The Aboriginals, the first Australians, survived on their continent for more than 60,000 years. What can we learn from them to live more sustainably?

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“It is hard to imagine that the ancestors of the Aboriginal people crossed here on foot more than 60,000 years ago,” Floris says as we sail through the Torres Strait along Australia’s north coast. The strait – which was not covered by water back then but is now over 20 meters deep – is notorious among seafarers for its strong currents. We round Cape York, the northernmost point of the mainland, and stay close to the coast, which keeps us away from the strongest currents. Not much later we drop anchor at the town of Seisia. Many Aboriginal people still live in this area. Their ability to survive for tens of thousands of years makes the people one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world. “The Aboriginals must have lived sustainably, otherwise they would have become extinct”, Ivar reasons. We wonder if there is anything left of their culture and lifestyle after all the horrors done to them following Australia’s colonization. If so, what can we learn from them to live more sustainably?

Deep Respect for Nature

We put our question to Sara Jones and Jamie Thomas of Wayapa Wuurrk, an organization that is committed to the well-being of the earth, mind, and body. Jamie has Aboriginal ancestors and set up this organization together with Sara. The name means “connected to country” in his family’s Aboriginal language. “One of my Elders said: ‘The state of the world is what it is because people are disconnected from the land they are living on. Disconnected from the cycles, the seasons, their responsibilities, and from listening to those who have that connection. We can’t be healthy when Mother Earth is sick.’ That really resonated with me, so we set out to reconnect people with nature”, Jamie begins.

“All cultures once lived much more in harmony with Mother Earth, but that relationship has been disrupted in many ways. Think of the exploitation of the earth and its pollution as a result of greed and materialism. The Aboriginal people have retained their connection to the land longer than Western cultures, some of them to this day,” Jamie continues. “They followed the rhythm of the seasons, lived on what nature could give them, and didn’t accumulate large amounts of stuff because they were nomadic. That direct dependence on nature has also influenced their culture. For example, gold was not valuable, but sharp stones were because of their function as tools. They also knew a lot about their environment, the plants, and animals.”

“The other thing that we have lost is intergenerational well-being: honouring our ancestors and taking care of the land today for generations to come”, Jamie laments. “You didn’t take more than was necessary. Wildlife populations and plants were kept healthy because unwritten rules and customs dictated that you didn’t’ take more than you needed. In some cases, only certain groups were allowed to eat a certain animal species, or only at certain times of the year”, Jamie explains. “There is a reason Aboriginals are referred to as stewards of the land. They survived thanks to a deep respect for nature on which they depend”, he adds.

"The Aboriginal people have retained their connection to the land longer than Western cultures."


Stepping Back from Excessiveness and Materialism

“Today we are talking about our own survival, not necessarily the planet’s survival”, Sara clarifies. “True wellbeing is when the planet is well, because we depend on it. I believe we all have this instinct inside of us. Our memory needs to be reactivated to tap into this survival mechanism and knowledge. From that reactivation comes different behaviour, such as stepping back from excessiveness and materialism and being mindful of one’s journey in life.”

Jamie gives an example: “In the Aboriginal culture, the children learn the stories from the Elders. The most important values that you can pass on to your children are sustainability and how to look after the land. It’s about honouring what you’re seeing: animals and plants know how to live absolutely in sync with their environment.”

“When I grew up, we had everything when we had nothing. Yet I was surrounded by materialism and advertising for things we didn’t need and only added stress. In our work through Wayapa Wuurrk, we take that stress away by having conversations about purpose and responsibility. I think that has far more impact than telling people what to do. You soon realize that you don’t need to have the latest gadgets and that you get much for satisfaction from going into nature and imparting on your kids a connection with nature and the values associated with it.”

We are all Indigenous to the Earth

Sara explains that they make people feel again how they are connected to the culture of their distant ancestors and to the earth. “If the earth is polluted, we also get sick. When the earth is pure and the water is clean, we feel better too. That’s why we say ‘We are nature.’ When people realize that, the first step has been taken, because change in behaviour comes from within. We share our knowledge, just as the elders in the Aboriginal groups shared their knowledge to pass on their culture to future generations.”

“How do you restore that connection with nature?” we ask. Sara gives the wind as an example. “When it’s windy, you hear people complaining about the weather. But when you explain to them that the wind is nature’s way of gardening – spreading seeds – suddenly you see lightbulbs going on and the listener views the wind differently from that moment forward.” “We are not teachers, but conduits of our ancestors’ knowledge”, Jamie adds. “The great thing is that everyone’s ancestors were connected to nature, not just the Aboriginals. It means that everyone can fall back on their own culture. We are all indigenous to the earth.”

Colonial Horrors

Sara’s and Jamie’s words make us realize how far removed our Western culture has become from being connected, or in sync, with nature. The one culture that maintained that connection the longest, the Aboriginals, has had their connection violently taken away from them. According to the authoritative Australian professor and writer Marcia Langton, when the British started to colonize Australia in 1788, the continent was no wilderness. Rather, it was a managed series of landscapes. That’s because the Aboriginals were not only hunters and gatherers, but also used aquaculture and agricultural measures. They had fish traps, cultivated grain, yam and onion, and managed the grass to promote fertile soil. The Aboriginals traditionally lived in the open air, which made them experts in reading the light and shadows of the day, the movement of the stars, the colour, direction and shape of clouds, the signs of smoke and dust, the levels of water, the direction that birds were flying, and the tracks and scats of animals. They predicted the weather from the rings around the moon, the seasons, the movement of ants and birds. They knew that seasons began with the appearance of particular ecological indicators, like the flowering of a particular tree or the appearance of particular insects, and understood which weather patterns were associated with each season, such as wind, temperature, rain, or dew. They used almost every plant in some way, also for bush medicine.

