelter south of Malangangerr in the Northern Territory, archaeological evidence suggests that human beings may have been living in this region over 55,000 years ago. If this is so then this rock shelter is Australia’s oldest site.
Australia’s first people were global pioneers in many ways. They were among the first great sea voyagers. Between 40,000 and 100,000 years ago the first people had to cross the waters between northern Australia and the islands of Southeast Asia.
They developed a sophisticated technology making tools and weapons made of stone. They were among the first to practise aerodynamics with the creation of the boomerang.
Indigenous Australians understood the dynamics of land conservation and management and they developed a religious, social and cultural life that recognised the essential bonds between mankind and the land.
In the history of Australia’s first people they demonstrated their ability to reach for the stars in art, in legend and oral history. In their ceremonial life they embraced the first ritual expression ever undertaken in the history of the world and their burial ceremonies pointed to a firmly held belief in the afterlife.
A boomerang is type of throwing stick. Aboriginal people were the first to understand the principles of aerodynamics with the creation of the boomerang with one arm angled at about 120 degrees to the other.
The secret to the boomerang is its surface which is slightly convex. Underneath the arm is flat. The boomerang is based on the principle that when it is exposed to a strong current of air “the air flow creates a pocket of low pressure above the wing, and a pocket of high pressure below it. These forces respectively pull and push the wing upwards. If the air flow is fast enough the wing will be lifted up and held in the current.” 1
Properly thrown a boomerang should return. The top and bottom sides of each arm are carved so that when the boomerang is thrown with a spin, the air flowing over the surface will force the stick on a rising curve outwards and then on a descending curve inwards.
Boomerangs were not used all over Australia. For instance they were not in Tasmania, Cape York, parts of Arnhem Land, the Kimberley coast or parts of South Australia.
There are different types of boomerangs. Some lighter ones are used to frighten nesting birds. They whirr over the tops of trees frightening the birds so they they fly into the nets of hunters. Other larger, heavier boomerangs are used to injure large game like kangaroos.
Boomerangs are also used for ceremonial purposes. If clapped together they become a musical instrument to accompany ceremonial dancers. Larger and heavy boomerangs have been used in fighting and others have been used as tools – for cutting, digging, making fire. And they have been items of trade and exchange.
In 1788 the Aboriginal population was divided into more than 250 groups speaking distinctive languages and identifying as social groups which in European countries would have been known as nations.
Aboriginal languages embraced approximately 700 dialects. Just as there are dialects of English so the dialects of Aboriginal Australia varied among themselves. Major languages such Pitjantjatjara, Bundjalang, Wiradjuri or Gupapuyngu are as distinct as English is to French, German, Italian or Japanese.
Around 120 Aboriginal languages are spoken today. A lot of work is being done by linguists and Aboriginal people to record existing languages and to revive languages that are under threat of dying out as senior people pass away.
Senior Aboriginal people want to preserve their languages as the maintenance, revival and preservation of languages is critical to Aboriginal cultural health. Some of the languages have only a few speakers and there is concern that the language will die when its speakers pass on.
Recording the languages is not an easy task. It is very important that the surviving languages are kept alive and are passed on to future generations.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages spoken in communities today are languages with complex grammatical structures and words, and they have a number of dialects.
Torres Strait Islanders speak a number of languages. Some of them are related to Aboriginal languages while others are related to the languages of Papua New Guinea (islands to the north of Cape York Peninsula).
Many Aboriginal people both in the past and today are multilingual and are able to speak the dialects or languages of their neighbouring people. Some languages are spoken as a first language and are being taught in school.
c. Marji Hill