Tracing Songlines: Unraveling Aboriginal Australia's Ancient Oral Maps
From as early as 65,000 to 80,000 years ago, the first human settlements appeared on the vast continent of Australia. These left behind an archaeological record which bears witness to the remarkable continuity in material culture and lifestyle in prehistoric Australia. Amongst the enduring characteristics of this ancient culture, Aboriginal Australia songlines stand out.
These intricate pathways of knowledge, embedded within the rich tapestry of Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander traditions, served as more than mere navigational routes. Songlines also wove together the fabric of existence, connecting individuals with their ancestral lands, guiding them towards vital resources, determining cultural affiliation, regulating travel between territories, preserving cultural traditions and fostering a profound connection with the spirit world. The dreaming tracks or songlines represent one of the unifying ideological and symbolic systems of Aboriginal Australia, as well as of the Torres Strait Islanders.
Long-Distance Trade and Migration in Aboriginal Australia
It is typically believed by archaeologists that the first humans in Australia arrived around 45,000 to 50,000 years ago. More recent archaeological evidence, however, suggests that they came to the continent much earlier, as far back as 80,000 years ago.
The passage from Africa to Australia was part of what has been called the Southern Route of anatomically modern humans. From Africa, humans travelled through western Asia, southern Asia, and southeast Asia, eventually coming to Australia.
What is also remarkable about the migration to Australia is that part of the journey would have required seafaring technology. Thus, there is circumstantial evidence that the ancestors of the indigenous people which now inhabit Australia and the island of New Guinea could have been the first seafarers. They would certainly have to be the earliest archaeologically documented seafarers.
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It was originally believed that Aboriginal Australians maintained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle all the way up to the arrival of the first Europeans. More recently, archaeologists have found evidence for practices in Aboriginal Australia which represent the beginnings of agriculture, if not full-fledged agriculture.
Although the Aboriginal Australian cultures believed, and continue to believe, themselves to be very strongly connected to specific territories and geographic locales, the arid harshness of most of the environment of Australia required many Aboriginal groups to be nomadic.
There is even evidence of long-distance trade and migration routes crisscrossing prehistoric Australia. The goods traded along these routes included both immaterial ideas, traditions, and customs, as well as material goods, such as ochre.
Many Aboriginal groups lived in bands consisting of a handful of families that would gather into larger groups during seasons of plenty to perform religious festivals and other large social events. Because of the harshness of much of the Australian environment, however, they tended to live in small bands and family groups most of the year, only coming together occasionally.
The precariousness of life, especially in the desert areas of the continent, probably required most Aboriginal groups to rely on long distance trade and migration to some degree. The migration routes followed by Aboriginal Australians in prehistoric Australia probably form the basis of the songlines which acted as mental map of the Australian geographic environment.
Nevertheless, these songlines functioned as much more than a simple map. In fact, it could be said that the songlines or dreaming tracks were a map of life in general for Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander people.
Representational image of Australia, where songlines are associated with migration routes spanning the continent. (Rick / Adobe Stock)
Songlines: Migration Routes and Dreaming Tracks of the Spirit World
The songlines, or dreaming tracks as they are called in English, were a collection of songs and rituals associated with migration routes that spanned the Australian continent. They also were used to define cultural affiliation since different groups or cultures would specialize in specific sections of a songline. For this reason, dreaming tracks were a widespread multicultural project that involved all groups along a particular route.
According to traditional Aboriginal beliefs, the dreaming tracks have their origins in the Dreaming. The Dreaming is a mythological era with many different names in the ~200 Aboriginal language groups which exist across Australia.
In essence, the term refers to a time when the world was actively being created by spiritual beings. These creator beings travelled across the landscape and their activities created the geographic features, including hills, bodies of water and rock formations. The creator beings are also credited with the creation of humans and animals.
The creator beings from the Dreaming were believed to be eternal and are considered to still exist in Aboriginal Australian spiritual beliefs, though some became transformed into specific geographic features, such as a watering hole or a rock outcrop. In addition to creating the physical landscape, these immortal spiritual beings also established the laws of acceptable social behavior.
The Aboriginal Australians believed, and some still believe, that these beings governed the physical world as well as the social world. According to this belief structure, as long as the laws and rituals established by the creator-beings were followed, the necessities of life would be maintained, and the world as they knew it would continue.
As the creator beings travelled through the world, their routes are said to have become the trade and migration routes which the Aboriginal Australians used. Many of these trade routes are still used since they form the basis of many modern roads and highways in Australia.
Songlines are an important aspect of Aboriginal Australian culture, containing ancestral stories, law, spiritual beliefs and geographical knowledge. (Rick / Adobe Stock)
The Social Function of the Songlines in Aboriginal Australia
The songlines are an important framework for the cultural traditions of Aboriginal Australians, as they contain their ancestral stories, law, spiritual beliefs and geographic knowledge. The foundation of the songlines are routes through geographic landscapes. For example, a songline might describe natural features, such as mountains, hills or bodies of water, that can be found along the route through the territory of a particular group.
A songline will also tell where one might encounter food and water in that territory, while often describing details in the context of a story about a creator traversing the route during the Dreaming. One particular story tells how a creator-being that became the planet Venus led the first humans to Australia and describes the mountains and watering holes that exist or existed upon that particular route.
