Aboriginal Art Books

Aboriginal art books cover a wide range of topics and regions. Below and on the following two pages is a careful selection of the best books currently available. These include surveys of contemporary Aboriginal art, overviews of art from different regions of Australia or by particular artists and accounts of rock art and Australian prehistory.

Current special offers are:
the newly published Aboriginal Artists Dictionary which is set to become the major biographical reference work on Aboriginal artists from the central and western deserts and Kimberley region.

the Jukurrpa Diary 2005 – a superb desk diary and calendar, illustrated with examples of the finest contemporary Aboriginal art.
If you wish to buy one of these items, click on the “Order” button on the item below. Prices are in Australian dollars and do not include postage or local taxes (apart from Australian GST which is included in the Australian price) or customs duty. Postage charges are shown in the drop down menu and are added at the checkout. Books are sent by Economy Airmail; please contact us if you need to have faster delivery. Use the Currency Converter to give you an estimate of the price in your local currency.

Aboriginal Languages

The text below is a modified version of a paper by R M W Dixon produced for and published by ATSIC 1997 (reproduced with permission from ATSIC)
© Commonwealth of Australia

Tribes and language
Before the European invasion in 1788, there were between 600 and 700 distinct ‘tribes’ in Australia. Each had its own territory, its own political system and laws, and its own language. The 600 to 700 tribe-nations spoke, between them, between 200 and 250 languages. These were separate languages, as distinct from each other as are French and German, or Chinese and Japanese. Sometimes two or three, or even five or six, adjacent tribes spoke what were really dialects of one language. In other situations a single tribe spoke its own language, different from the languages of neighbouring groups.

Early recordings
The first words from an Australian language were written down in 1770 by Captain Cook, from the Guugu-Yimidhirr people at the Endeavour River in North Queensland. They included kang-ooroo, the name for a species of large black kangaroo. When Governor Phillip brought the first group of convicts to Sydney in 1788, he took down some words in the local language, Dharuk. They included a number which have since been adopted into English, such as boomerang and din-go ‘tame dog’ (now used in English for ‘wild dog’). As settlers spread out from Sydney they encountered many different Aboriginal languages.

Then, in 1841, the explorer George Grey studied some of the vocabularies that had been collected from different localities and noticed some similarities between them. For example, the word for ‘water’ at Adelaide was kauw-ee and that at Perth gab-by or kuyp-e; but a tribe not far from Perth had kow-win for ‘water’, a form very similar to that used at Adelaide. Grey suggested that the languages of Australia might be related as members of one ‘language family’.

The languages are related
Across the languages of the continent there are some words that recur – nouns such as jina ‘foot’, mala or mara ‘hand’ and mayi ‘vegetable food’, and verbs such as pu- ‘hit’, ka- ‘carry’ and nya- ‘see’. There are also similarities of grammar. The ending used on a noun when it is subject of a sentence is -lu in some languages and -ngku in others. A number of languages show both affixes. In the language spoken in the Western Desert (covering a large part of Western Australia, as well as portions of South Australia and the Northern Territory) the names of people take subject ending -lu, while common nouns (such as ‘man’, ‘girl’ or ’emu’) take -ngku. This is all extra evidence that the languages are related, as George Grey suggested in 1841.

Most of the languages from Europe across to north India have been shown to belong to the IndoEuropean language family. They are descended from a single original language which is believed to have been spoken about 7000 years ago, somewhere between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea.

In exactly the same way, linguists have shown that almost all the languages of Australia belong to one language family. That is, they are all descended from one original language which may have been spoken somewhere on the central north coast (quite possibly in the vicinity of Darwin) many thousands of years in the past.

Aborigines then moved out over the whole continent. One tribe-nation would have split up into two or three new groups, which would have spread out in different directions. Language is always changing and over time what were just different dialects developed into distinct languages, that were no longer mutually understandable.

