Aboriginal Culture

The Aboriginal people of Australia are the first known human inhabitants of the Australian continent and are thought to have arrived as far back as 70,000 years ago. As a result it is thought to be the oldest surviving culture in the world. Aboriginal Australia contains a large number of tribal divisions and language groups. Traditional Aboriginal societies vary greatly across Australia but all have social structures and systems that organise life and explain the universe and the place of people in it. The Aboriginal people are famous for their rich array of culture and they are all connected by the similar belief system of the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime is used to explain the workings of the world, pass on traditions and stories from generation to generation and is used as part of sacred ceremonies.

In this section of the module we look at Aboriginal culture in relation to the Dreamtine, Art, Music and Dance, Language and Food. The Noongar Tribe is used as an example of an Aboriginal Tribe in Western Australia, which illustrates the rich history and culture of the Aboriginal people.


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

Silas Roberts, first Chairman of the Northern Lands Council.


Dreaming is an English translation of an Aboriginal concept, which has no equivalent in the English language. The Dreamtime (or Dreaming) is a term used by Aboriginal people to describe the period before living memory when Spirits emerged from beneath the earth and the sky to create landforms and all living things. They believe that every person exists eternally in the Dreaming. This eternal existence occurs before the life of the individual begins, and continues to exist when their life ends. It is the way Aboriginal people explain life and how their world came into being. Traditionally, stories are not written down but are passed on orally from generation to generation. The Dreamtime stories set down the laws for social and moral order for Aboriginal communities and establishes their unique culture and customs.

It forms the body of knowledge that guides all Aboriginal societies:

  • It is the Law
  • It is the history
  • It is expressed in the facts and traditions which have accumulated over time (Dreaming stories)

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

The Beginning

Most Aboriginal people believe that they came from the land. Dreaming stories are about the beginning of the world and this is known as the Tjukurpa period. They are about how mountains, lakes, oceans and rivers were formed as Spirit Ancestors came from the earth. As they emerged they brought life and power to the land. These are often called ‘Creation stories’, as they are concerned with the creation of human beings and of life on earth. Rock formations, animals, plant life and seas are a constant reminder of the spirits of the Ancestors in everyday life.

The End of Dreaming

At the end of the Dreaming, Spirit Ancestors returned to the earth creating landforms and symbolic sites that remain an integral part of Aboriginal culture. At each place where the spirits emerged or retreated back into the earth, they left behind a powerful force. The sacred power of the Spirit Ancestors was marked at those places – forever making them sacred Aboriginal sites. In Aboriginal culture, after the death of an Aboriginal person their spirit returns to the Dreamtime from where it will return through birth as a human, an animal, a plant or a rock.

Dreamings give us our history, our origin, where we started from. They are not made up stories, they are factual events from long ago. Our people have made them into stories so that they are easier for children to understand

Regina McKenzie, Aboriginal Artist


Aboriginals have passed on songs or songlines from generation to generation. These songlines, also known as ‘Dreaming Tracks’, told stories of the Dreamtime as they made their way across the land. They are made up of a complex series of song cycles. These songlines were sacred and used to help Aboriginal people map their way through the deserts, which then connected them to sacred sites. These sites contained the spirits of the Dreamtime and the songlines were a way of healing and regeneration of the Earth’s spirits. The location of sacred sites is usually learned through tribal initiation and Aboriginal law. For this reason the majority of sacred places are not known by the wider public. Unfortunately, it is only when sacred areas come under threat that they are brought to the attention of the general public.


While Dreaming stories vary throughout Australia, different versions of the same themes are visible. Below are some examples of stories from the Dreamtime.

The Rainbow Serpent

Source: http://www.aboriginaltourism.com.au/aboriginal_safari_tours.htm

Probably the best-known story associated with Dreamtime is the Rainbow Serpent. The Rainbow Serpent (Ngalmudj) was an enormous snake, which was in control of precious water resources. It reveals itself to people in this world as a rainbow as it moves through water and rain. The Rainbow Serpent came from beneath the ground and created huge ridges, mountains and gorges as it pushed upward. It was responsible for creating rivers, lakes and lagoons as it moved across the country. It played a protective role over the land and people but also held the power of revenge if disrespected. It is symbolic of both the creative power and destructive abilities of nature in the form of monsoons, floods, blights, etc. There are numerous names and stories associated with the Serpent, all of which portray its significance and power within Aboriginal traditions. One such story tells how the Rainbow Serpent made laws that all animals had to obey. However, some animals became troublemakers. The Rainbow Serpent said, ‘those who keep my laws will be rewarded’. I shall give them human form. Those who break my laws will be punished and turned to stone, never to walk the earth again”. The lawbreakers became stone and turned to mountains and hills, but those who kept the laws were turned into humans.

Bunyip and the Swan

Another example of a story told throughout Australia is the Bunyip and the Swan. It is the story of an Aboriginal man named Goondah who, while fishing in a lagoon, caught a baby Bunyip. A Bunyip is a monster with the head of a calf and the body of a seal. His friends pleaded with him to let the Bunyip go but Goondah refused as he had told his sweetheart he would bring something home from the hunt for her. He wanted to take the Bunyip back to the camp to boast of his fishing prowess. Before he could do anything, the mother Bunyip rose from the water. All the fishermen, fled but just as they got to their camp a wave of water washed over them. Goondah dropped the little Bunyip, clasped his sweetheart and cried: “I will climb with you to the top of the tall red gum where no water can reach us”. But as he spoke, he felt the water swirl around his feet. As the water receded, he found that the men and his sweetheart had turned into Black Swans. They never again became human, but at night sometimes he could hear them talk in their human voices as a reminder of the dangers of pride and arrogance.

Further information:

Check out the links below for more information on The Dreamtime: