Home Author & Lecturer
Articles - Cosmic Ecology
An Aboriginal View of the World
by Richard C. Murphy, Calypso Log, August 1992
During the last few years, returning
home from our Rediscovery of the World expeditions has become
increasingly difficult for me. Expedition research and contact
with indigenous people have raised unsettling questions, even
though the cultural contrasts are fascinating--the foods, appearances,
architecture, boats, music, dance, crafts and tools. The real
difficulty, however, lies in the shock of reentry into "civilization"
and the contrast in life-styles. This shock was particularly intense
after the Papua New Guinea and Western Australia expeditions.
I've been forced to examine some fundamental questions: Which
systems offer a higher quality of life, greater security, more
personal freedom, and fulfillment? Which provides a healthful
life-style, more leisure, and a greater sense of well-being?
In Western Australia, part of our
expedition focused on aborigines. Surely these people, having
almost no material possessions, and living on some of the most
unproductive lands in one of the harshest climates on the planet,
could not make the benefits of civilization questionable. Historical
accounts from explorers left no doubt that the great western desert
was not suitable to human habitation. Colonel Peter Egerton Warburton
wrote of his 1875 expedition "...ants swarmed over everything,
and over us; indeed they wanted to take away the cockatoos we
had for dinner but we rescued them... deepened last night's well
but with no better results than yesterday. Started in a north-westerly
direction and sunk another... no water; ... dug three more wells...
same unsuccessful results... last known water already 50 miles
away... The heat is now very great and the camels are suffering
from traveling during the day over hot sand and steep hills...
my riding camel has completely broken down... and we could only
get her on her legs again by lighting some spinifex (grass) under
her tail... master bull camel has eaten poison, and is very ill...
Our position is most critical in consequence of the weakness of
the camels... God have mercy upon us for we are brought very low...
Our miseries are not a little increased by the ants. We cannot
get a moment's rest night or day..." It would seem that life
for anyone in this environment must as Hobbes' put it be "poor,
nasty, brutish and short."
En route from Perth to Broome, I
flew over the western desert, a vast blank expanse as desolate
as any region I have seen. In the Kimberley region, lush by comparison
but still marginal, we scouted by small plane. White Australians
spoke of heat and summer flies and wished us luck when they learned
ours was to be a summer expedition. We inquired about the traditional
people of this region and generally got one of two answers. There
was the nineteenth-century American attitude toward Indians as
being unproductive and an impediment to progress. The other perspective
regarded aborigines as having a very different culture and value
system, as deserving equality and as undergoing a difficult period
of transition toward a future which would likely blend tradition
with modern ways.
We met with scientists and resource
managers developing programs with aborigines who would participate
in the management of their lands, conduct scientific surveys of
coastal marine life and act as park rangers for tourists. We heard
stories of aboriginal communities which have rejected foreign
religion and attempted to restore their traditional culture. We
witnessed the problems of alcohol in aboriginal society and reviewed
a treaty draft, prepared by the Sovereign Aboriginal Coalition
declaring recognition of aboriginal ownership of Australia, compensation
to the New Aboriginal Nation of $1 billion within four weeks of
the establishment of a treaty, and entry restrictions to aboriginal
sacred sites. Our team helped eighty-five-year-old Patsy Lutundu,
an aboriginal woman, return, probably for the last time in her
life, to a cave rich in rock art of special significance to her.
One team member described Patsy as having an old appearance, a
very young mind and the agility of a person half her age.
We learned of scientists who look
to aborigines for guidance in using fire to manage the land and
for information on the distribution of mammal populations. We
explored a landscape inhabited by humans for about 50,000 years
but which shows no evidence of their occupation except for artistic
carvings and paintings. I came to appreciate a surprisingly complex
culture which embodies greater ecological knowledge and wisdom
than any I have experienced so far.