There were eight or more separate languages spoken in Tasmania. Unfortunately, only a few fragments were recorded before their speakers died or were killed. There had been no contact between Tasmanians and mainland Aborigines since the Bass Strait was submerged at the end of the last Ice Age, about 10 000 years ago. It is impossible to tell whether Tasmanian and mainland languages were originally related. No relationship has yet been proved between Australian or Tasmanian languages and languages spoken anywhere else in the world.

Complicated words in the north
Those languages that differ most from the common Australian pattern are found in the north, from the Kimberley in Western Australia to Mornington Island and Burketown in the Queensland Gulf Country. Some of these languages have developed very complex structures – often a single word will express what in most languages would be a sentence of several words.

Most of these northern languages can be shown to belong to the Australian language family; Rembarrnga, for instance, has pu- ‘hit’, ka ‘take’ and na- ‘see’. There are just a few languages such as Tiwi from Melville and Bathurst Islands that seem really different. Either they are not related to other Australian languages, or else they have changed so much that a connection cannot now be recognised.

Literature and special speech styles
Australian languages have a rich cultural heritage – long narrative and song cycles have been handed down from parent to child for thousands of years. These provide an explanation of how the world was created by Dreamtime ancestors. Each tribe had its own song styles, which often had a special metrical pattern, and used special words not in the everyday language style.

Many tribe-nations had a special ‘avoidance’ style of speaking, which had to be used in the presence of a relative with whom one could have only formal contact (with no joking), according to the laws of the kinship system. A man and his mother-in-law, or a woman and her son-in-law were often not allowed to look directly at one another, and had to use an avoidance speech style when in the other’s presence. Avoidance styles had the same grammar as the normal, everyday language style, but showed a number of different words.

Aboriginal Languages

Note: for more detail, go to the article about Aboriginal languages by R W Dixon located on our Web site.

Australian Aboriginal languages are highly diverse. There are nearly 100 Aboriginal languages in everyday use, but only 20 of these are strong in the sense that they have large communities of speakers and children are learning them as their first language. About 50 000 people speak an Australian indigenous language as their first language. Examples of “strong” languages are: Yolngu (north eastern Arnhem Land) with around 6000 speakers; the Arrernte group southern and central Northern Territory (around 3000); and Warlpiri also in the centre (also around 3000 speakers).

Most Aboriginal people speak English as their first or second language. After English, Kriol is the most widely spoken language – it is spoken from the Kimberley across to northwest Queensland.

Across southern Australia, where perhaps 150 languages have been virtually destroyed by colonisation, most people speak Standard English and Aboriginal English (a unique variety of English used widely by Aboriginal people).

Many of Australia’s Aboriginal languages face a bleak future, although there are vigorous efforts by communities to retain their language heritage wherever possible. However, all Aboriginal languages are in danger because of the decline in number of speakers and with many it is only older people who still speak the language.

There is a tremendous loss of cultural pride and sense of identity for communities that lose their language – one of the saddest and most moving experiences is to talk to an old person who is the last surviving speaker of their language.


Shopping and Online Security

The following policy applies to all transactions through the Online Shop area of the Aboriginal Art Online Web site or purchases of art works from Aboriginal Art Online Pty Ltd. It should be read in conjunction with the Terms of Use for the Web site.

Ordering goods through our Online Shop

You can order goods from our Online Shop in two ways:

  • by placing an order online and using your credit card over our secure e-commerce link to pay for the goods; or
  • by posting us a signed order with your credit card details or a cheque drawn in Australian dollars made out to Aboriginal Art Online Pty Ltd.

All contracts of sale are governed by the laws of the Australian Capital Territory, Australia.

Security when you order online

We are highly confident of the quality and security of our e-commerce facility and recommend this method of payment and ordering. This allows us to offer the best level of speed, accuracy and security in our service to you.

