The longest continuing religion in the world belongs to Australia's Aborigines, with the Rainbow Serpent mythology recorded in rock shelter paintings believed to be 7,000 years old in the Kakadu National Park region, where this Ancestral Being is still important to local people. Other ancient rock art depicts Ancestral Beings (deities or gods) which were important in Aboriginal religion in the pastAncient Aboriginal rock art in the Kimberley, Western Australia. Photo: David M. Welch.

Although lacking a formal written language, for thousands of years Aborigines have recorded their culture as rock art. Their art shows images of the environment, such as the plants and animals, including images of the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) and Tasmanian devil, which became extinct on mainland Australia by about 3,000 years ago. This rock art tradition, mainly as paintings in rock shelters and as engravings on exposed rocks, has continued to the present. Some of the most ancient paintings, in rock shelters in northern Australia, depict people dressed for ceremony and dancing, with similar body decoration and accoutrements to those worn in ceremonies to this day, again revealing the great age of Aboriginal culture.

We can only suppose how ancient people of the past lived and thought by what is left behind of their culture. For mankind in different world regions 50,000 years ago, there is generally just the stone tools and camp fires remaining. However, by understanding Aboriginal societies, one can see how stone tools are just a very small part of any culture. Stone and wooden industries provided most tools and weaponry, but there was knowledge and technology connected with the use of shell and resins, and the making of string, rope, bags, baskets, and weaving. Furthermore, as well as the technological side of life, it seems very likely that mankind had already developed art by 50,000 years ago.

Aborigines did not build large stone monuments, did not farm animals and did not cultivate the soil for crops. Because they did not form cities, their culture is not described as a "civilisation", yet it contains all the elements of a civilised world. The arts – great paintings, lengthy songs and dances with accompanying stories that continue for days like great operas, are all present. Law and order was strict and religion is of greatest importance.

Wilfred Goonak examining Aboriginal rock art. Photo: David M. Welch.

One might think about how we define "advanced" and "primitive" when one considers that our modern cultures are only several hundreds to thousands of years old, while Aboriginal culture was 50,000 years old when Europeans stumbled upon it. Some of the important issues facing our world today and into the future, such as maintaining social cohesion, avoiding major wars, dealing with overpopulation, preventing the degradation and destruction of our environment, and the use of non-renewable resources, had been overcome by Aborigines and their ancient culture as they filled every part of the Australian continent. In these areas, perhaps we should regard Western culture as "developing" and Aboriginal culture as "advanced".


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