Australian Aborigines migrated from south-east Asia over a period from about 50,000 years ago until the last Ice Age some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. They were then isolated from the rest of the world and developed a unique culture.
Between 300,000 and 750,000 Aborigines lived in Australia at the time of the first white settlement in 1788. There were some 260 languages spoken across the continent, with many consisting of two or three dialects.
They lived in about 600 tribes of 500 or more members. Each tribe was further divided into groups or extended families typically of around 50-60 people, which were made up of about 10-12 separate families.
Aboriginal society had a complex social structure with many strict rules and customs. It was an egalitarian society where everything was shared among its members. If one person had meat, fish, shelter, a canoe or some other commodity, then it was shared, not only with members of the immediate family but among other families, other groups and with strangers.
An Aboriginal family unit consisted of a married man and woman and their children. Most men had one wife but in some instances polygamy was practiced. It was unacceptable for a woman not to be married and hence not cared for.
At birth or when very young, a girl would be assigned to a male. Soon after puberty she would move to the group in which the male lived, entering into the prearranged marriage. Although there was no wedding ceremony, elders always knew who was to be assigned to whom and would sanction the union.
The allocation of marriage partners was based on a highly complex and well-organized lineage system whereby a tribe was divided into two parts, or moieties, usually based on the male line. The male partner had to come from one moiety and the female from the other.
Widows, unless elderly, were remarried after a six-month mourning period and sometimes had a say in who their new partner would be. Divorce was unheard of. Strict rules regarding marriage meant that no child was ever orphaned or looked after by only one parent. Aunts and uncles were regarded by children as second mothers and fathers, while a cousin was considered a real brother or sister.
A feeling of security, pride and confidence was instilled in every child. All Aboriginal children were useful members of society and were fit and happy. They assisted the women to gather plant food, collect firewood and babysit younger siblings.
Babies were thought to be spirits who chose their own mothers. Childbirth was performed naturally, with little preparation and rapid recovery. Labor was easy. The mother gave birth unattended and in the squatting position.
The baby was placed in a coolamon, a basin-shaped wooden dish equivalent to a bassinette, the mother resuming her activities within hours of giving birth. The skin of a newborn baby was light in color and in summer a mixture of ash and oil was used as protection against sunburn.
As a mother went about her daily chores, the baby was either in its coolamon nearby or in her free arm. The rounded shape of the coolamon enabled a mother to gently rock her baby to sleep. A bed of sand served as a mattress and in cold weather kangaroo-skin rugs acted as blankets. A baby was breast fed up to the age of two or three years.