Credit card numbers provided through our e-commerce facility are processed immediately in an encrypted form (using SSL encryption) over a secure link and are not stored permanently. This provides a high level of security protection for our customers. The secure link is provided by our e-commerce service provider eMatters and the transaction is processed by the National Australia Bank, one of Australia’s largest and longest established banks. More information about the system is available from the eMatters Web site at www.ematters.com.au.

Internet browsers have built-in security mechanisms to ensure that users do not accidentally submit personal information over an insecure link. If a user tries to submit information to an unsecured site, the browsers will, by default, show a warning. In contrast, if a user submits credit card or other information to a site with a valid Server ID and an SSL connection, the warning does not appear and the secure connection is seamless.

Users of the Aboriginal Art Online Web site can be sure that online transactions with our site are secure by looking for the following signs:

  • The URL in the browser window displays “https” at the beginning of a transaction instead of http.
  • In Internet Explorer (IE), a padlock icon appears at the end of the Internet address window. IE users can check the Web site’s encryption level by following these steps: right-click on the Web site’s page and select Properties, then click the Certificates button. In the Fields box, select “Encryption type” – the Details box shows you the level of encryption.
  • Guarantee of safe online shoppingThe details of our online shopping guarantee are as follows:
    • For customers in Australia, your bank cannot hold you liable for more than AUD $50 of fraudulent charges to your credit card. If your bank does hold you liable for any of this AUD $50, Aboriginal Art Online will cover the entire liability for you, up to the full AUD $50.
    • For customers in the USA, under the US Fair Credit Billing Act, your bank cannot hold you liable for more than US $50 of fraudulent charges to your credit card. If your bank does hold you liable for any of this US $50, Aboriginal Art Online will cover the entire liability for you, up to the full US $50.
    • We will cover this liability only if the unauthorised use of your credit card resulted through no fault of your own from purchases made at Aboriginal Art Online while using our secure e-commerce service.
    • In the event of unauthorised use of your credit card, you must notify your credit card provider in accordance with its reporting rules and procedures. To obtain a refund from us of any charges made to you by your bank, you will need to provide us with documentary evidence of that charge and evidence that you reported the unauthorised use in the manner required by the bank.

    Suppliers of goods

    Aboriginal Art Online offers for sale over our Web site a selection of paintings and limited edition prints. Art works are held by the suppliers to Aboriginal Art Online and we act as their agents in selling the works on a commission basis. In this way we are able to keep our cost structure low and pass on the benefit to our customers in the form of competitive prices.

    Some of the suppliers of art works are in distant areas and completing a sale may require contact with Aboriginal communities in very remote places. This remoteness can at times cause delay in shipping. If this occurs we will warn you of any delays. While the artworks will be shipped by suppliers, responsibility for successful completion of your order lies with Aboriginal Art Online.

    Aboriginal Art Online also stocks and offers for sale a limited selection of books, maps and CD-ROMs. Responsibility for all aspects of sale and delivery of these items lies with Aboriginal Art Online.

    Delivery of goods

    Art works ordered through the Web site will be shipped whenever possible within three working days of receiving the order and completion of payment (there may sometimes be a delay if the work is being supplied from a remote location).

    For limited edition prints, and for paintings that can be sent rolled in a tube, the method of shipment will be economy airmail through the Australian postal service. For paintings that cannot be rolled and must be shipped flat, the method of delivery will be by approved carrier such as Fed Ex or TNT. All shipments of art works are insured and the shipping charge includes the cost of this insurance.

    Books, maps and disks supplied by Aboriginal Art Online will be shipped by economy airmail through Australia Post. They will be sent within 48 hours of receiving the order and completion of payment.

    Orders should usually be received within two to three weeks from the date of placing the order. The time taken for goods to arrive will depend on the location of both the customer and the supplier of art works, the size and weight of the order and the method of shipping. Shipments from remote areas to destinations outside major population centres may take longer than three weeks.

