Living in Dreamtime

Perhaps the most remarkable adaptation of these desert-dwelling people was their rich, mystical culture, layered with stories and stitched together with faith and insight into the natural world. The Australian aboriginals boast the longest continuous cultural history of any group on Earth. Central to their view of the world is the mysterious and transcendent notion of dreamtime, a belief that explains how the universe came to be, the creation of human beings, and the purpose of creation. This philosophy held that all living things are part of a vast network of relationships connected to the spirits that created the Earth and the dream that contains it. The aboriginals believe that every event leaves a record in the land, so that every place, animal, plant, and person has some connection to those original stories and spirits, which makes everything sacred. Dreamtime existed before the Earth and so brought it into being. Now, dreamtime continues as an echo or shadow of the Earth, which means it remains accessible to a reverent and respectful person. Dreams provide one of the best connections to this underlying spiritual reality.

The desert-dwelling aboriginals speak of jiva or guruwari, a seed power deposited in the earth. Every activity and life leaves what amounts to a vibration, just as plants leave a copy of themselves in the enigmatic form of a seed. The mountains, rocks, riverbeds, and waterholes all create their own vibration in dreamtime and so remain connected to the origins of the Earth and the spirits that still animate it. So in this concept, the world is merely an expression of a deeper underlying reality, which people can glimpse only in certain states of spirituality or consciousness or dreams.

The complex skein of stories passed along for the past 50,000 years connect certain places with events in that dreamtime of creation and to plants and animals and their animating spirit. Therefore the stories and ceremonies connect the ethics and the morality of people directly to the landscape in which they live. At the same time, those stories all incorporate rocks, mountains, rivers, streambeds, and other features of the landscape. That means that people who learn the stories of dreamtime and the creation myths will in that process memorize a map of their territory, which will help them find food, water, seasonal resources, and territories of other bands. So as a hunter walks along he will see a certain outcropping and remember the story of where the echidna-spirit slept for three years and from that story will know he will find a reliable spring a mile to the southwest.

Interestingly, these beliefs echo the philosophy and spirituality of desert-dwelling tribes on the other side of the world, including the Chemeheuvi Indians of California and the Tohono O'odham and the Apache in Arizona. All have developed traditional beliefs that imbued the landscape and all living creatures with elements of the sacred, urged people to live good lives, and used stories about certain places to teach right behavior and philosophy. Interestingly, most of the world's great religions originated in desert cultures, which perhaps reflects the austere and mystical impact of living in such a sparse, difficult landscape, where people must rely on a unreliable bounty of rainfall or irregular blooms of crucial plants.

Those aboriginal beliefs help account for the extraordinary reverence the native people feel for Uluru, perhaps the world's largest rock, a mass of sandstone 1,100 feet high (335.3 m), two miles long (3.22 km), and half a mile (0.80 km) wide that rises from the deserts of north-central Australia, one of the most stirring sights on the planet because of its sheer size and graceful, irresistible curves. The creation stories of the Anangu and others revolve around the massive sandstone formation. One dome-shaped stone is said to be one of the digging sticks of the ancients. Another story holds that gouges in the rock are the scars of the spears of the creators.

The ancient culture of the aboriginals was decimated soon after the first Europeans came upon Australia, starting in 1788. The British originally used the continent as a prison for criminals transported there for crimes committed in England. But the introduction of new people, plants, animals, and diseases laid waste to the aboriginal cultures. Within a century, the aboriginal population had dropped by 90 percent. Many of the surviving native people retreated into the interior, which remained too harsh for the Europeans to claim.