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Australia is a land of contrasts: Magnificent beaches and sun baked deserts; cuddly marsupials and deadly crocodiles; skyscraping metropolises and country hick towns. Perhaps the greatest contrast that this great Southern land reveals, however, is that between the European immigrants and the native inhabitants who have come to be known as Aborigines. These original, indigenous inhabitants of Australia have shunned European technology for more than 200 years. They have, thus, retained the uniqueness of their culture to a greater degree than many colonised peoples.
When the first European settlers arrived toward the end of the 18th century, the Aboriginal population was an estimated 300,000. Unlike the natives of other lands, these dark, nomadic people showed no interest in the nick nacks of the Europoean colonists. They were perfectly content to live off the land, having developed a spiritual kinship with the land and the animals who shared it with them. In fact, the Aboriginals were remarkable conservationists who cared well for the environment. Contrasting their attitude with that of the white man, Aborigine Tom Dystra explained, “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.”
Commenting on this conservationist tendency, Malcolm D.Prentis wrote in his book ‘A Study In Black And White’: “The well-being of the flora and fauna and that of the Aboriginal group were linked: prosperity for one meant prosperity for the other. This was practical: for example, flourishing kangaroos meant better food supplies for the Aborigines but the killing of too many kangaroos was in the long run not good for the Aborigines.”
The social organization of the Aborigines, dismissed as savage by the incoming Europeans, provides another example of the advanced nature of their society. Their moral regulations were highly developed and the rules regarding such things as marriageability and social conventions were clearly entrenched by the time of the arrival of the first convict ship. In many ways the rough and ready ways of the European immigrants was more savage than the well defined code of conduct that the Aborigines lived by.
The development of a moral code among the Aborigines was accompanied by the invention of musical instruments and weapons of war that have become unique to these people.The two most commonly recognised are the didgeridoo and the boomerang.
The word didgeridoo means ‘drone pipe’ and that just about sums up the sort of sound it produces. Rather than carrying the melody, the didgeridoo provides a type of bass and rhythm for ceremonial gatherings and night dances known as cooroborees. The instrument usually provides a droning background for a songman with his clapping sticks.
The boomerang was developed as both a hunting tool and a weapon of war among the Aborigines. The most familiar boomerangs are curved weapons that return to the thrower if thrown correctly. Those types that do not return to the sender were designed to enbed themselves in the bodies of their victims and are more acurately refered to as kylies, or killer sticks.
Within a hundred years of their arrival, Europeans had almost completely wiped out the native population. Today, there are several rural towns that have a high proportion of Aboriginal inhabitants. Life for these people, however, is often bleak. The vices of the Europeans have, inevitably caught up with many of them. Unemployment is high and so is addiction to alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs. As one tribal elder said “ We no longer belong to the past, nor have we a satisfying place in the present.”
Perhaps the Aborigine would have been better off if James Cook had kept right on going after spotting that huge land mass in the South Pacific that came to be known as Australia.