Australian human history did not just start when the first white settlers arrived in 1788. It began when the first inhabitants arrived over 50 000 years ago during the last Ice Age. These first inhabitants are known as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (from the Latin word ab origine, meaning from the origin or beginning), and gradually spread out to cover the whole of Australia. By the time Captain Cook reached Australia in 1770, there were probably at least 750 000 Indigenous peoples living in Australia. The Indigenous population was divided into up to 600 different language groups but they all believed that the world was formed in the distant past during a sacred era known as the 'Dreamtime' or 'Dreaming'.
The survival of the Indigenous peoples depended on their knowledge and understanding of the land. They needed to know the seasons and when and where the various types of food were available. It was essential that the land was protected, as it was needed for survival. They did this by passing on knowledge of the land and its creation through stories, songs, ceremonies, dances and art. The closest English word for this knowledge of the land and its creation is the Dreaming. Refer Image 1
The Dreaming is a unifying characteristic of all Indigenous culture, but each group within Australia had its own particular Dreaming. The Dreaming of a group explained how features of their world came to be, and explained the significance of their own sacred sites. It also set out the rules of how people should behave, particularly towards the land. The Dreaming gave meaning and direction to the lives of each Indigenous group, and continues to do so.
The Dreaming explains the beginnings and culture of the land and its people, sometimes called the Creation. In the beginning, the Indigenous peoples' spirit ancestors came from the ground, sky and seas. Many of these ancestors could change their form, from human to plant to animal. As they travelled over the land they created its natural features and all its life forms, including the plants, animals, insects, fish, birds and people.
When the Creation was over, the spirit ancestors disappeared into the earth, water or sky, though they left behind signs of their time on earth. These signs were in the form of caves, hills, rivers, billabongs, trees, rocks and other natural features of the landscape. Refer Image 2
The spirit ancestors' power can still be felt through the land and its life forms. The ancestral beings did not really die; they lived on in different forms and their spirits survive. Through this, the past continues to have strong connections to the present; and is why the Indigenous peoples have a duty to protect the land, its plants and animals and to care for the sacred places.
Preserving the Dreaming
Indigenous peoples celebrate and relive the Dreaming in ceremonies, songs and stories. For example, stories about the Rainbow Serpent or how the sun was made are told so that links with their ancestors are preserved. Ceremonies and other rituals are used to pass on the Dreaming secrets to the next generation. By passing on the Dreaming secrets to the next generation, it means the land and living things are cared for and the links to the past are preserved.
The Dreaming stories or legends from all areas of Australia show that Indigenous Australians believed in a Supreme Creator or Great Spirit. The Great Spirit was known by different names in different areas, such as Byamee, Wandjina and Nargacork. The Great Spirit was responsible for watching and helping the different groups of Indigenous people; and often sent spirit helpers to show them how to do things, for instance, lighting fires or trapping fish.
Another story, and one that many Indigenous groups had in common, was the one about the Rainbow Serpent. The Rainbow Serpent arrived on the land and began to slide from place to place, creating the deep gorges, rivers, mountains and valleys in the shape of its body. It is believed that the Rainbow Serpent continues to live on in the world today in a secret sacred place, and that the rainbows seen in the sky are a reflection of the creature. Refer Image 3
Many of the Dreaming legends, particularly those that tell of great floods, volcanoes and giant animals were actually based on fact. Archaeological evidence shows that the land and animal life did change in Australia during Indigenous habitation. This shows the success of the ceremonies and rituals in passing down stories and secrets from generation to generation.