‘People should remember that we are the oldest surviving race of people, culture of people, in the world... We know that our people have been here from the beginning of time. ‘
Kevin Gilbert, 1996
Tens of thousands of years ago the first people made their way by boat to the land that would one day be called Australia. On the far side of the world the place that would become Scotland was carved by massive glaciers and buried beneath millions of tons of ice and snow.
The First Australians set foot on the red earth while the Ice Age still gripped Scotland.
Theirs is the oldest continuous culture in the world. Scientists have proven that the Indigenous peoples of Australia have lived there for as long as 40,000 years. New research is investigating the possibility that that date could in fact extend back another 110,000 years.
The First Australians were called ‘the Aborigines’ by the British. Aborigine simply means ‘a native; a member of the earliest known or indigenous population’. In reality they were Gurnai, Wiradjuri, Aranda, Kamilaroi, Pitjantjatjara and hundreds of other clans or groups - named for their unique languages or for the places they came from.
There were 500 languages and dialects spoken, 500 peoples across every part of Australia - from the red earth of the centre to the rainforests, from the coasts and shorelines to the mountains.
They lived and passed on the stories and songs of the Dreaming to their children for tens of thousands of years.
'The Dreaming means our identity as people. The cultural teaching and everything, that's part of our lives here, you know? ...it's the understanding of what we have around us.’
Merv Penrith, Elder, Wallaga Lake, 1996
The men told stories and the women sang. They danced and taught, and painted and carved figures and images on the rocks. Each clan told their own Dreaming stories. They told of Rainbow Serpent Dreaming, of Caterpillar Dreaming, of Honey Ant Dreaming.
They told stories of creation, when the Sun burst out from beneath the ground and the ancestor spirits walked the earth. They told how the birds got their colours and why the kookaburra laughs. They told stories of Tidalick the frog, Pikkuw the crocodile, and how Koolah the koala lost his tail.
The peoples of different tribes would meet to talk and dance by the campfire at a Corroboree: a gathering. They shared food - berries and fruits and fish, kangaroo meat and birds. As the night drew on and the fire leapt, the clap sticks and drums were played and the people sang and danced.
Those who lose dreaming are lost.
Indigenous Australian proverb
The stories passed on knowledge to the clan’s children. They learned where and how to fish from canoes with spears; they learned about the stars and the moon and the sun; they learned how to track and where to find fresh water.
'Our story is in the land ... it is written in those sacred places ... My Children will look after those places, that's the law.’
Bill Neidjie, Kakadu elder, 1985
The Dreaming was passed on across the generations. Sons would paint the same figures their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers had painted. They respected the places where they lived, the land that gave them life and food and shelter.
'We cultivated our land, but in a way different from the white man. We endeavoured to live with the land; they seemed to live off it. I was taught to preserve, never to destroy.’
Australia has two Indigenous groups - the Aboriginal clans and the Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Torres Strait Islands lie in the Torres Strait between the Cape York Peninsula in north Queensland and Papua New Guinea. There are many Torres Strait Islander groups and different languages and dialects are spoken on different islands.
When the people of the Eora nation first saw the British in 1788 they thought they had simply come for supplies. They thought they would take fresh water and food aboard their ships and sail away.
As hundreds of convicts and soldiers stepped on to the shore, the Eora realised in horror that they meant to stay.
When the British asked the Eora ‘What is this place?', they were told it was 'warrane', which simply means; 'here, this place'. The clans of the Eora nation included the Cameragal, Gadigal, Wallumattagal and Birrabirragal.
Warrane is the area now known as Sydney, a city of about 4.4 million people.
The Eora hunted in forests of red gum, scribbly gum, red bloodwood, and peppermint. They speared fish from bark canoes out in the harbour. They gathered shellfish and collected bush food. They hunted possum, kangaroos, duck, cockatoos and pigeons with short spears.
Within a few months the creek that had supplied fresh water for thousands of years had been polluted by the British.
The British recorded a few words of the Eora nation: badu - water; bamal - earth; burra - sky; birrung - star; garaguru - cloud; walan - rain; guwing - sun; mungi - lightning; giba - stone; yanada - moon; murungal - thunder; gura - wind.
Some of the Eora’s words have survived in place names including Bondi, Coogee, Parramatta and Kirribilli.
In 1448, more than 300 years before the British arrived, a group of Eora people sat on the rocks near the freshwater creek and lit a fire. They ate a meal of shellfish and left behind a small heap of shells. In the 1990s the small shell midden site was excavated by an archaeologist from the Australian Museum.
The Eora people did not die out. They had survived in Australia for tens of thousands of years and they survived the coming of the Europeans: their diseases, their drink, their guns. For a long time they were the ‘invisible people’ of Sydney but today, in 21st century Sydney and beyond, the Eora nation is hundreds strong.
'Aboriginal people have never wanted sympathy. All we ever wanted was understanding.’
Allen Madden, Gadigal elder of the Eora nation