Because aborigines grow nothing,
build nothing and stay nowhere for very long, many whites thought
until recently that aboriginal culture was primitive, simple,
savage, and barbaric. The brutal treatment which aborigines have
received at the hands of white Australians is testimony to such
beliefs. In comparing cultures, Westerners often pass judgment
on the basis of material achievements: pyramids, temples, cities,
aqueducts, and architecture but sometimes fail to consider the
development of belief systems and survival strategies which meet
human needs over time. One of my lingering reentry questions has
been: Can we call a human system, whether it be a civilization
or a culture, successful if it creates the potential to bring
about its own demise and incurs in its decline greater hardship
and misery than existed before its development? History shows
that civilizations are not enduring human systems. From an evolutionary
point of view, the fact that aborigines still exist demonstrates
that their culture and survival strategies have some redeeming
The aboriginal view of the universe embodies myth, ritual, totems,
songlines, and law, all integrated under what is called "Dreamtime,"
"The Dreaming" or "Dreaming." This "time"
is a sacred period long ago when the universe, humankind and nature
came to be what they are. Yet Dreaming also embodies the present
and the future; it is "everywhen." As a unifying concept
of the world, it describes what happened, the character of events
which still happen and the order under which the future will unfold.
According to The Dreaming, after
creation earth was inhabited by ancestral beings who wandered
across the landscape, molding its features by their actions. A
mountain was the site where a being rested; a monolith was a spear
used in battle; a gorge was created by the blow of an axe. This
was the time when the echidna got its spines, the emu lost flight,
and alliances or animosities developed between species. These
Dreamtime beings were simultaneously animal and human, and they
became the totemic ancestors which spiritually link each person
to a particular species or natural object. If someone has an "opossum
Dreaming," he or she received the spirit of that totem before
birth and will be linked to that species and to other people of
the same totem for life. One will not kill or eat an animal of
one's totemic clan or marry someone with the same totem. When
traveling, one seeks people who share a totem for refuge and companionship.
This spiritual kinship between people and nature is an important
element in the aboriginal perception of, and respect for, nature.
As Dreamtime beings traveled across Australia, they left a trail
of songs describing natural features. These songlines can be used
as maps to guide a traveler. Songlines and totems are linked so
that a particular songline is known only by members of its particular
totem. The songlines crisscross all of Australia, traversing lands
of many different clans. Although it is unlikely that one clan
member knows the words of an entire songline, the melody would
be recognizable, enabling anyone of that songline to position
his particular stanza on the entire score. In western terms such
songlines have been described as a kind of vocal map or geographical
music score. Anthropologists have described the songline singing
as guttural and nasalized, "punctuated with screams, whoops,
grunts, and falsetto ululation" and "completely different
from most other vocal qualities of the world." There is great
practical value in songlines; since the ancestors often traveled
from waterhole to waterhole, the more easily memorized musical
map of the desert provides directions to water in regions not
While Dreamtime beings roamed the surface of earth, creating songlines
and natural features, the guiding principles of life were established.
These principles, or cultural codes of conduct, include morality,
taboos, marriage, initiation rites, etc. Functionally, such laws
serve to perpetuate human life and aboriginal culture. These principles
also include religious ceremonies relating to the larger system:
the spirits, other species and the cosmos. Since there is no great
distinction or hierarchy among species, including humans, it is
assumed that all other species also have their own codes of conduct
or law. Responsibility is a key element; each species has free
will to act according to its own law, and actions contrary to
the law are seen as being against cosmic order and thus against
Aborigines believe that the existence
of such laws is revealed by the predictability of each species
being found in its own habitat, the seasonal production of seeds,
the nesting of a particular species of bird in a particular species
of tree, and the preference of predators for certain prey. A northern
aboriginal myth about the seasons explains how the law creates
order: The sun lives in the sky, cooks the earth and nurtures
the growth of plants and animals. Rain is a rainbow snake which
lives in waterholes and cools and washes the earth. When the earth
becomes too hot, flying foxes retreat to waterholes which signal
the snake that it is time for action. As the rainbow snake emerges,
it spits, causing lightning, thunder and rain. Eventually the
rainbow snake becomes dangerous, whereupon other forces take charge.
The wind comes and breaks the snake's back and the sun burns it,
ultimately taking over and initiating a new cycle. Each of these
spirits acts independently according to its own law but combines
forces when necessary to restore order and balance in nature.
Just as each species and spirit behaves
according to its law, so too must humans abide by their laws.
Yet all is not rigidly fixed. Anthropologist Deborah Rose describes
aboriginal resource management and responsibility: "Yarralin
people protect a death adder site for instance, trying to assure
that it not be damaged because any disturbance would result in
an overpopulation of death adders...Reverence for life is a quality
which is fundamentally characteristic of aboriginal life, pervading
every aspect of daily and ceremonial life."
This web of relationships guided
by the law includes those between individuals, such as people
of like totems, relatives, husband and wife, parents, and children.
