food collecting Russell River

Larger, more elaborate shelter made from frame of branches, covered with bark. Northern Territory.
Caledon Bay Peace Mission Collection, Northern Territory Library.

An elderly couple commencing their hut in the rainforest. This shows the wooden frame of interlocking sticks before the palm leaves are applied. When making these homes, the men build the wooden frame while the women collect the palm fronds.
Atherton, north Queensland.
Photograph from 17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals.

A group of rainforest people outside one of their palm leaf huts.
Atherton-Herberton, north Queensland.
Photograph from 17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals.
Aboriginal housing

Aboriginal shelters

Winter shelter covered in spinifex grass used throughout inland Australia.
Photograph by George Aiston, from Savage Life in Central Australia.

The covering depended on locally available materials at the time. In some areas sheets of soft paperbark, easily pulled from trees, were available. In other areas stiffer sheets of thick stringy-bark were cut from trees, but if these were unavailable, then bushes and leafy branches were used.

In the tropical north, where a richer environment allowed people to camp in the one area for longer, more elaborate structures were built, sometimes elevated platforms with a fire below designed to make smoke and repel mosquitos.

In wet and cold conditions, closed dome-shaped shelters were made, commencing with a framework of sticks bent over and meeting in the centre. These were between one to two metres (three to six feet) high and this framework was covered with available materials – sheets of bark when available, but in desert regions, layers of spinifex grass, twigs and leaves.

In the tropical north, broad palm fronds were sometimes used, the shelters had one or two entrances, and sometimes were as large as three metres across, allowing a small fire to be made inside. While a fire provided warmth in cold conditions, it was also used to make smoke to repel mosquitos when they were bad. The shelters could be closed to prevent either rain or mosquitos entering by placing bushes at the small entrance.


Shelters had earth floors, but in regions where paperbark and stringybark were available, people slept on bark sheets of these materials. Some rock shelters in northern Australia still hold the remains of sleeping beds made from stringybark placed over a low wooden frame. In Arnhem Land, people also slept and rested on large woven mats.

Early explorers in several regions of Australia noted that the inside walls of bark shelters were often adorned with paintings and drawings. Today, similar paintings and drawings which have survived in cave shelters are what we regard as Aboriginal rock art.

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