Past Treasure of the Month – October 2006

Australian Aboriginal Artifacts
Australian Aboriginal Artifacts

In 1922, Galvestonian Charles Everett donated to the Rosenberg Library a collection of artifacts made and used by the aboriginal tribes of Australia. Aborigines, or indigenous peoples, have inhabited the continent of Australia for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Aborigines migrated to Australia via Southeast Asia between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. Prior to British colonization, it is estimated that there were approximately 500,000 Aborigines living in Australia.

Aboriginal communities within Australia were quite diverse. Some aboriginal groups practiced an agrarian form of subsistence, while others hunted and gathered their food. Diet staples included kangaroos, emus, turtles, fruits, and native plants. Coastal tribes relied on fishing and shellfish collecting. Clothing, tools, weapons, and baskets were all manufactured using the available plant and animal materials.

The Aborigines maintained traditional customs and lifeways. Aboriginal tribes followed a complex system of kinship by which tribes were divided into several classes, or sections. Strict rules for marriage, residence, and descent dictate how these sections interacted with one another. Spirituality also played an important role in Aboriginal culture. Aborigines practiced totemism, a belief system in which humans are thought to share a mystical relationship with nature. “The Dreamtime” is the aboriginal story of creation which describes the ancient ancestors rising from below the earth to form the sky, bodies of water, geological formations, animals, and plants. When a human dies, it is thought that the spirit of the deceased metamorphoses into a different form — such as a river or a rock — but continues to remain a part of the natural world.

The British colonization of Australia, which began in 1788, had a lethal impact on the Aborigines. Along with the European colonists came diseases foreign to the native peoples. Epidemics of smallpox, chickenpox, influenza, and measles led to a significant decline in the aboriginal population. This, in addition to economic marginalization and loss of political sovereignty, was devastating to Australia’s indigenous tribes. Eventually, most Aborigines were assimilated into Australian society as low-paid laborers who were, for the most part, alienated from the political and economic mainstream. Between the 1970s and 1990s, several landmark legislative measures were enacted to renew and protect the rights of indigenous Australians. Today, about 410,000 Aborigines live in Australia, making up 2% of the continent’s total population.