Dale Kerwin

An important aspect of a distinct Aboriginal culture derives from the tradition of travel, and the tangible and intangible goods that were traded along communication routes that criss-crossed Australia. The external and internal trade of cultural products generated knowledge of other societies, and impacted on societies that traded. The movement of these tangible objects, and the movement of material culture, resulted in expert mapping and familiarity with the dispersion paths taken by Aboriginal travellers. In this movement coastal estuaries, river systems, and catchment areas played a major role in assisting Aboriginal travellers to move deep into the very heart of Australia. These paths were also later followed by European surveyors and stockmen.

The dreaming paths of Aboriginal nations across Australia formed major ceremonial routes along which goods and knowledge flowed. These became the trade routes that criss-crossed Australia and transported religion and cultural values. Aboriginal roads assisted the European colonisation of Australia by appropriating Aboriginal competence in terms of the landscape: by tapping into culinary and medicinal knowledge, water and resource knowledge, hunting, food collecting and path-finding. As a consequence of this assistance, Aboriginal dreaming paths and trading ways also became the routes and roads of colonisers.

Trading was a time for sharing

Murrandoo Yanner, an Aboriginal leader from the Ganggalida nation, Mungubie (Burketown) North Queensland, talked in a personal communication in 1994 about the tradition and history of trading:

We had our domestic trade routes that went north, south, east and west, my people the Ganggalida traded for oysters, sea turtle and dugong from the north and in return we had goanna and turkey. We went to Normanton for gidgee lancewood and heavy wood for spears and clap sticks, we went west to Garawa for spear flints and stuff. We went south to the Waanyi and we also traded for a stone axe from the Kalkadoons.

We never just traded for goods, trading was a time for sharing of ideas and technology such as the woomera and outrigger canoes with sails. The didgeridoo started in a small place in Arnhem Land and by the time whites arrived it had spread over half the distance of Australia. There was also a lot of ceremony sharing, of food, of stories, of culture and time together. Trade was a time of catching up both pleasure and business. My mob when travelling would grind up the Mitchell grass and make Johnny cakes out of it.

Stone axes from the Mount Isa area found their way to areas along the eastern coast. In addition, the engraved pearl shells from the Dampier Peninsula, north-western Australia, actually reached the shores of the Great Australian Bight over 3200 kilometres, and the oval baler-shell ornaments from Cape York, north-eastern Australia.

Pituri road

One of the most important Aboriginal Highways is the ‘Pituri Road’. According to Pamela Watson’s 1983 monograph on the production, distribution and consumption of pituri, the Pituri Road ‘encompassed a river system where the headwaters of numerous streams [flowed] north into the Gulf of Carpentaria’. These streams also lie close to the catchment area for the Channel Country, where the tributaries of the southward-flowing waters of the Diamantina and Georgina Rivers flow. The Diamantina and Georgina Rivers form the floodplains of the Channel Country and the Lake Eyre basin. In this area the Finke and other river systems flow south into South Australia and Central Australia. According to Watson, the direction of the water formed the main trunk route for trade also flowed along other numerous river systems branching out from the main trunk. The Pituri Road brought together ‘religious and social institutions and inventors of technique’.

Pituri was also traded along these same story chains into Western Australia. The material was moved along the Two Dogs’ Dreaming story, which formed a major trading route.

Cohesive knowledge network

To provide a better understanding of the many devices used by Aboriginal people to move over the country, knowledge is required of tangible objects like the shield. Some of these objects are sacred while others are commonplace, everyday objects. The landscape, knowledge, story, song, graphic representation, and social relations all mutually interact, forming, according to David Turnbull in 1989, one ‘cohesive knowledge network’ to create way-finding devices.

Sandstone grinding dishes quarried at a site near Stuart Creek, south of Lake Eyre, were also taken north into Bedourie. Material culture of high economic significance was moved from one Aboriginal nation to another stage by stage. This may have taken years; and the value of the object increased as it got further from its point of origin. These items were moved along a major communication route from the west of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia and north to the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland. The latter route also linked with the route across Mount Isa to Cloncurry. Material culture that travelled up from the Flinders Ranges was red ochre, fine sandstone grinding dishes, and pituri. Material culture traded south from Cloncurry and the Gulf of Carpentaria included baler shell, stone axes, and pituri (the latter being the major commodity). The trading parties undertook major trading expeditions to the Flinders Ranges for red ochre and to Madlhu for pituri. These parties would travel several hundred kilometres, while others would possibly travel over 1000 kilometres.

Simpson Desert

The Simpson Desert was the hub of a major trading route along which goods travelled in all directions. It was a meeting place and a major trading centre for pituri. Tangible cultural material property as well as intangible cultural knowledge passed through the region. One such road that ran from Pituri Creek, on the Northern Territory and Queensland border, to Rockhampton is over 1600 kilometres long. Just outside of Rockhampton at the Carnarvon Ranges, baler shell stencils can be found. At the source of one pituri plantation at Woodnunajilla waterhole (Apwertetywernkwerre) (known as Salt Lake and related to the Snake Dreaming in Arrernte country), Urtneye was harvested and taken to Lake Caroline, where many groups would travel to trade for the tobacco. A.W. Howitt, W.E. Roth and pastoralist Lee Reese, have all noted the great distances that pituri trading took place – such as the 1600 kilometres Pituri Creek to Rockhampton route. Anne McConnell noted in 1976 that Boulia, Goyders Lagoon, and Kopperamanna also served as pituri trade centres.

The Aboriginal dreaming paths across Australia formed major ceremonial routes along which goods and knowledge flowed. Indeed, the European colonisation of Australia owes much of its success to the deliberate process of Aboriginal land management practices.

References and Further reading (Note)

Pamela Watson, This precious foliage: a study of the Aboriginal psycho-active drug Pituri, Sydney, University of Sydney, 1983

References and Further reading (Note)

Colin Bourke, Colin Johnson, and Isobel White, Before the invasion: Aboriginal life to 1788, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1980

References and Further reading (Note)

David Turnbull, Maps are territories, science is an atlas: portfolio of exhibits, Geelong, Deakin University Press, 1989

References and Further reading (Note)

Anne McConnell, ‘Aboriginal Trade in Australia’, MA thesis Australian National University, 1976

References and Further reading (Note)

Queensland Land Tribunal, ‘Aboriginal Land Claim to Simpson Desert National Park’, Report, Queensland Minister for Lands, 1994

Aboriginal, pituri, trade