The Aboriginals: The Oldest Culture

The Australian deserts also harbor one of the most remarkable, desertadapted cultures, the Australian aboriginals. They adapted to the harsh conditions and their long isolation with a culture sparing in the use of tools but rich in philosophy and cultural adjustments to desert conditions. Moreover, their long isolation from other human cultures has made them a key piece in the attempt to reconstruct the puzzle of human evolution and adaptation.

No one knows how the first people made it to Australia perhaps 50,000 years ago. They may have been fishermen on rafts or dugouts who made the journey across open water, island hopping from Asia through the scatter of islands that constitute Indonesia and finally happening upon Australia. That implies a relatively sophisticated and adventurous human culture capable of undertaking such a journey 50,000 years ago.

Numerous studies of these isolated people have attempted to shed light on the still-emerging theories of human evolution and spread. The DNA-based evidence of a recent spread of modern humans out of Africa makes the original inhabitants of Australia a crucial link in the chain of human evolution, since they made their way to the island continent soon after people first spread out of Africa and then remained genetically isolated for 50,000 years.

One recent study that relied heavily on comparing the DNA of Australian aboriginals to other groups concluded that modern humans first left Africa just 70,000 years ago, at which time their world population totaled maybe 2,000, according to a recent study by researchers from Stanford University published in the American Journal of Human Genetics. That could account for the tiny genetic difference between modern human populations, much smaller than the genetic differences between different groups of chimpanzees, gorillas, or most other animals.

The people who did reach Australia 50,000 to 60,000 years ago initially found a much more lush place, fragrant with grasslands, flowers, and strange animals. But when the climate changed and huge areas of the island continent shifted to desert between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, the aboriginals demonstrated the great secret survival weapon of human beings—adaptability.

The native people of Australia developed a rich weaving of cultures. Many groups invented their own languages. By the time Europeans arrived in the 1800s, the scattered groups of hunters and gatherers spoke at least 500 languages in 31 different language groups. Often, people living on one side of a rich area like Sydney Bay would speak a completely different language from the people on the other side of the bay. Most of the estimated 300,000 native people living in Australia before the arrival of the first Europeans lived along the fertile, well-watered coast. But many also made a living in the harsh interior.

They made use of every resource, including insects. For instance, they staged feasts and ceremonials to gather up the Bogong moth, which congregated in mountain caves each year. During the moth season, people would go to the mountains, enter the moth caves, and gather up a great feast. They could stir the moths into hot sand and ashes to singe off the wings and legs, before using a net to sift out the heads and bodies. They then ate the cooked bodies of the moths like popcorn or ground them into a paste. The moths proved an excellent food source, with an average fat content of about 50 percent.

Another great delicacy was the witchety grub, found on the roots of witchety bushes in central Australia. These grubs were among the most important foods for desert-dwelling aboriginals. People would dig up the roots and split them open to extract the grub within. Popped into the ashes, the grubs would swell up and stiffen. They taste like almonds and are so rich in calories, protein, and fat that 10 grubs a day provided enough calories to sustain a human being. Other insect foods included the honeypot ants, which serve as living storage containers for nectar collected by worker ants. The native people also treasured the stored honey of the native, stingless bees. They would catch a bee feeding on pollen then glue a little bit of wood to the bee's feet. This would slow the bee enough on its trip back to the hive that the hunter could follow the bee and harvest the stored honey.