The Landscape of the Australian Aborigines

There are many complex characteristics of the relationship between Australian Aborigines and their landscape. The landscape they inhabit, consisting of the land itself, the trees, hills, lakes, rocks, but also its scents, sounds and flavours, contains many traces of their ancestors and thus reminders of a mythical past. Every aspect of the landscape has connotations of the ancestral beings, with which every place is firmly connected (Morphy 1995; Tilley 1994: 37–54). Likewise, each individual becomes, during his or her life, associated with a certain place or set of places, thus acquiring an identity in the landscape like those of the ancestors. People's identities are thus simultaneously inside and outside the person (Layton 1995: 219–222; Morphy 1995: 197f.). This is one reason why it can be a very difficult issue to legitimatise modern land claims against legitimate traditions of the indigenous population (see Layton 1995).
[Image] The relationships between people and the land in Australia are reflected in Aboriginal art, which you can view on web-pages maintained by

Howard Morphy (1995) argued that the landscape in eastern Arnhem Land is not only an intervening sign system passing on information about the ancestral past, which functions like a mnemonic (cf. the landscape of the Páez in Colombia), but that it is also integral to the message itself (see also Layton 1995: 229). The ancestral myths are learned and continuously re-created by day-to-day movements through the landscape as well as through certain ceremonial performances. Human actions at each place are influenced by the present ancestors. Interestingly, the ancestral past plays a similarly important role in understandings of the landscape in Fiji (Toren 1995).

The ancestral myths can change when clans die out or new ones emerge. Ancestors without descendants are replaced by the ancestors of new people. Ancestral myths connected with certain places thus appear stable and continuous even when people move (Morphy 1995: 186):

"People do not move in and take over a country by imposing new myths: rather they move in and act as if they are taken over by the new country."

Space is thus filled with 'mythical timemarks', and the past can be experienced spatially. This is even reflected in the grammar and vocabulary of the local Yolngu languages: distances in time and in space are expressed with the same terms (Morphy 1995: 188f.).

Paul Tacon (1994) argued that symbolic markings such as rock art, together with oral traditions, 'socialised' the landscape of Australia. Similar processes happened elsewhere, with the help of standing stones, stone circles, or mounds. Megaliths too have been used to socialise landscapes.


Layton, Robert (1995) Relating to the Country in the Western Dessert. In: E.Hirsch and M.O'Hanlon (eds) The Anthropology of Landscape. Perspectives of Place and Space, pp. 210–231. Oxford: Clarendon.

Morphy, Howard (1995) Landscape and the Reproduction of the Ancestral Past. In: E.Hirsch and M.O'Hanlon (eds) The Anthropology of Landscape. Perspectives of Place and Space, pp. 184–209. Oxford: Clarendon.

Tacon, Paul S.C. (1994) Socialising landscapes: the long-term implications of signs, symbols and marks on the land. Archaeology in Oceania 29, 117–129.

Tilley, Christopher (1994) A Phenomenology of Landscape. Places, Paths and Monuments. Oxford: Berg.

Toren, Christina (1995) Seeing the Ancestral Sites: Transformations in Fijian Notions of the Land. In: E.Hirsch and M.O'Hanlon (eds) The Anthropology of Landscape. Perspectives of Place and Space, pp. 163–183. Oxford: Clarendon.

© Cornelius Holtorf