And it extends from individuals to nature wherein children are
part of the region of their birth; everyone is linked to their
totemic species, and each person is connected through his or her
songline to geographic features which embody living ancestor/spirits.
"Life then in Ngaringman/Ngaliwurru thinking is the cosmos.
And to be alive is to be conscious - to know and follow one's
own Law, to recognize that other consciousness exist and to interact
responsibly with others. Yarralin people's environment is alive,
conscious and pays attention. Human actions are noted, just as
humans note the actions of other living beings. This cosmic awareness
is only possible because all `cultures' (human and nonhuman) are
subject to the same moral principles of response, balance, symmetry
and autonomy... The cosmos `works' not because a supreme deity
regulates it, but because all of the parts regulate each other."
At some ill-defined time in the past, the Dreamtime beings ceased
to occupy the landscape and metamorphosed into other forms such
as rock outcroppings, waterholes, hills, or other features. But
they did not die; their spirits remain alive, giving great significance
and power to these sites. Consequently, supernatural beings important
to aborigines do not live out of touch in the great beyond, but
rather, they reside among the people, in their homes and places
Consider the behavior of Westerners
in a great cathedral or in the presence of an important religious
figure: One is humble and reverent, speaking gently and behaving
respectfully. In most of us, a strong ethical code makes desecration
of a beautiful cathedral unthinkable. Imagine extending this attitude
and behavior to the environment in general as though the entire
planet were a temple. Consider the consequences in one's sense
of well-being and in one's treatment of the planet.
As might be expected, the aboriginal
relationship to land does not involve individual possession. Land,
spirit and self are inseparable, and thus land can no more be
sold than can one's soul; the connections are too great. The oneness
implied in the aboriginal concept of self, surroundings and time
indicates a belief system with great ecological value. Rather
than superior to nature, aborigines see themselves as key elements
in maintaining a harmony among the component parts of nature,
which must obviously involve an intimate knowledge of natural
history. People must read the tracks and signs of life which indicate
that something has recently passed by or lies below the ground.
They must know the behavior of animals and the cycles of various
plant species to predict where and when food can be found. As
the white explorers learned, such knowledge can mean the difference
between life and death.
Yet the world view of Aborigines
is spiritual rather than ecological. This may not be surprising
since culture has evolved within the constraints of the physical
world. Anything not sustainable in an ecological context would
be self-defeating and thus have been eliminated from the culture
as those who maintained the culture were themselves eliminated
by natural selection.
It would be presumptuous for any
of us on expedition to feel our brief exposure to Aboriginal culture
entitled us to comment on the Aboriginal way of thinking. But
the ecological quality of this culture deserves discussion. Anthropologists
have been universally impressed with the Aboriginal way of dealing
with the challenges of life and with other members of the community.
W.E.H. Stanner, a respected student of Aboriginal culture , states,
"...he (the Aborigine) seems to see `life' as a one-possibility
thing. This may be why he seems to have almost no sense of tragedy.
One may say, their Ideal and Real come very close together...
One of the most striking things is that there are no great conflicts
over power, no great contests for place and office. This single
fact explains much else, because it rules out so much that would
be destructive of stability... Power over things? Every canon
of good citizenship and common sense is against it, though there
are, of course, clear property arrangements. But what could be
more useless that a store of food that will not keep, or a heavy
pile of spears that have to be carried everywhere? Especially,
in a society in which the primary virtues are generosity and fair
dealing. Nearly every social affair involving goods - food in
the family, payments in marriage, intertribal exchange - is heavily
influenced by equalitarian notions; a notion of reciprocity as
a moral obligation; a notion of generously equivalent return;
and a surprisingly clear notion of fair dealing, or making things
`level' as the blackfellow calls it in English... The blacks do
not fight over land. There are no wars or invasions to seize territory.
They do not enslave each other. There is no master-servant relation.
There is no class division. There is no property or income inequality.
The result is homeostasis, far-reaching and stable." Stanner
goes on to reassure the reader that Aborigines fall prey to all
the human failings we know so well but the extent to which they
impede social order or bring harm to others is far less than in
most other cultures.
With no wheels, no metal, no pottery, no fabrics, no domesticated
animals, no agriculture, no written language, and no permanent
dwellings, the traditional aboriginal culture has fared remarkably
well, if survival for over 50,000 years can be a criterion of
success. But survival says little about what we would call quality
of life. Such crosscultural value judgments are difficult to make,
maybe impossible, and it is probably more appropriate to look
at the question in terms of the extent to which the more important
human needs are met.