    Shipments may require confirmation by signature that the goods have been received by the person who placed the original order or their agent. Signature on receipt is an important part of our order tracking process and helps to maintain security for the delivery of orders. For valuable items, orders will only be shipped to a confirmed address and where the recipient is able to sign for the delivery of the artwork. Orders for valuable items can not be shipped to a Post Office box or other address where it is not possible to confirm receipt by the person placing the order.

    Please notify us if your goods have not been received within twenty one days from the date of placement of the order. We will track the shipment and advise you by email or telephone when it is due to arrive.

    Return of goods

    If you are not satisfied with the quality of an art work or the accuracy of its presentation on our Web site, you may return the artwork to the Aboriginal Art Online supplier and we will refund your purchase price. You may do this provided you contact us and provided that the work is returned to the supplier in its original condition.

    Please note that we can not refund the purchase price for a painting that you decide you do not like after it has been delivered, but which was accurately described and presented on the Web site. If you have any doubt about a work, please contact us before you buy it and we will try to satisfy any questions or concerns that you may have.

    To return an artwork, you should first contact Aboriginal Art Online within seven days of receipt of your order to indicate that you wish to return the work. We ask that you contact us in writing (by email or letter) giving the reason for the return so that we can clearly understand your concern and to allow us to confirm the best way to return the work.

    When you receive a reply from us confirming that we are aware that you wish to return the work, please wrap the package securely with its original packing invoice and send to the address of the Aboriginal Art Online supplier indicated on the packing slip. If you do not have the invoice, please write the number and date of the original order on a separate piece of paper.

    As the artwork will be at your risk until it is received back by the Aboriginal Art Online supplier, we recommend that you insure the return shipment.

    Any item supplied by Aboriginal Art Online (a book or map in its original condition or any unopened CD-ROM, specially packaged and sealed by the manufacturer) may be returned to us for a full refund of the purchase price. The cost of returning an unwanted item to Aboriginal Art Online, including insurance if chosen, is to be borne by the purchaser returning the goods.


    We will notify you by email of your refund, once the returned item has been received in good condition either by us or by the supplier. Please note that we can refund the shipping costs (original delivery plus return) only if the return is as a result of our error.


    We undertake that the goods ordered through the Web site from Aboriginal Art Online and supplied by us will be of merchantable quality and will fit the description on our Web site at the time of purchase. All other warranties, guarantees, representations or other assurances implied or imposed by law and statute are hereby negated and excluded to the fullest extent possible at law and under statute (for a more detailed statement see the section Disclaimer and limitation of liability in the Terms of Use for our Web site). In any event, our liability shall be limited to either replacing the goods in question or refunding the cost of those goods.

    Currency Conversion

    All prices shown in any currency other than Australian dollars are indicative only. If you purchase an item by credit card, the charge shown on your credit card statement will be determined by your bank or credit card company according to their rules.

    The currency converter on our Web site gives you a close idea of the price in another currency but is not exact. Your card will be charged in Australian dollars regardless of the currency that you select to view the prices in and the charge may not be exactly the same as the indicative price shown on our Web site or sent to you by email.

    Some banks and credit card companies charge a fee for currency conversion. Also, some banks and credit card companies do not process a currency transaction on the same day that the transaction takes place, so if the exchange rate changes in that time, the price charged to you may go up or down.

    Customs charges or local taxes

    Payment of any local taxes or duties outside of Australia is the responsibility of the customer receiving the goods ordered from our Web site For customers resident in Australia, GST will be charged where applicable on all items purchased. For customers resident outside Australia, customs charges may be levied when a package reaches your country. We are not responsible for these charges and cannot provide estimates as to what the charges may be. You may wish to contact your local customs office for further information.

