Australia in the Before Time

Summary of the decade

Indigenous Australian belief systems explain that creator ancestral beings gave birth to the people, and also shaped the lands and waterways, giving them spiritual significance.

A scientific view hypothesises that Indigenous Australians have lived in Australia for more than 40,000 years, having arrived by boat from southern Asia. Scientific evidence shows that Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples have lived in the area for more than 30,000 years. Although the number will always be based on an informed guess, it is believed that approximately 750,000 Indigenous people populated Australia from the coasts and islands to the inland deserts at the time of colonisation. Indigenous people lived in more than 300 language groups based on their strong links, both physical and spiritual, to particular areas of land, their countries. Each spoke their own dialect or language.

Some territories were more densely populated than others. In arid desert regions, the numbers of Indigenous peoples were fewer than in the richly fertile coastal territories. Living in different climates with vastly different landscapes and ecologies, the cultures of the nations and language groups produced dynamic, diverse and vibrant cultures.

Each clan had deep connections to their country, and intimate understandings of seasons and of the availability of water and food in different areas. Each also had its own lore, beliefs and customs. Clans developed a highly efficient bartering and trading system established over thousands of years and that operated over thousands of kilometres. Centres of exchange existed near water sources, such as rivers and major creeks. Commodities such as stone, ochres, shells, fibres, furs and special wood were traded. For example, products from the north-west coast such as pearl shell found their way to the Great Australian Bight in South Australia.

People travelled within their country and sometimes to other countries. When food was abundant in particular periods, clans remained in the one place. There were at least two semi-permanent settlements, one at Lake Condah in western Victoria and one on High Cliffy Island in the north-west Kimberley region of Western Australia. At Lake Condah, the Gunditjmara people farmed eels to ensure a continuous supply of food for trade. On High Cliffy Island the people built hundreds of stone structures.

People used fire in the production of food. In many areas groups burned off areas of land to create grasslands for animals that would then be hunted for food. Planned burning off in the cooler seasons also encouraged the growth of desirable plants and prevented destructive fires that could do a lot of damage. People carried firesticks with them to cook food, for warmth and for the campfire.

Social organisation revolved around kinship, age, gender and place of birth. These four factors determined a person's rights and responsibilities, including such things as what work a person did. Women, for example, foraged for food, hunted small animals like the echidna, looked after children and made a range of goods and tools such as woven baskets, small dilly bags and nets. Generally, men were responsible for making tools and hunting the larger animals like kangaroos. Sacred sites were revered and spirituality revolved around the creation stories, which were the focus of rituals and ancestral beings.

In 1606 the Dutch were the first Europeans to make contact with Indigenous Australian people. Dutch explorers such as Abel Tasman charted much of the western and northern coastlines as well as part of the south coast. In his voyages of 1642 and 1644, Abel Tasman dispelled the myth of an enormous continent that encompassed most of the Southern Hemisphere.

A snapshot of NaN

  • January
    • The Royal Society approached King George III for financial assistance to fund an expedition to observe the transit of Venus from the South Seas.

  • April
    • The ship HM Bark Endeavour (formerly the Earle of Pembroke) was commissioned by the British Royal Navy Board to undergo a voyage to the South Seas. She was to be captained by Lieutenant James Cook.

  • July
    • Cook was involved with fitting out HM Bark Endeavour while moored in Deptford.

  • August
    • Lieutenant James Cook left Plymouth Harbour for Madeira.

  • November
    • Cook wrote to the Royal Society complaining of the poor treatment he received from the Portuguese viceroy at Rio de Janeiro. The viceroy believed that Cook's real purpose was smuggling or piracy.

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