D.R. Horton, referring to the rainforest aboriginals of the Atherton
tablelands, in the Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia, asserts...
"They had dreaming stories, which appear to describe volcanic
eruptions and changes in vegetation and sea-level which appears to match
findings in current research."
The Oldest Datable Story on Earth?
It appears that beneath the veneer of fantasy some myths may provide
accurate histories of events in the distant past of the people. There is,
for instance, a Ngadjon myth that explains the origin of the three
volcanic crater lakes Yidyam (Lake Eacham), Barany (Lake Barrine) and
Ngimun (Lake Euramo) * . It is said that two newly-initiated men broke a
taboo and angered the rainbow serpent, major spirit of the area (as of
most of Australia). As a result 'the camping-place began to change, the
earth under the camp roaring like thunder. The wind started to blow down,
as if a cyclone were coming. The camping-place began to twist and crack.
While this was happening there was in the sky a red cloud, of a hue never
seen before. The people tried to run from side to side but were swallowed
by a crack which opened in the ground....'
This is a plausible description of a volcanic eruption. After telling the
myth, in 1964, the storyteller remarked that when this happened the
country round the lakes was 'not jungle - just open scrub'. In 1968, a
dated pollen diagram from the organic sediments of Lake Euramo by Peter
Kershaw (1970) showed, rather surprisingly, that the rain forest in that
area is only about 7,600 years old. The formation of the three volcanic
lakes took place at least 10,000 years ago.
A strong case can be made for to the story of the volcanic eruptions, and
of the spread of rain forest, having been handed down from generation to
generation for something like ten thousand years.
Dixon (1972) p.28
It has now been well established that aboriginal culture has changed and
evolved over more than 40,000 years. Aboriginal society has the longest
continuous cultural history in the world, its roots being back in the
Pleistocene (the period from 2 million to 10,000 years ago) when the
Australian continent was both larger and greener than it is today.
Flood (1989) p.16
Walkunder Arch Cave (At Chillagoe) is the oldest human occupation site yet
found in North Queensland (occupation goes back more than 18000 years) but
some argue that hunters had penetrated the Atherton Tablelands region
45,000 years ago. This assertion is based on the long pollen sequence from
Lynch's Crater (near Butchers Creek in the heart of Ngadjonji territory),
in which there is a huge increase in the amount of charcoal, a change that
can only be explained, according to the pollen analyst, Prof. Peter
Kershaw, by the arrival of man with his fire-stick.
Flood (1989) p.83
* Yidyam and Ngimun are Yidinyji place names. Lake Eacham is Wiingina in
Ngadjon and Lake Euramo is Nuta .
The first detailed accounts of the life of people of the rain jungles of
Queensland were those of the naturalist and traveller Lumholtz in 1889.
Lumholtz distinguishes the "family tribe" of 20-25 individuals from the
"tribe" of 200-250 and he comments that "individuals belonging to the same
tribe are usually on the best of terms, but different tribes are each
other's mortal enemies". The distinction that he draws between tribes and
sub-tribes or family tribes, corresponds to the well known distinction in
Australian Aboriginal society between larger tribes sharing a common
language or dialect, and smaller kin-based bands.
The Police Commission Report of 1897 estimates the population of the
Ngadjon tribe at 300.
These estimates of band and tribal sizes is early post-contact and does
not allow for the decimation of Aboriginal groups that followed the
arrival of Europeans in the region. On the basis of general estimates of
the post-contact decline of tribal populations of the region, reinforced
by extrapolation from comparable resource-rich areas elsewhere in
Aboriginal Australia, it appears realistic to estimate the pre-European
population as not less than two and a half times the 1897 population
estimate. e.g. Ngadjonji 750.
Harris (1978) p.125
Present-day elders of the Ngadjonji, going by the stories from their
ancestors, estimate pre-European tribal size to be even larger.
(Photograph courtesy of the Cairns Historical Society.) C.1890. This
photograph has been identified by Aboriginal historian G.Davis as a band
of the Ngadjonji.
Each tribe was divided into a number of 'local groups' each of which would
be associated with a certain part of the tribal territory. A local group
would not live exclusively in its own locality but would spend more time
there than other local groups of the tribe. Anyone, whatever local group
he belonged to, could with impunity travel anywhere in his own tribal
territory; it was possible to change ones local group membership within
the tribe. Social visiting and dancing or jousting gatherings ( gama ),
which involved members of a single tribe, were fairly informal and
required little planning.
The members of a tribe normally married only within the tribe, although
marriage could take place across tribal boundaries, but this was always a
very formal matter and it had to be reciprocal - that is, if a Ngadjonji
man married a Yidinyji woman, a match would also have to be arranged
between a Yidinyji man and a Ngadjonji woman. Marriages were polygamous
and would be arranged by parents and elders within the tribe according to
complex marriage taboos regarding moiety or tribal section.
Dixon (1976) p.213
Regarding the position of women ( yipi ) in the tribe Lumholtz noted:
When they travel from place to place the woman has to carry all the
baggage. The husband is therefore always seen in advance with no burden
save a few light weapons, such as spears, clubs or boomerangs, while his
wives follow like pack-horses with even as many as five baskets containing
provisions....She must do all the hard work, go out with her basket and
her stick to gather fruits, dig roots, or chop larvae out of tree-stems.
...The woman is often obliged to carry her little child on her shoulders
during the whole day, only setting it down when she has to dig in the
ground or climb trees.
When she comes home again, she usually has to make great preparations for
beating, roasting and soaking the fruits, which are often poisonous. It is
also the woman's duty to make a hut and gather materials for that purpose.
..She also provides water and fuel.
Lumholtz (1889) p.176
Each day, groups of related women and their children would set out. They
would take their digging sticks and their stone axes. Each woman had her
own digging stick (the children did too) decorated in her own personal
Toohey (1990) p. 9
Corroborees involving a number of tribes ( warrama ) were held regularly,
but these would always be fairly formalised occasions arranged some time
in advance through the dispatch of message sticks. The latter served both
as a safe conduct in alien territory for their carriers, and as an aid to
memory regarding the date of the corroboree and the numbers from the
various tribes that were expected to attend. Without the message stick
members of another tribe would be regarded as probable criminals and be
liable to be killed.
Dixon (1976) p.123
The corroborees ( warrama ), the old timers tell us, were like an Olympic
Games...The roots of exchange are said to correspond to the sacred paths
of the Dreamtime....The whole event lasted for three days. After the
initial greetings and setting up camp the ceremonies would begin. The
gathering site (today if is often called a bora ground) was a circular
clearing up to three acres in area, the ground beaten hard in the middle.
Each group camped at the edge of this clearing, positioned according to
the direction of their home country. For the ceremonials, all participants
covered their bodies in white clay and fastened on their headdresses with
beeswax. On the weapons and shoulders of those about to engage in armed
combat, stripes of blood-coloured clay appeared. Swords and shields, their
armoury, were painted to match.
First was the grand march, each group marching round and round the bora
ground, finally taking their places around the circle. After that, the
formal announcement of grievances by a senior member of each group. All
these disputes had to be settled..a widowed woman might have several men
lay claim to her...there might be disputes over stealing or hunting
entitlements. Sometime the disputes "came to blows". Brandishing heavy
swords and shields, men engaged in payback duels, until the master of
ceremonies called a halt to the hostilities and pronounced the matter
After all this came the "Olympic Games" with tremendous displays of
agility, accuracy and skill....At dusk, all contests and athletic displays
ended. The evening was given over to feasting, singing and dancing around
the campfire. ..The singers and dancers were men. A group of men would
enact a rehearsed mime or dance, costumed appropriately for the characters
they represented. Crouching nearby, a group of costumed women accompanied
them, banging the rhythm on their thighs.
Toohey (1990) p.3
Several aspects of rain-forest culture appear distinctive. They include
cannibalism, mummification prior to cremation, and the holding of fighting
corroborees to settle disputes. At these corroborees the huge swords and
shields were wielded in duels, but combatants were seldom killed. Indeed,
as Lumholtz remarks, 'Mortal wounds are extremely rare' and the combatant
knows 'that his opponent, through fear of his relatives, will not carry
the conflict to the extreme......if necessary they will interfere and
prevent his getting wounded.'
Harris (1978) p.122
Edgar H. Short came to Nth Qld in 1912, where he lived with his parents on
a dairy farm they carved from virgin rainforest at Glen Allyn near
Malanda. His reminiscences of a small family group of Ngadjonji who often
camped near his farm, "who were trying to maintain their tribal way of
life", gives one of the last accounts of tribal life practised in this
They (The Ngadjonji) were afraid of other tribes, such as those around the
Tully River, and the lowland parts of the Russell and Mulgrave .... these
tribes in turn were just as scared of our boys..Boundaries of territories
overlapped to some extent. It was in these more of less neutral areas that
they met to stage tribal fights for most of the year, or simply to hurl
insults at each other. .. There was an agreed truce for trading at certain
seasons. It was scrupulously observed. Bora grounds appeared to be of two
kinds, those used for purely social gatherings which could be attended by
women - and the grounds which were used for important tribal ceremonies
such as the initiation of young men. Practically all these ceremonies were
forbidden to women. The penalty for intrusion was instant death, carried
out by a set ritual.
They carried a fire stick ( jidu) made from certain wood (the jidu tree,
Halfordia scleroxylla ) when moving from place to place. As they went
past, one of the group could be seen waving a stick with a glowing end,
and they were really expert at keeping it alight....
The funeral corroboree had been held and the body was being treated in the
traditional way by placing it on a platform about 2m above the ground with
a small, very smoky fire lit under it and kept burning so that as the body
juices ran out it was smoke-dried and preserved. While the body was being
smoked, certain near relatives had the privilege of smearing themselves
with ashes and standing under the dear departed and allowing the drips to
fall on them. When the process was complete certain near relatives were
supposed to carry certain specified parts with them in a dilly bag at all
times for a set period.
Short (30.1.85, Cairns Post)
The early settlers found that some of the concentrations of semi-permanent
dwellings (wet season camps) amounted to 'townships' (Mulligan 1877) and
they used these cleared pockets and walking tracks to access and travel
through the rainforests. Mjoberg (Swedish scientist 1918, lived in the
Atherton area), also observed that the rainforest aborigines were not
strictly nomadic and that their semi-permanent wet-season camps had the
appearance of villages.