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Cultural Background

Aboriginal Cosmology and Environmental Knowledge

The spiritual views of Aboriginal people are complex and largely impenetrable to those not born and initiated into its world. For Aboriginal people, their land is populated with a parallel world of visible and invisible forces; the land is alive with spiritual forces and each and every Aboriginal person who lived in or passed through the landscape is culturally and emotionally sustained. Aboriginal people draw their strength from the land, and traditional Aboriginal identity also comes from it. The special attachment and connection that Aboriginal people have to the land is tied to their social and cultural wellbeing.

The scientific evidence suggests that Aboriginal people have been in Australia for more than 40,000 years. (Many Aboriginal people claim ongoing descent from the beginning of the land’s creation.) This means that they would have been confronted with major ecological and geological changes (such as Ice Ages, desertification and changes in sea level) as well as annual seasonal variations. Many of these changes have been captured in the cultural traditions of people in different environments in Australia.

The Dreaming is at the centre of Aboriginal culture and it links Aboriginal people to the physical and metaphysical world (see the cultural background document ‘Cultural Representation of the Landscape and the Dreaming’). Many Dreaming stories recount the forming of the landscape, and the physical environment is the manifestation of events and actions of ancestors and spirit beings. These Dreaming figures emerged as a variety of identities and took on various forms, including humans and other mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and natural features of the landscape. As these ancestral beings moved across the land, they performed human-like activities – eating, sleeping, making weapons and interacting with each other. While engaging in these activities, they formed the earth, rocks, waterholes, rivers and other physical phenomena. The ancestral beings, in their multitude of animate and inanimate forms, constantly interact with the present occupants in ways that do not privilege anyone or anything over another. It is incumbent on each generation to acknowledge their spiritual counterparts alongside their own place in the all-embracing cosmos.

There are many traditional Aboriginal Dreaming stories about relationships between ancestral beings and the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets. Aboriginal people have observed the day and night skies of the southern hemisphere for more than 40,000 years and have accumulated a deep understanding of astronomy. This knowledge of the planets, stars and constellations means that environmental changes could be predicted. For instance, seasonal changes were recognised through the changing positions of constellations. For Aboriginal people, weather patterns and climate change were gauged by the occurrence of natural events (including, for example, tidal changes, the behaviour of animals, and the availability of food sources). Seasonal changes are specific to, and vary between, particular regions in Australia. These changes affected the availability of food and water for the people, and also for the flora and fauna on which they depended.

Aboriginal people see, feel and understand the cultural and spiritual significance of a particular place. They have an intimate knowledge of the land and the various environments and environmental changes that exist in Australia. For more than 40,000 years before European occupation, Aboriginal people efficiently and effectively managed environmental resources. Theirs was a hunter-gatherer culture in which the land’s resources were used in accordance with the learning derived from the Dreaming to provide food, water and shelter. The changing seasons affected their lifestyles and the ways they used and managed the resources. Patterns of movement across the land were dependent on seasonal variations of resources and climate. The availability of food and water significantly determined the extent to which a community travelled over their country. For instance, a scarcity of food resources meant that a nomadic lifestyle was necessary and Aboriginal people in arid regions, such as the central desert areas, had to move periodically to access limited supplies of food and water. On the other hand, where food resources were more abundant, Aboriginal people lived in relatively permanent dwellings, as was the case along the well-watered, resource-rich coasts, rivers and rainforests. Aboriginal people used and lived on the resources specific to their environment, and movement during seasonal changes was one of the ways that Aboriginal people efficiently managed environmental resources.

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