When the British arrived, there were hundreds of indigenous cultures with many customs specific to those cultures – e.g. because they were based on local circumstances – and others that were and still are continent-wide. Yet the colonizers forced Aboriginals from their land, often violently. Farms and grazing animals changed the landscape, ending the Aboriginals’ ability to hunt, gather, and fish. They starved as cattle and sheep polluted waterholes and destroyed grasslands along with their agricultural plots. As a result, many Aboriginals became dependent on rations and handouts.

Nature in Art

Despite the hardships, some surviving Aboriginals managed to sustain their way of life. We are eager to meet Aboriginals who still personify a strong connection with the land. We leave Luci behind in Darwin and embark on a journey of discovery in the Northern Territory, an area 32 times the size of the Netherlands with only 250,000 inhabitants. In Kakadu National Park we soon encounter traces of the Aboriginals. They left paintings on rocks all over the park. Some date back thousands of years. The Aboriginals have depicted fish and other wildlife in honour of the animals providing their tribe with food. The hunters also hoped that their artistic tributes would help them be successful on future hunts. It shows how closely the first inhabitants of Australia were connected with nature. Even their art reflects that bond. In addition, we can conclude from the images that the Aboriginal people ate what was available locally and, by definition, in season. Naturally, knowledge of the environment, the cycles of plants and animals, and the weather patterns were essential for this lifestyle.

"Even their art shows how closely the first inhabitants of Australia were connected to nature."

In Harmony with Nature

Through Animal Tracks, we get the chance to spend a day with an Aboriginal woman gathering food in the bush and preparing it on a fire. Patsy shows us how to find freshwater mussels buried in a dry riverbed, choose the right leaves from a pandanus tree and make string from them. She rips of pieces of bark from one tree to cool the skin and from another tree to use as a cover for cooking. Just about every plant has a function. We pluck a goose and ducks, put them on green leaves the in the fire and cover the lot with bark to cook the meat to perfection. Meanwhile, Patsy talks about “the right way” – doing things as she learned them from her ancestors, with respect for nature. That can mean understanding where and when which food source is plentiful, like the goose we are preparing for dinner. Only when they are around her land in their thousands is it okay for the tribe to hunt them. By adapting to environmental conditions in that way, the area’s biodiversity is preserved. Her “yarning” – telling stories by the campfire while we prepare the tucker (food), is also typical of her culture. It’s the way to pass on stories, traditions and unwritten rules. At the root of those is a responsibility for the land, nature, and the survival of families and future generations. Thanks to Patsy, we get a sense of what life has been like around here for thousands of years.

Fire against Fire

In Kakadu and also on Patsy’s land, we notice black patches of land. “We recently set fire to a section there,” Patsy says, dryly. The Aboriginals use fire strategically to manage the land. By burning small pieces under the right climate conditions, they prevent uncontrolled fire, such as caused by lightning, from wreaking havoc. The Aboriginals keep the fire small so that the treetops don’t burn, stimulate plants that thrive after the fire, and protect fire-sensitive plants. Plants and animals recover quickly after such a controlled fire and kangaroos are attracted to the young grass. In turn, they are a source of food for the Aboriginals.

Recognition of Connectedness

Pro-active burning of pieces of land is a skill that requires a lot of knowledge of the environment, the seasons and the weather. After the gigantic bushfires of 2019/20, which destroyed some 240,000 square kilometres, the Australian government recognized that traditional burning, as the Aboriginals do, can be a solution to avoid such large-scale natural disasters in the future. A committee that investigated the fires therefore recommended that the government enters into discussions with the Aboriginal people to learn from them.

Aboriginals were also involved for the first time in the recently published “State of the Environment” report. The Australian Department of the Environment and Agriculture seems to recognize that the knowledge of the indigenous people and their connection to the land are vital for a more sustainable Australia.

Lessons for us

With our heads full of what we have learned, we sail on. “If you consider that the sea level was once so low that people could walk to the Australian continent, you realize how sensitive the Earth’s climate system is. If a minimal change in solar intensity can cause such large sea level spikes, we should brace for impact as a result to the massive amounts of CO2 we are now releasing into the biosphere”, Ivar ponders. “While the Aboriginals lived in relative harmony with nature for tens of thousands of years, our Western looting culture is largely responsible for the destruction of the entire biosphere in a few hundred years,” he adds.

Floris agrees. “The Aboriginals understand that we depend on a healthy planet. That’s why they have a saying: If you take care of Country, it will take care of you.” “I also find their social structures very interesting”, Ivar continues. “People live in clans, led by Elders. These leaders are respected because of their life experience. They are culture bearers, strongly rooted in their communities, and committed to the wellbeing of their community. Among Aboriginals you won’t find any billionaires engaged in selfish escape attempts like building underground bunkers in New Zealand or dreaming of colonizing other planets.”

“We don’t all have to live like the original Aboriginals”, Floris says. “But anyone who realizes that we are all part of nature, that our ancestors had a close relationship with it, and that we depend on a healthy planet, takes an important step. Accepting responsibility for the earth’s well-being is the next step. Thereafter comes seeing it as your purpose to pass it on in good condition to future generations.” Everyone can do that in their own way, for example by spending more time in nature, educating children about our wildlife and plants, eating local and seasonal food, and pursuing wellbeing of the earth and, by extension, yourself instead of material things. In other words, will you let the Aboriginals, and your ancestors, inspire you to get more “connected to country”?

NB: In this article, “Aboriginals” is used to refer to the first inhabitants of Australia, meaning tribes of the mainland commonly referred to as Aboriginals, as well as tribes of the islands of the Torres Strait, commonly referred to as Torres Strait Islanders.

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