Ngadjonji Antiquity and Social Organisation

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Traditional Aboriginal Knowledge



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 .

Social Organisation

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 design.
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 resolved.
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 area.
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.