Having sufficient knowledge of ecology
and living within the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, aborigines
harvest natural resources without a sense of urgency. There need
be no battle against time or the elements when resources are sufficiently
abundant. Hunting and gathering can take as little as twenty hours
per week in some tribes. Depending upon the tribe, anthropologists
have recorded between one hundred and three hundred species of
plants and animals which sustain aborigines year round. This ecological
diversity provides aborigines with a balanced and healthful diet.
Having spent extensive time in the western desert, anthropologist
Robert Tonkinson concludes that the Mardudjara people "suffer
few serious ailments and probably have a life expectancy of fifty
to sixty years...In terms of mental health, it could be assumed
that since these people live in what is probably the world's most
marginal environment for human survival, they are tense, morose,
and anxiety-ridden because of all the uncertainties created by
the capricious nature of rainfall in the desert. In fact, nothing
could be further from the truth...the Mardudjara seem to be very
well-adjusted people. They are every bit as complex and given
to behavioral idiosyncrasies as any other peoples, with the same
capacity for exultation and despair...[They] have a keen sense
of humor that pervades all their activities, including ritual.
There are very few occasions so awe-inspiring or momentous in
their religious significance that laughter and joking would be
thought out of place... But the fact that people can maintain
such a spirited and positive outlook in an environment as tough
and mercurial as the desert speaks volumes for their strength
of character and their great confidence in the law, which answers
life's biggest questions and attests that the human spirit is
As with most hunters and gatherers,
the older members of society are heavily involved in baby-sitting,
educating and nurturing the next generation. Thus, senior citizens
become a resource to the community rather than a liability. Regarding
conflict, "There is no word for either feud or warfare in
the language of the desert people."
Returning home after this expedition was intensely unsettling.
I had no interest in nor was I capable of "returning to nature"
aboriginal style. Yet I did not feel capable of reentering my
own "civilized" world which involves such effort, insecurity,
consumption of resources, impact on the biosphere, and frenetic
How could our overburdened, anxiety-ridden
system have come about? I wondered how the mentality of a herdsman
or farmer, predecessors of civilization, might have differed from
that of a hunter and gatherer, and how the world view of each
might have influenced the course of their cultural evolution?
In contrast to the hunter and gatherer, a pastoralist, for example,
nurtures a species totally under his control with the sole intent
of harvesting food and fiber for himself. The sheep's life and
well-being are considered almost totally in the context of its
value to humans. In the path toward civilization, humankind has
subdued, taken dominion over, and controlled other species. Whether
this is good or bad is not the point here. The fact is that the
mentality and world view of early pastoralists and farmers and
hunter-gatherers may have been fundamentally different. As pastoralists
and farmers settled, equality among species was likely replaced
by a hierarchy of dominant and subordinate, more powerful and
less powerful, superiority-inferiority, etc. History has shown
that it is not a great leap to extend such hierarchical thinking
to other "non-selves," including different races, cultures
and religions. The existence and consequences of the resulting
prejudices are deeply embedded in our cultures and become especially
obvious in the light of such cultural comparisons. Our "dominion
over the earth," our need to "control animal impulses
and drives," our patronizing attitudes toward "lower
forms of life," "dumb beasts" and even "primitive
cultures" attest to the destructive attitudes of separateness
and inequality between "them" and "us."
Exercising control, whether it be
over crops, herds or people, requires work. It is only logical
that civilizations and religions based on exploitation and dominion/dominance
would promote and hold in high regard a work ethic since, of course,
the institution would directly benefit from the fruits of righteous
labor. And what would be the predicted view, in such societies
or religions, of nomads who believe humankind is no better than
rocks, wombats or weather, and of hunters and gatherers who construct
nothing, possess almost nothing and go through life naked? It
is interesting to note that quality of life, a sense of place
and belonging, feelings of contentment and inner peace, and an
ethic of equality and unity of all things seldom emerge as the
key elements in comparisons of "primitive" versus "advanced"
At the dawn of civilization, the
differences between husbanding animals and farming crops as contrasted
to hunting and gathering were likely small. But from our contemporary
perspective, it would appear that the implications were enormous.
Which strategy/mentality is better? Possibly one way to compare
is to take each component of the aboriginal view of himself and
the world around him, and our view of life, and extend them into
the future, asking whether the consequences of each supports or
undermines the vitality of the planet and the quality of human
For Further Reading: