Geographical and Historical Context for Ancient Australia

Geographical and Historical Context for Ancient Australia

Useful resources for studying the historical and geographical context of Ancient Australia

Chronology

There is evidence of human occupation in Australia that dates back as far as 65,000 years B.P. (before present). To put this in perspective, the last Ice Age occurred approx. 20,000 years ago! It would be useful to begin the study of chronology for Ancient Australia by having a conversation with your students about the Aboriginal concept of time and how linear progression is not always a relevant way to approach or understand the history of this culture. For a more in-depth conversation starter, see the movie Ten Canoes and discuss how time is represented here.

Some useful visual timelines can be found below:

  • A timeline can be found on the Creative Spirits site, a site dedicated to the exploration of Indigenous culture: Korff, J 2019, Searchable Aboriginal History Timeline
    • See the section on Ancient History: Timeline results for 3000 to 500000 Note: the first claim on the timeline (placing human occupation in Australia at 400,000 years Before Present) is unsubstantiated by any scientific or historical research.

Geography

Scope and Diversity of Aboriginal Language Groups

  • Interactive Language Map from First Languages Australia.
    This map allows you to type in a suburb and see its language group or type in a language group and see its region. E.g. type in the suburb of your school and see the corresponding language group.
    https://gambay.com.au/map
  • My Grandmother’s Lingo SBS program.
    This is an approximately 10 minute long interactive language journey program that explores Indigenous connection to Country and language whilst teaching students a bit of an Indigenous language, Marra. https://www.sbs.com.au/mygrandmotherslingo/

Landscape

Monash University website with interactive representation of Australian landscape changing through ancient past: 
http://sahultime.monash.edu.au/explore.html

This site visually indicates differences in the shape of the Australian landmass across time. Access to Adobe Flash Player is required for the interactive feature.


Understanding Seasons

Australia is a vast continent with a wide variety of climates, including both areas of subtle and extreme seasonal change. Climates present within Australia range from tropical, wet and monsoonal regions to alpine regions and arid and semi-arid regions. The ancient Australians who inhabited the whole continent prior to colonisation utilised and adapted to this environmental variability, viewing the environment and country as a source of both physical and spiritual sustenance. Seasonal variance was accompanied by seasonal abundances of resources which ancient Australians exploited. These seasonal variances meant increases in specific activities such as social and ceremonial activities, as well as informing ancient Australians where particular animals and resources could be hunted and gathered throughout country.


Seasons are named and recognised everywhere, although there are some differences between calendars and the seasonal understandings of the ancient Australians and contemporary Indigenous peoples and of non-Indigenous Australians. Non-Indigenous Australians acknowledge four distinct seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter, or in some areas such as the tropics acknowledge only two or three distinct seasons: the dry and the wet, and sometimes a pre-wet (build-up) season (see fig.1.1 and fig 1.2 below). Additionally, periods of time characterised by particular features or dangers are sometimes also referred to as seasons (see fig 2.1).

Seasons in Central Australia

Seasons in the tropical north

Fire danger seasons

By contrast, Indigenous calendars vary according to country and locality and often distinguish six or more seasons. These seasons are identified according to both climate conditions and the availability of resources. Therefore, Indigenous Australian seasons can indicate times for hunting specific animals, gathering particular resources, meeting in set locations and for carrying out certain practices, such as fire-stick farming. Below are two examples of Indigenous seasonal calendars.

Yawuru Seasonal Calendar

The Yawuru people’s seasonal calendar (Broome, WA) underpins their understanding of what is happening on their country, both on land and in the sea. They read seasonal indicators in the landscape which tell them where certain animals are, when these animals are mating, and when they are fat and ready to be eaten. These understandings underpin the choices they make regarding their daily activities.

For more information on Yawuru seasons visit: http://www.bom.gov.au/iwk/calendars/yawuru.shtml

See especially the colourful wheel depicting the six Yawuru seasons with their associated wildlife: Dec-March, April-May, May-June, June-Aug, Sept, Oct-Nov.

See also Arthur, B. and Morphy F. (eds.), Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia (Sydney, 2019), p.25.

South-East Yolngu Seasonal Calendar

The Yolngu people from the Blue Mud Bay region in the Northern Territory name seven seasons. Their calendar identifies the winds that dominate each season and the most important animal and plant resources available within each one. The seasons are shown to be overlapping to reflect seasonal variation from year to year.

See the concentric circle colour-wheel depicting this calendar in:

Arthur, B. and Morphy F. (eds.), Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia (Sydney, 2019), p.26.


Further Resources

Arthur, B. & Morphy, F. ‘Chapter 3: Environment, Ecology and Country,’ in Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia (Sydney, 2019), p.22-26.

Bureau of Meteorology, ‘Understanding Fire Weather,’ media.bom.gov.au, accessed October 23, 2019. <http://media.bom.gov.au/social/blog/1538/understanding-fire-weather>

Bureau of Meteorology, ‘Yawuru Calendar,’ Indigenous Weather Knowledge, bom.gov.au, accessed October 23, 2019. <http://www.bom.gov.au/iwk/calendars/yawuru.shtml>

Langton, M. Welcome to Country: An introduction to our First peoples for young Australians (Melbourne and Sydney, 2019), p.1-12.

Northern Territory Government, ‘Climate,’ https://cmsexternal.nt.gov.au, accessed October 23, 2019. <https://cmsexternal.nt.gov.au/screenterritory/filming-in-the-nt/climate>

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