Art, Land and the DreamingArt, Land and the Dreaming

Art is a central part of Aboriginal life and is intimately connected to land, law and religious belief. Connection to a person’s home land is deeply felt. Mick Dodson (former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice Commissioner) has expressed this powerfully:

To understand our law, our culture and our relationship to the physical and spiritual world, you must begin with land. Everything about aboriginal society is inextricably woven with, and connected to, land. Culture is the land, the land and spirituality of aboriginal people, our cultural beliefs or reason for existence is the land. You take that away and you take away our reason for existence. We have grown that land up. We are dancing, singing, and painting for the land. We are celebrating the land. Removed from our lands, we are literally removed from ourselves.

Aboriginal people, when speaking in English of this connection, often refer to land as “country”. Anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has described ‘country’ in this way:

“People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country. People say that country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy. .country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life. Because of this richness, country is home, and peace; nourishment for body, mind, and spirit; heart’s ease.”

An excellent source to explore the relationship of two Aboriginal communities with their country – the Gunditjmara nation of south west Victoria and the Kutjungka of north western Australia – is the Lore of the Land CD-ROM and associated Web site.

Aboriginal art takes many forms. Traditionally it was made for purely cultural reasons and was only able to be created or viewed by people initiated to the proper level of knowledge or understanding. More recently, there has emerged work that has been made consciously to be seen by the non-initiated or for commercial purposes. However, irrespective of whether the art is for private ceremonial purposes or is for the public, it remains inspired by the traditional marks and symbols from the Dreaming. The materials used are varied and have ranged from rock engravings and paintings through works on bark, wooden sculpture to ephemeral paintings on sand, on human bodies and on headdresses or other materials.

A Yanyuwa man from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Mussolini Harvey) has described the link between body painting and the Dreaming:

“In our ceremonies we wear marks on our bodies, they come from the dreaming too, we carry the design that the Dreamings gave to us. When we wear that Dreaming mark we are carrying the country, we are keeping the Dreaming held up, we are keeping the country and the Dreaming alive.”

Nearly all Aboriginal art can be related to landscape and some paintings and designs do represent explicitly the physical relationship between different features of the landscape. However, Aboriginal paintings should be seen primarily as maps of conceptual relationships that influence the way the landscape is seen and understood. When Aboriginal paintings do represent specific features of landscape, they show them in their mythical rather than their physical relationship to one another.

As well as its essential spiritual and symbolic character, Aboriginal art increasingly has a social and political dimension. Galarrwuy Yunupingu, leader of the Gumatj people, has clearly expressed the importance of art to contemporary Aboriginal culture:

We are painting, as we have always done, to demonstrate our continuing link with our country and the rights and responsibilities we have to it. We paint to show the rest of the world that we own this country and the country owns us. Our painting is a political act

Contacting Aboriginal Art Online

Welcome to the contact and service section of our Web site. I am the director of Aboriginal Art Online and will be happy to help you personally with any inquiries about art works or any other aspect of the services we offer.

We specialise in responding to inquiries about specific artists and are happy to draw on our wide network of contacts to find works by them.

You can contact us by email, telephone or ordinary post. We aim to respond to all inquiries within 24 hours and for most contacts sooner than that.

Our office is open from 8.00 am to 6.30 pm Australian Eastern Standard Time (GMT+10 hours) from Monday to Friday; we are also often able to reply to messages on Saturdays or Sundays.

Martin Wardrop, Director of Aboriginal Art Online
In the central Australian
bush between Yuendumu
and Papunya

We welcome any comment from you about the Website, the information contained in it and the artworks and other goods offered through the Online Shop.

Martin Wardrop
Director, Aboriginal Art Online Pty Ltd

Our contact details are:

Post: Aboriginal Art Online Pty Ltd
189 Miller Street
O’Connor ACT 2602

Telephone: International +61-2-6166 2198

In Australia 1800 207729 or 02 6166 2198

Email: service@aboriginalartonline.com.nospam (delete “nospam”)

Please note that valuation is not a service that our company offers. There is a page on our Web site that covers the topic of valuation and appraisal.

Aboriginal Art Online Pty Ltd is an Australian-owned company based in Canberra, ACT and is registered under Australia’s Corporations Law (ABN 36 092 463 431).

How do Native Title and Land Rights differ?

Native title and land rights both recognise the traditional rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ to land. However, they are legally very different. One (native title) is based on traditional indigenous ownership of land and waters, while the other (land rights) is a legislative response by parliaments to those traditional rights.

From the mid 1970s the Australia Federal and State governments began to legislate to return certain Crown (Government) land to indigenous communities and to allow claims to to other Crown land. The 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which applies to the Northern Territory, is the best known example. These actions were based on the perceived need of indigenous people to have access to, or ownership of, their country.

Separately from these special legislative schemes, the High Court in its Mabo decision recognised for the first time in common law the rights of indigenous owners to their lands. In 1993 the Australian Federal Government introduced legislation to respond to the Mabo decision.

<>This legislation, the Native Title Act 1993, set up mechanisms for “native title claims” by indigenous people who assert that their traditional rights have not been extinguished, and also to validate retrospectively the land titles of the occupiers that may have been called into question by the decision.
In a land rights claim, Indigenous Australians seek a grant of title to land from the Commonwealth, State or Territory governments. A grant of land may recognise traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interests in land, and protect those interests by giving indigenous people legal ownership of that land. Land may be granted to people who have historical links to an area or who need land.

In some parts of Australia, it is also possible for indigenous people to apply for compensation if appropriate land is not claimable. All land rights claims must meet a set of conditions in order to be accepted.

Different types of land rights laws in Australia allow for the grant of land to Indigenous Australians under various conditions. A successful land rights claim usually results in a special grant of freehold title or perpetual lease. A title document of the land is issued. The title is normally held by a community or an organisation, not by individuals.

There are usually some special restrictions on selling, and dealing with, land that has been granted in a land rights claim. Normally, the land will be passed down to future generations, in a way that recognises the community’s traditional connection to that country.

Riversleigh Fossils – World Heritage

This site is dedicated to information about the Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil site in remote north west Queensland in the tropics of Australia. The current page gives a very brief summary of the significance of Riversleigh, while we develop more pages of information and links.

Riversleigh covers an area of approximately 80 square kilometres and is located 250 km north-west of Mt Isa. The fossils document the evolution and changes of Australia’s terrestrial fauna and ecosystems.

Riversleigh from the air

Riversleigh limestone outcrops from the air

Riversleigh is one of the world’s richest Oligo-Miocene mammal records, linking that period (15-25 million years ago) to the predominantly modern assemblages of the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs. The site provides exceptional examples of middle to late Tertiary mammal assemblages, in a continent whose mammalian evolutionary history has been the most isolated and most distinctive in the world.

The extensive fossil deposits at Riversleigh are encased in hard, rough limestone, which was formed in lime-rich freshwater pools. They span a record of mammal evolution of at least 20 million years in length, providing the first records for many distinctive groups of living mammals, such as marsupial moles and feather-tailed possums, as well as many other unique and now extinct Australian mammals such as ‘marsupial lions’.

The variety of deposits at Riversleigh has led to an understanding of how the environment has changed over time from a rich rainforest community to semi-arid grassland, and how the animals that lived in it have changed too.

The discovery of the fossils at Riversleigh has profoundly altered the understanding of Australia’s mid-Cainozoic vertebrate diversity. The remains of a 15 million-year-old monotreme has provided new information about this highly distinctive group of mammals, and several Tertiary thylacines have been identified. Placental mammals are represented by more than 35 bat species and the Riversleigh fossil bat record is the richest in the world.

