For three nights, the crew camped out at Kakadu National Park as we awaited the delivery of our new mist nets to Coomalie. I think I can say on behalf of everyone that the park was one of the most amazing places we had ever been to, at least while in Australia. The park had fantastic views, tons of wildlife, and a few new birds to identify such as Rainbow Pittas and Rufus Fantails. I would also have to say that one of my favorite parts of the trip was learning about Australian aboriginal culture in the Northern Territory and seeing the seemingly endless amounts of ancient aboriginal cave art that covered the caves and filled the rock overhangs at Kakadu. This was where my interest in anthropology would come in handy.
There have been several different tribes with their own languages that have lived on the land now called Kakadu National Park, providing a rich diversity of culture that reflect ancient practices which go back thousands of years. Many aboriginal traditions and customs are still carried out today. For instance, their kinship system serves as a generational record of “skin names” which are assigned based on the moiety and comparative generation. There are two moieties, and people partner with those not from their own moiety. There are also four generations, each designated with a different name, that circulate in each moiety. The kinship system defines who is considered family and who should be avoided in order to keep the skin names (and obviously blood lines) pure. For example, in this system, great-grandmothers and their great-grandchildren have a close relationship because of their skin names. On the other hand, people must avoid their mother-in-laws because their skin names forbid any close interaction, even normal conversations, with that person. I also thought it was interesting how even the animals with which they co-exist and depend on to survive are given similar skin names. It was a confusing yet fascinating system to learn about that was very different from our idea of the typical nuclear family.
The aborigines had various ways to successfully live off of the land and water. Yams were plentiful and were prepared either by boiling them for hours to be eaten whole or ground with sticks in holes created in the rock floors of caves to make flour. For protein, they hunted animals such as wallabies, long-necked turtles, and Tasmanian tigers (they lived on the mainland thousands of years ago before becoming exclusively Tasmanian) and fished barramundi. These practices are recorded in their cave art (or gunbim, as it is called in several aboriginal languages) that were proudly displayed amongst the rock enclosures in which they lived. We saw many examples of this art, most notably at two sites: Ubirr and Nourlangie.
There are sites that have been dated using thermo-luminescence methods as over 50,000 years old. Some of the art at these sites are estimated to be nearly 20,000 years old, providing a remarkable record of the way ancient aboriginal tribes lived and constituting one of the longest historical records of any group of people. In fact, this art is what made Kakadu a United Nations World Heritage sites to be preserved and treasured by future generations by both aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.
The diverse and detailed rock art at both Ubirr and Nourlangie was absolutely breath-taking. While frozen in time, the cave walls served as a storyboard, and various ochres provided the means to create the stories important to the lives of these peoples. Stories of evil, deceiving spirits, creation, and figures on the hunt with boomerang in hand can be seen throughout multiple sites. Art from different time periods also allow people to see how the changing environment affected aboriginal culture and their perspective on life. This included effects from global climate change during which water levels waxed and waned and the effects from outsiders such as the Macassans from Indonesia and later the white European settlers.
Depictions of the animals constituted many of the paintings and served as a record of fish and animal kills that served as “prizes” for the aborigines. If one caught a barramundi bigger than what he or another had caught, he was able to draw over the previous rock art. Layers upon layers of rock art can be seen throughout the park, covering up thousands of years of history. There is some artwork that without a doubt has been untouched for centuries – Mimi art. This art, as told by aboriginal elders, was created by the spirits themselves. One of the most famous ones is the Rainbow serpent, as seen below. Many are in places that seem unreachable to people, such as on the ceilings of overhangs that are stories high.
While the culture of the aboriginal peoples prospered in the past, today entire tribes along with their way of life are disappearing rapidly. The settlement of Europeans marked the start of a clash of cultures riddled with racism and an obsession with making money off of the land through mining and cultural exploitation. Unfortunately, this continues today – especially as aboriginal peoples try to adapt to modern lifestyles. Despite this lack of cultural relativism, there have been efforts to respect and preserve aboriginal culture. Kakadu is an example of this effort though a collaboration of aboriginal and non-aboriginal people to conserve the habitat, wildlife, and important spiritual sites that allowed their culture to thrive. Anthropology and biology, unite!