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In this way, the songlines represent an oral map of the landscape. Although songlines will stretch across the entire continent, individual chapters will describe the routes through specific territories. The songlines do not simply describe where to find resources along that route, however. They also described where to find specific sacred sites, an at least equally important element to Aboriginal Australians.
In addition to acting as an oral GIS (Geographic Information System), describing where natural resources and sacred sites could be found, the songlines could also be used as a sort of cultural passport.
Travelers migrating across Australia would sing or perform the part of the songline of a particular territory in order to ensure the local custodians of that territory that they were passing through it respectfully. In this way, the songlines also had a diplomatic function of establishing mutual respect and granting passage through territory.
The songlines, however, did not simply denote physical geography. Overlaid over the songlines were meanings that defined the rules of social behavior, as well as the ancestral stories of the Aboriginal Australian groups.
While essentially totemic in nature, Australian Aboriginal religion and spirituality is very diverse and there is no one Aboriginal Australian system. Totemism is a religious belief system which unifies humanity, nature, and the spirit realm as an interconnected whole. Totemic belief systems often identify a kin group with an ancestor that took the form of an animal or plant and is the progenitor or creator of that particular kin group. Aboriginal Australian groups found their cultural identity deeply rooted in the totem of whatever spiritual being created or became the natural features of their associated songline during the Dreaming.
Aboriginal Australian spiritual and religious traditions are in general believed to be eternal and unchanging. Everything in Australian Aboriginal life was believed to have been ordained by the creators in the Dreaming. This does not amount to a static ideology, however, since the creator beings were believed to have a continued influence on the world and human life through their life force flowing through the proper rituals. Any change could be attributed to the activity of these beings. As a result, the songlines were believed to be eternal and unchanging and the absolute rule for life among Aboriginal Australians.
Another general trait of the diverse Aboriginal Australian spiritual and religious tradition is that they do not make strong distinctions between the natural realm, the human realm, and the spirit realm, humans, animals and creator spirits. Everything is integrated into a complex, cosmic whole. As a result, the songlines simultaneously define the outlines of the spiritual, physical and social worlds of the Aboriginal Australians.
Songlines represent an oral map of the landscape for Aboriginal Australians. (Rick / Adobe Stock)
Historical Interpretation and Possible Origin of the Songlines
Aboriginal Australians and the Torres Strait Islanders believe the songlines to be eternal and to have their origin in the activities of creator-beings during the Dreaming. I do not mean to dispute that belief, but I do speculate on how the origin of the songlines came about on the historical-material plane.
Throughout Australian pre-history, the Aboriginal Australians appear to have practiced nomadism. This means that migration routes were an important element of their cultural and social patterns. The stability of arid conditions in Australia over the past 13,000 years would have meant that the migration routes may have been relatively constant over time. Also, since there has not been significant human migration into Australia from outside until the last 300 years, the same cultures could have been traveling these migration routes for centuries, if not millennia, at a time.
As a result, it makes sense that these migration routes would have been important for the social, economic and religious life of the people of Aboriginal Australia. Via these migration routes, Aboriginal Australians would have had access to resources, such as ochre, and the groups with whom they established alliances through marriage.
It also makes sense that these migration routes would have been embedded deeply in their cultural consciousness. They would have told stories about these migration routes which would have connected their significance to a mythic past that was meaningful to the Aboriginal Australians that connected the migration routes to their social order and spiritual worldview.
Aboriginal Australian Dreaming Tracks and Their World-Historical Significance
Aboriginal Australian cultures are being increasingly recognized for their importance to the rest of the world. Collectively, the cultural traditions of the Aboriginal Australians could be considered part of the other great cultures of the world, such as India, China, Mesoamerica and those of the Mediterranean Basin and the Andes.
Each of these cultures is known for ideas, technologies or forms of social organization which they contributed to the larger human cultural tradition. The Aboriginal songlines could be considered an important contribution to science, philosophy and social organization, as they connect geography, law, religion, politics and philosophy in an integrated way that allowed these ancient peoples to navigate their continent for thousands of years at least.
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Songlines seem to have formed the technological function of maps, legal documents, encyclopedias and sacred writings in the absence of a writing system. In this way, songlines show how pre-literate cultures can invent mental equivalents to many cultural implements which in literate cultures require writing. In this way, the songlines could be compared to the Andean quipu system, which was a non-writing, memory-based accounting system used in Andean cultures from about 2500 BC to the collapse of the Inca Empire in 1532 AD.
The Aboriginal Australian songlines, however, go beyond the uniqueness of the quipu system. While the Inca were able to build a complex civilization without writing, Aboriginal Australians were able to create social complexity without writing or a centralized state.
Aboriginal Australians had a complex, continent-spanning network of trade routes, ritual landscapes, religious and philosophical systems, and diplomatic agreements but they were able to do this all seemingly without any centralized institutions to govern or regulate them.
In other parts of the world, there is evidence of social complexity arising without political centralization, such as Chaco Canyon in North America. But Australia is the only continent it seems where political centralization never arose until modern times, and nonetheless social complexity of a form existed.
In an era where some are beginning to doubt the effectiveness of traditional centralized and hierarchical economic and political systems which have become the standard for the globe, Aboriginal Australian songlines, and the decentralized, ecologically sustainable societies built around them might be worth giving more attention.
Top image: Songlines, or dreaming tracks, are songs and rituals associated with migration routes spanning the Australian continent. Source: Rick / Adobe Stock
By Caleb Strom
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