Vast arrays of often exquisitely preserved marsupial fossils dominate the assemblages. These include species long extinct, such as:

carnivorous kangaroos,
marsupial moles,
primitive koalas and wombats,
huge crocodiles,
gigantic flightless birds,
a range of ancestral thylacines (Tasmanian tigers),
ancestral platypus (representing monotremes),
rodents (representing placental mammals),
small lizards and beetles, and
more than 40 different bat species, making Riversleigh one of the richest bat sites in the world.
“Only in one or two places on the surface of our planet, in the course of the last three thousand million years, have conditions been just right to preserve anything like a representative sample of the species living at any particular time. Those places are the rare treasure houses of palaeontology. Riversleigh is one of them.”
Sir David Attenborough.

Since 1983, the preserved remains of thousands of ancient inhabitants of northern Australia have been recovered from Riversleigh. Almost half of what we know about the evolution of Australian mammals in the last 30 million years comes from bones found at a single site in the Riversleigh fossil beds. Amazingly half of these bones were unearthed in one hour.
Diprotodon – Image source Riversleigh Centre, Mt Isa
Diprotodon: this sheep-sized herbivorous animal was the largest marsupial known from anywhere in the world.

The Dreamtime

The Dreamtime is a widely used, but not well understood, term describing key aspects of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and life. Following is an extract from an book by Geoff Moore. “Myth, Mystery and Meaning of the Dreamtime”. It explores the Dreamtime through elements of philosophy; psychology; spirituality, lore and secrecy that were the basis of the beliefs and practices of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. He is the facilitator of the Australian Aborigines History and Culture Research Project.

Dreamtime Origins
“The Aborigines learned about the origins of the tribe through their Dreamtime creation myths, that told of the significant actions of the creators. The myths were the basis of Aboriginal society and were responsible for providing certainty about existence. They contributed to their survival and it is beyond dispute that they survived for thousands of years. The Australian aborigines believed that the land they occupied was once vacuous – empty. This belief was a source of great mystery to them. It was also a great truth that was known with absolute certainty, because the ancestors had said this was the way things once were. Then, during what has become known as the Dreamtime, the land, the sky above and all they contained were formed by the actions of supernatural and mysterious beings.

“The concept of the Dreamtime was first researched by Spencer and Gillen in their study of the Arunta (Arrernte) tribe of Central Australia. They came to understand the words Alchera and Aldjeringa, as identifying a ‘creative period’. Other tribes had words in their language for the same concept. As communication between the Arunta people and the non-Aboriginal scientists improved, it became apparent to them, that the aborigines understood the Dreamtime as a beginning. Here it is pointed out that there is a significant difference between Aboriginal thinking and that of others. In particular the belief that the Dreamtime is a period on a continuum of past, present and future.

“Aboriginal people understood the Dreamtime as a beginning that never ended. In one sense it was the past, the sacred past. But as Spencer and Gillen found, the word Tjurjunga was also associated with the Dreamtime. Tjurjunga identified a category of belief and action. A concept that will become more obvious as we proceed through this book. For the moment, it is sufficient to say that Tjurjunga identified the belief that the Dreamtime never ended.

“The Dreamtime itself has been explained in a number of ways. Various explanations refer to creators who were mysterious and supernatural beings. They include references to men and women ‘just like us’ who had the ability to shape-change into animals and other fauna; creators such as the Rainbow Serpent and also All-father and All-mother figures. There have also been references to the creators as heroes and heroines. The essential point is that each tribe had a collection of Dreamtime creation stories. In other words there were desert, mountain, alluvial plains and seacoast Dreamtime stories.

“Land itself was an icon because of the spiritual basis on which it was created and the fact that some of the creators continued to live in the land, or in the sky above watching over them. Broadly speaking they told of creative actions that resulted in the formation of the earth, the sky above and all they contain. Every hill, water hole and tree, every animals, bird and marine life along with every other living creature and natural phenomenon was believed to have come into existence in the Dreamtime.

“It was during the Dreamtime that the creators made men and women, decreed the laws which all must obey – their behavior to one another, the customs of food distribution, the rules of marriage, the rituals of initiation and the ceremonies of death which must be performed so that the spirit of the dead would travel peacefully to his or her spirit-place.

