Aboriginal civilisation – stone fish traps of Arrawara

Stone fish traps Arrawarra

The stone fish traps of Arrawara, near Red Rock, NSW

The word civilisation is often conflated with culture. Civilisation beings monuments, buildings, hospitals and armies, and since I was born unprecedented amounts of garbage. Here is Australia, the Aborigines had a rich sustainable culture, of knowing place of knowing kinships, of knowing songs and the fauna and flora intimately AND the skills. Their culture of song, dance, sand paintings is ephemeral yet their rock painting is the oldest continuous cultural tradition in the world. Walter Benjamin held that that there is no document of civilisation which is not at the very same time a document of barbarism. I only got to feel this to be true when learning more about the recent history of this continent.

I don’t want to romanticise the past and would not have wanted to live the nomadic life with constant search for food, violent conflicts over women, young girls forcibly married to old men, and a lack of dentists and chocolate. But Aboriginal culture was happy in the land, more than content with their country, and it is is poetic. The poetry was/is sung, the singing was enaction, a skilled practice of living with the land, of dwelling, associated with local knowledge, of custom, the tracks, seasons, game, water holes, other tribal groups, ownership, responsibilities, sites and stories.

We are bombarded with the promise of the future, but rarely the promise of the past. Here in Australia the past is Dreamtime, but what foreigners (even if from our own country) can’t seem to get is that the Aboriginal experience of the Dreamtime is also present and future.

The Dreaming (Tjukurrpa) energises the foreground / background to Aboriginal song, as the generative principle of the present and country.[i] Ancestral Beings appeared and sang out their names and move across the barren country naming all things and thus bringing them into being. They sang mountains, rivers, forests, deserts, plants, animals into existence,. The Ancestors hunted, ate, slept, fought, made love, sang and danced leaving a trail along the song lines. Tjukurrpa is a creation myth which is also in the continuous present, and energises the Songs. Max Deutscher notes that the everyday world, mularrpa,interpenetrates the Dreaming  tjukurrpa.

‘It is by certain practices of singing that the terrain is constructed as significant country, as a social area, as a place to dwell. How does ‘terrain’ or ‘land’ become a significant dwelling?’  ‘The singing of the land is not just singing about the land.’ Max Deutscher [ii]

09 15_Red Rock Massacre site

Red Rock Massacre site

The songs are associative and enactive, language by itself is not enough, not even in a poem.[iii] The ‘song lines’ are, ‘Ancestral tracks that traverse the full width and breadth of the Desert region, embracing a number of local groups and dialect units.’[iv]  Ted Strehlow championed these songs as literature and quotes authorities, such as, Baldwin-Spencer, E.C. Stirling and F.J. Gillen.[v]

This way of life was sabotaged by European settlement/invasion because they did not recognise the difference between civilisation and culture.

‘In 1788 the British government annexed New South Wales as a “colony of settlement”. This concept was very similar to the meaning most often applied over a century later to the term terra nullius [‘land belonging to no one’]. ‘The British government did not maintain in 1788 that there were no human inhabitants of New South Wales. What they did believe was that the territory possessed no settled population, no cultivation of the soil, no political units with which negotiations could take place or treaties be signed, and none of the attributes of civilization.’ Geoffrey Partington [vi]

In 1992 the High Court of Australia ruled in the Mabo case that native title exists over particular kinds of lands; unalienated Crown Lands, national parks and reserves. It also rules that Australia never was terra nullius or ’empty land’. Justice Brennan of the High Court of Australia found that, ‘The common law of this country would perpetuate injustice if it were to continue to embrace the notion of terra nullius and persist in characterising the Indigenous inhabitants of the Australian colonies as people too low in the scale of social organisation to be acknowledged as possessing rights and interests in land.’

Two weeks ago I was looking at the stone fish traps of Arrawara an hour north of here. They appear to be at least 1,000 years old and had fallen into disuse. In 2006 they were repaired in a collaboration between Aboriginal people, the University of New England, and the NSW Marine Parks Authority. The fish traps are now used on special occasions like Easter and Christmas, or on a blue moon occurs when there are two full moons in one month and when two high tides occur in one night. Fish targeted included, tarwhine, mullet, luderick, bream, flathead and whiting.

“In our culture only men use the fish traps. We bait up the traps with cunji, or we go fishing and put fish heads in there too, and we put the bait bags in when the first high tide runs out, so all the bait smells go out to the fish [and] the fish come in for a feed.” Uncle Milton Duroux. [vii]

[Update – the Budj Bim Indigenous eel trap site has just been added to the World Heritage list (July 2019).

The Budj Bim eel traps in south-west Victoria were created about 6,600 years ago by the Gunditjmara people and is older than the pyramids, the Acropolis and Stonehenge. The site also has remains of about 300 round stone huts which would be a surprise to most non-indigenous Australians.


[i] Fred Myers suggests Tjukurrpa is at a different level to human agency, and represents everything that exists or has existed. Individual time or space is not separated, all is connected, which Sutton characterises as the generative principle of the present. Fred R. Myers, Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines, U of California P, 1986, p52, p50. Sutton explains, ‘The Dreaming is thus the generative principle of the present, the logically prior dimension of the now, while also being a period in which the plants and animals were still women, men and children, before their transformation into their present forms took place.’ Peter Sutton, Ed., Dreamings: The art of Aboriginal Australia. Australia, Penguin Books, 1988, p15.

[ii] Max Deutscher, Interpretations of the dreaming’, a work in progress – April-May 1999, unpublished manuscript. He notes, ‘In each of the Pintupi, the Pitjantjatjara and in the Aranda languages, the one word is widely used for ‘word’, for ‘mark’ for ‘singing’ and for ‘law’.

[iii] Of course we depend on language totally, but there is a nostalgic pre-Lapsarian grain of truth in Daivid Abrams’s comment that ‘language functions largely to deny reciprocity with nature—by defining the rest of nature as inert, mechanical, and determinate—and where, in consequence, our sensorial participation with the land around us must remain mute, inchoate, and in most cases wholly unconscious.’ David Abram,  The Spell of the Sensuous.  New York: Vintage Books, 1997, p71.

[iv] R. M. Berndt, The Walmadjeri and Gugadja in Hunters & Gatherers Today: A Socioeconomic Study of Eleven Such Cultures in the Twentieth Century, ed. M.G. Bicchieri, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York 1972, p184. Some of this information derives from Lloyd D. Graham, ‘The Nature and Origins of the Tingari Cycle’ http://www.ausanthrop.net/research/papers/read_paper.php?paper_loc=graham.htm. .

[v] Ted Strehlow, Songs of Central Australia (written 1946-1967), pub 1971.

[vi] Geoffrey Partington Thoughts on Terra Nullius, Chapter Eleven: Proceedings of the Nineteenth Conference of The Samuel Griffith Society, Aug 2007. http://www.samuelgriffith.org.au/papers/html/volume19/v19chap11.html

[vii] See http://www.arrawarraculture.com.au/fact_sheets/pdfs/03_Stone_Fish_Traps.pdf