Cultural Heritage

The Indigenous cultures of Australia are the oldest living cultures in the world.

Aboriginal rock engraving of an echidna

Aboriginal rock engraving of an echidna
Photographer: Australian Museum Photography Unit © Australian Museum

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One of the reasons they have survived for so long is their ability to adapt to change.

Culture: the total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings, which is passed on from one generation to the next.

Heritage: that which comes or belongs to one by reason of birth.

"Maintaining one's culture, values and traditions is beyond price. Human beings cannot live without that. We are glad to share our culture with Europeans and other migrants but we will never give them up."

Getano Lui, jnr, Thursday Island, 1994

Indigenous Australia has been influenced by other peoples who have come to Australia to stay and peoples who visited Australia for trade or other reasons but did not stay. Indigenous peoples also exchanged ideas and goods among themselves. Goods were exchanged and other things such as songs and dances were traded. Songs and dances were exchanged often at large ceremonial gatherings when many people collected together. These gatherings often occurred at a time and place when there was plenty of particular foods.

Although Indigenous cultures are very strong, years of European misunderstanding and indifference have affected them. Today, Indigenous communities keep cultures alive by:

  • passing their knowledge, arts, rituals and performances from one generation to another
  • speaking and teaching languages
  • protecting cultural property and sacred and significant sites and objects

The Oldest Living Culture

"We've been here a long, long time"

Koori Mail, October 1996

The long history of Indigenous people is found in the many significant archaeological sites throughout Australia. Archaeological sites provide information about how Indigenous people lived, used resources and were able to adapt to environmental changes in the past. These archaeological sites also illustrate how Indigenous cultures have changed over time. Archaeological investigations in the northwest of Australia suggest that Indigenous people may have occupied Australia for at least 60,000 years.

Sites of cultural significance are protected by law. Any activities which could damage these sites must be cleared by the relevant Indigenous communities.

Archaeological Sites

Botany Bay, New South Wales

One type of archaeological site that can be found on the shores Botany Bay is a shell midden. Archaeological evidence shows that a midden in Botany Bay was occupied many times during the last 3 000 years.

Middens are sites where Aboriginal people ate different kinds of shellfish, fish and other animals. Mounds of shells and other leftovers indicate the site's special use by humans.

Aboriginal shell middens commonly occur along the Australian coastline and are an important archaeological resource. Objects that are often foumd in middens along the southern part of the New South Wales coast are shell fish hooks in different stages of their manufacture, bone points and barbs.

Jinmium, north Western Australia

According to Aboriginal elders Biddy Simon and Paddy Carlton, Jinmium has always been a special place. It was only recently that archaeologists have caught up with this view.

Archaeological work at Jinmium created enormous public interest in 1996 when initial dates suggested stone artefacts (flakes and some tools) were older than 116,000 years and engravings were up to 58,000 years old. More recently developed dating methods challenged the early dates, suggesting the stone artefacts and rock-art may be less than 20,000 years old -- perhaps only 10,000 years of age.

However, these results have also been questioned, with ongoing research indicating the true maximum age of some Jinmium artefacts and rock-art to be somewhere between 20,000 and 60,000 years before present. Scientists, including both dating experts and archaeologists, simply do not agree on when the first Aboriginal people arrived at Jinmium or the rest of Australia. Only time and further research will tell.

Lake Mungo, western New South Wales

Lake Mungo in western New South Wales is a site of great Aboriginal and archaeological importance, containing material dated to at least 33,000 years ago. Lake Mungo is now dry but it was once part of a series of freshwater lakes that would have been full during the late Pleistocene period when the sites were first occupied. The lake had varying water levels during this time but 21,000 years ago the freshwater lakes gradually began to dry up and Lake Mungo itself disappeared about 17 000 years ago.

Many stone artefacts, such as flaked stone tools, have been found at Lake Mungo. The tasks for which these flaked stone tools were used are often not known, although some may have been used for wood-working.

A Changing Culture

Indigenous cultures changing through time

Archaeological evidence shows that Indigenous cultures have developed and altered a number of times as a result of changes in the environment such as rise in sea level and drying out of the continent. This has caused changes in the types of resources available to people, the tool kits and diet.

Indigenous people have been influenced by a range of cultures over time and in most recent history have managed to survive and fight against the sudden and often catastrophic changes to their cultures and ways of life brought about by Europeans since 1788.