“Although the Aborigines believed that the Dreamtime was a beginning that never ended, some of their stories told them that the mythical creators disappeared. Here it is tempting to say that they believed that at an inexplicable point of time the Dreamtime ended, but this is not what they aborigines believed. They believed that the creators disappeared from the sight of mere mortals, but continued to live in secret places. Some lived in the tribe’s territory in rock crevices, trees and water holes. Others went up into the sky above as heavenly bodies. Others changed into (or perhaps became) natural forces such as wind, rain, thunder and lightning.”

Dreaming and the Dreamtime

The Dreaming is a term used by Aborigines to describe the relations and balance between the spiritual, natural and moral elements of the world. It is an English word but its meaning goes beyond any suggestion of a spiritual or dream-related state. Rather, the Dreaming relates to a period from the origin of the universe to a time before living memory or experience – a time of creator ancestors and supernatural beings.

This time is also called the Dreamtime, when the Rainbow Serpent moved across the land and the Wandjina were active in the clouds and skies. (For a more detailed discussion go to our Dreamtime page).

These creator ancestors formed the features of the land and all living things and also set down the laws for social and moral order. The Dreaming, as well as answering questions about origins, provides a harmonious framework for human experience in the universe – and the place of all living things within it.

Each Aboriginal person’s totem and Dreaming is determined by the place in the landscape where the mother feels her first signs of being pregnant. At this place, the unborn person receives the spirit of a totemic ancestor – for example honey ant, possum, goanna or water – and the Dreaming connected with the place.

This harmony between human existence and other natural things was expressed by Silas Roberts, first Chairman of the Northern Land Council, in this way:

Aboriginals see themselves as part of nature. We see all things natural as part of us. All the things on Earth we see as part human. This is told through the ideas of dreaming. By dreaming we mean the belief that long ago, these creatures started human society. These creatures, these great creatures are just as much alive today as they were in the beginning. They are everlasting and will never die. They are always part of the land and nature as we are. Our connection to all things natural is spiritual.
Features of the landscape are the most visible signs of the past activities of ancestral beings. The ancestral beings led lives much as Aboriginal people have for generations, but on a grander scale – and with grander consequences (see Howard Morphy’s book). Waterholes or the entrances to caves resulted where they emerged from the earth. Where they held great battles, hills resulted from their bodies and lakes formed from pools of their blood.

The ancestral beings also left a record of themselves and their actions in the form of a rich variety of art. During their epic journeys, the ancestral beings sang and performed ceremonies, made engravings or paintings on rock and in caves and left sacred objects. In northern Australia, these songs are handed from generation to generation, together with the body designs that were first painted on the chests of the ancestral beings.

Aboriginal peoples living in different parts of Australia trace their origins directly from these great ancestral beings. When present-day Aboriginal people walk through their country, they are continually reminded of the presence of the creator beings. This happens not only through the features of the landscape but also through songs, paintings and ceremonies.

The Dreaming system of beliefs and philosophy has different names depending on the language of the speaker. The Pitjantjatjara and related desert peoples call it Tjukurrpa, the Kimberley peoples call it Ngarrankrni and the Anmatyerre and related peoples call it the Altyerre.

‘Dreaming’ is often used to refer to an individual’s or group’s set of beliefs or spirituality. For instance, an Aboriginal Australian might say that they have Kangaroo Dreaming or Honey Ant Dreaming, or any combination of Dreamings pertinent to their ‘country’. Many artworks are visual representations of the symbols associated with the artist’s dreaming.

For examples of dreaming stories, see the excellent Web site set up by the Australian Museum at http://www.dreamtime.net.au/.

The Alice Springs region has some significant Dreaming sites for the Caterpillar Dreaming (Yeperenye) located in the city and close by. You can visit these comfortably in one day if you stay in Alice Springs Hotels.