Almost Lost in Time: The Aborigine of Australia, Part III (Tribal Laws, Art, and Music)

James R. Coffey By James R. Coffey, 30th Aug 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>History

For the Australian Aborigine, their relationship with their Tribal lands, how they make their art, and how they produce the music that accompanies their ceremonies, all speak of their relationship with the natural world around them--both past and future.

Ancient ways in modern times

For the Australian Aborigine, the rituals set forth by the mythical Beings in the Dreamtime are an integral part of their Tribal laws, art, and music. Their relationship with their Tribal lands, how they make their art, and how they produce the music that accompanies their ceremonies, all speak of the Aboriginal relationship with the natural world around them--both past and future. Each an integral part of the others.

Much as the moral and ethical codes set forth by the Ten Commandments guide Christians through their day to day lives, likewise the rituals established in the Dreamtime determine life for the Aborigine. While the encroachment of modernity has taken its toll on many aspects of traditional Aboriginal life, many Aborigine, nevertheless, continue to abide by centuries-old Tribal laws of conduct--most of which apply to marriage customs and protection of Tribal lands. While no single set of laws exist, per se, with so many different tribes spread out across the vast Australian landscape, most follow a set of general principles that focuses on what is considered fair for all. And while outsiders often comment that Aboriginal law seems unorganized and unreliable, it does appear to be an effective system of delivering justice, the opportunity for compensation, and when appropriate, revenge.

Tribal Laws

By ancient prescription, traditional marriages are never love matches, but rather purposeful arrangements. As with many other ancient cultures around the world who follow this tradition, women are generally selected by Elders from neighboring tribes, a process intended to prevent inbreeding as well as build inter-Tribal alliances. While men are permitted to have more than one wife--if they can afford it--adultery and incest are strictly taboo, and can be grounds for banishment or even death. As there is no formal dissolution (divorce), marriages typically span an entire lifetime.

Until recent times, disputes over Tribal lands and hunting grounds were common occurrences in Aborigine society. Aborigine take stewardship of their designated Tribal lands most seriously, and it is tantamount to a sin to allow the land to be disturbed, or permit outsiders to do so. In the past, land disputes would result in a prearranged battle at a "kippa-ring," a designated battle site, where both men and women would engage in combat while neighboring tribes would look on to guarantee a fair and just outcome. (The Roma Street Parklands of Brisbane was once a preferred battle site). Accounts from early European colonists who witnessed such battles attest that they were often quite fierce and bloody. While no such confrontations have been reported in recent times (much of the Aborigine Tribal lands now under government seizure), the laws apparently stand should such a dispute erupt.


While modern Aboriginal art with it vivid colors and bold strokes of black, yellow, white and blood-red is considered amongst the finest in the world, it is their rock art that continues to draw the greatest fascination. The array found in West Australia's Pilbara region and the Olary district of South Australia, dated to around 40,000 years BP, has proven invaluable in allowing the Western World to gain insight into Aborigine culture. As much of it depicts traditional social activities, their material culture, economy, environmental changes, and most importantly, elements of their myth and religion, their art speaks of much the Aborigine themselves cannot.

Among the most popular types of rock art is a very bold method of painting called the Bradshaws (named for Joseph Bradshaw, a European pastoralist who first reported the discovery in 1891), which was discovered in caves in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, (shown here).

While traditional Aboriginal art is composed of organic colors made from natural materials, many modern artists have made the transition to synthetic paints when creating traditional Aboriginal styles. Utilizing a wide variety of media--painting on leaves and bark, wood carving, rock carving and painting, sculpture, sandpainting, as well as traditional designs painted on ceremonial clothing and everyday tools, then as now, Aboriginal art illustrates the Aboriginal relationship with the natural world. But the form of art that is perhaps most closely related to the Aborigine people (thanks to movies like Crocodile Dundee) is also one of the earliest forms of art known to humankind: body painting.

The Yolngu of Arnhem Land (in the Northern Territory), for example, typically cover their bodies in elaborate, mystical designs for ceremonies and traditional dances. The preparation for such events can take many hours, and only the finest artists of the area are sought. (Bodies become living canvases to display creativity and skill much as with a tattoo artist.) Typically, body designs involve fine cross-hatching and lines of dots, patterns owned by the clan of the person being decorated.


With the growing popularity of “World Music,” Aborigine music has very much come into its own in recent years. An interesting fact setting Aboriginal music apart from most indigenous music of the world is that the Aborigine have no stringed or drumming instruments. Instead, their music comes from two primary sources, “sticks,” which are two sticks struck together to keep rhythm (not unlike Afro-Cuban claves), and the mournful sounding didgeridoo, the long, hollow wind instrument which has become a major curiosity in the US in recent years. Both instruments are standard features of ceremonial dances known as corroborees (making them sacred instruments) which reenact creation mythology tales, or in some cases, the accomplishments of great elders who have left a notable legacy. Though the corroborees are secret, private ceremonies, the dances and instruments are regularly seen at public gatherings and demonstrations.

Stay tuned for “Almost Lost in Time: The Aborigine of Australia, Part IV,” (Modern Issues Facing the Ancient Aborigine.)

picturecontact(dot)com (Aborigine women)
convistcreations(dot)com (Bradshaws style art)
travelpod(dot)com (Agorigine musicians)


Aborigine, Aborigine Art, Art, Australia, Australian, Cave Art, Didgeridoo, Dreamtime, Music, Rock Art, Tribal, Tribal Community, Tribal Laws, Tribal Warfare

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author avatar James R. Coffey
I am founder and head writer for James R. Coffey Writing Services and Resource Center @ where I offer a variety of writing and research services including article composition, ghostwriting, editing...(more)

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author avatar bryeunade
10th Sep 2010 (#)

this is nice. i learned something today. thanks for sharing

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author avatar James R. Coffey
10th Sep 2010 (#)

My pleasure.

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author avatar Jerry Walch
10th Sep 2010 (#)

Ditto bryeunade, James.

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author avatar siboiss
10th Sep 2010 (#)

I love it!

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author avatar James R. Coffey
10th Sep 2010 (#)

Happy to inform and entertain!

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author avatar Nikki R
5th Oct 2010 (#)

I enjoyed reading about this. It has helped me a bunch with my report. Thank you

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