Influences on Indigenous cultures

Aboriginal people were in contact with other cultures, sharing ideas and skills long before permanent European occupation in 1788. Many Indigenous communities have been influenced by contact with Macassans, Melanesians, Dutch, English, Portugese navigators and traders, as well as other Aboriginal communities and Torres Strait Islanders.

For over 300 years, Macassan traders from Sulawesi (now part of Indonesia) visited the coast of northern Australia to fish for 'trepang' (sea slug), a delicacy in cooking. The cultural exchange can be seen in rock and bark paintings, emblems and objects used in ceremonies, the introduction of dug-out canoes and some Macassan words in Aboriginal languages.

Images of Macassans were painted in rock and bark. Tobacco was introduced to northern Australia. There are pipes from this area made after the Macassan style but with local designs.

Indigenous 'multiculturalism'

"The population of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is extremely diverse in its culture with many different languages spoken. Think of the Kimberly region of Western Australia... if you travel through the Kimberly with its large Aboriginal population and the diversity of people within this region, it's just like travelling through Europe with its changing cultures and languages."

Dot West, Chairperson, National Indigenous Media Association of Australia, Boyer Lectures, 1993.

There are many different Indigenous cultures in Australia, made up of people from various Indigenous 'nations' that speak their own languages.

Over thousands of years, communities of Indigenous Australians have exchanged ideas, technology and cultural practices with each other. As a result, many communities may share certain technologies but use them in different ways. Objects, such as shields and baskets, differ in their design, decoration and meaning from region to region.


Shields were made by men and used in ceremonies, dances and occasionally in defensive combat. The narrowest shields were usually used in hand-to-hand combat while large, broad shields protected the bearer against spears and missiles. The largest and most spectacular shields were made by the rainforest peoples of north Queensland, where they were painted with clan designs and colours.


Baskets, bags and other containers are usually made by women but are used by both sexes mainly for food gathering. Some of these containers and bags are often woven from bark, human hair, pandanus and palm fronds, grasses and bush twine made from plant fibres. They are coloured with dyes made from roots, bark and other natural substances, and are sometimes decorated with feathers and pieces of cloth.

European misunderstanding of Aboriginal life

The complexity and richness of Aboriginal cultures was poorly understood by the majority of early colonists. Government legislation and policies worked against the interests of Aboriginal people but greatly benefited the pastoralists who were rapidly spreading across Australia, setting up farms and sheep stations, often with the labour of Indigenous men and women. This lack of understanding of Aboriginal ways of life and how they used the land resulted in many clashes between settlers and Aboriginal people, particularly over land and access to land, which for Aboriginal people meant food and spiritual well-being.

Contemporary Arts

As in the past Indigenous Australian arts today are as diverse as the people that make them. Many artists work in introduced media, such as acrylic, fabric, photography or print-making. The themes of Indigenous art reflect the range of artists' concerns and experiences: from relationships to landscapes and animals to political and social injustices.

Some forms of contemporary art, such as certain bark paintings, are based on historic practices. However, most Indigenous artists express their heritage and experiences in innovative ways which both reflect Indigenous and non-Indigenous influences.

Bangarra Dance Company

Traditionally Aboriginal ceremonies have always blended dance and drama with music and visual art forms. This tradition has continued in new ways by contemporary dance companies such as Bangarra.

Bangarra's mission is:

"to maintain the link, with respect and integrity, between the traditional Indigenous cultures of Australia and new forms of contemporary artistic expression, giving voice to social and political issues which speak to all people."

Living Languages

"It is a mistake to dismiss our languages as part of history, and long gone. They're not. They are alive and vibrant. They are in a new phase of growth. They're part of us as the Indigenous people of the land. Our languages are the voice of the land, and we are the carriers of the languages."

Jeanie Bell, Linguist, Boyer Lectures, 1993.

At the time of invasion there were over 700 different Aboriginal languages and dialects spoken in Australia. Now there are less that 250 still in use.

One of the major practices of colonists was to stop Aboriginal people speaking their own languages, which interrupted the passing of language from one generation to another. Today, many of Australia's Indigenous languages are no longer spoken as first languages. However, they live on through individual words and through varieties of Aboriginal English which incorporate the structures of Aboriginal languages.

Cultural Property

The unique aesthetic of Indigenous Australian cultural work is recognised all over the world. However, the marketability of Indigenous arts has resulted in many cases of exploitation: Indigenous artists' work has at times been reproduced without permission and without regard for the cultural and spiritual significance of the designs to the artist.

In an effort to protect the integrity of their work and share it with others, many Indigenous artists now make licensing agreements with manufacturers so that their designs can be reproduced and the artist can be fairly rewarded.

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