Australian Aborigines are one of the oldest civilizations in the world. In anthropological terms, they are particular Australoid race. Aboriginal Australian is a name of indigenous inhabitants given by Europeans. In Historical Dictionary of Australian Aborigines by Rolls and Johnson, it is noted that the indigenous population of Australia prefer to call themselves Koori, as the term Aborigines was introduced by British colonizers (102).
According to Year Book Australia 2012, today there are about 517,000 indigenous people in Australia. Among them, it is possible to distinguish actually natives living on the mainland, and the natives inhabiting the islands of the Torres Strait. The total percentage of Australian Aborigines accounts for approximately 2.5% of the population (Pink 138).
Aboriginal Australians lived in continuous contact with nature and knew it well. Nature pervaded their whole mental world and artistic creativity, being an integral part of the social system. Groups, formed by the natives, and especially, the clans were called by the names of animal species – emu, kangaroo, eagle, iguana, etc. The specific form of the animal served as a totem of group, linking it to the Dreamtime – the basic concept, determining the time when everything was created. Totem not only acted as a fundamental spiritual and social reference, but it was also believed that it could actively intervene in a person’s life, for example, preventing dangers, giving strength in challenging times or bringing news about the needs of loved ones.
All aboriginal tribes had secret and sacred totemic rituals, the central theme of which was the representation of totem animals and playing their mythical deeds. The myths recorded the actions of those creatures – creators and ancestors – who first came to the territory of the tribe to give it form, populate with people, animals and plants, and establish proper rituals, laws and sacred places. Membership in totemic groups was usually patrilineal. Members of such groups were supposed to keep the myths, take care of sacred places and symbols, as well as to represent the creative acts of heroic ancestors. They believed that such action provided augmentation of food sources at the appropriate time of the year and ensured a safe and secure future of the group.
Health and Illness Beliefs
Aboriginal Australians believed that the cause of the disease was always the evil spirit that entered a patient’s body. Thus, it was necessary to drive it out, which could be done only by the witch doctor. The treatment usually consisted in rubbing and seemingly “sucking out” sore spot. The witch doctor then used to spit out the cause of disease as a pip, allegedly extracted from a patient’s body. Healers often brought real relief thanks to the created psychological effect, so they were commonly respected.
Mild illnesses were treated by means of traditional medicine. Different plants were ground and soaked in water, the resulting mixture was used in the treatment of stomach diseases, snake bites, and so on. For headaches healers practiced bloodletting to relieve suffering. To get rid of pain Aboriginal Australians applied thermal treatments: a patient was placed in the hot sand or treated with steam. The treatment of eye diseases prevalent in places with lots of dust and glare were difficult to treat, as well as fractures of the extremities, “treatment” of which often resulted in deformed position of bones.
Biological Variations of Australian Aborigines
With an average growth similar to the Europeans, the dark-skinned people of this race are different from other nations and are classified as Australoids.
Autraloid race is usually described as follows:
“The males of this type are commonly of fair stature, with well-developed torso and arms, but relatively and absolutely slender legs. The color of the skin is some shade of chocolate-brown; and the eyes are very dark brown, or black. The hair is usually raven-black, fine and silky in texture; and it is never woolly, but usually wavy and tolerably long.” (Huxley)
However, another variation of Aboriginal Australians has another distinctive feature – blond or fair hair (Robertson 58). Huxley also notes alveolar prognathism and differences in the calvaria: it is high and wall-sided in one Australians, and remarkably depressed in others. Australians also inherited broad nose, heavy jaws, and remarkably coarse lips (Huxley).
Australian Aboriginal tribe comprised about 100 to 1,500 people living in a certain area, having common language, customs, and beliefs. All members of the tribe considered themselves bound by ties of kinship. The estimated number of such tribes was around 500 (Broome 15).
In the life of Aboriginal Australians, a tribe as a social unit played a much smaller role than a local group, which united related families by everyday life within their territorial possessions. The group members worked together not only to meet personal needs. Women were engaged in gathering, and men mastered hunting. Thus, nutrition of Aborigines in fruitful years always consisted of both plant and animal food. The food was distributed according to the rules, and with special respect to the interests of the elderly and young generation. The whole group was considered as a family and had very tight kinship (Broome 20). Thus, the group consisted of relatives in the male line, represented by different generations. Sons lifelong remained in the group and usually could not marry a girl of their own group. Daughter had to go out of it, but they remained members of the genus within the territory inhabited by the spirits of their ancestors.
Aboriginal groups were largely egalitarian having no leaders and inherited status. However, their society was gerontocratic.
Knowledge about the myths and rituals was considered so vitally important that it was guarded as secrets, opened only to the initiated. All men, usually in adolescence, were to go through a long period of compliance with the strict discipline, taboos and a number of rituals. A long period of initiation was followed by a gradual access to secret and sacred knowledge of the group.
Modern relations and social organization of aboriginal community fell under influence of white men, who inhabited Australia. However, they struggled to preserve as much as possible from their traditions, customs and lifestyle. Nowadays, family relations and close ties are manifested in multi-family, overcrowded households. At the same time, some aboriginal people, especially ones living in urban areas, have totally integrated with European lifestyle (Broome 24-26).
Birth Practice and Beliefs
For Aboriginal Australians it was common to give a child its own totem even before birth. A totem directly linked a person with the Dreaming, the land, all creatures on it and the nature. Totems defined social roles and people’s relationships. Generally, the birth totem was determined by mother’s or father’s one through the spirit of the ancestor that the totem represents. Other totems were given to babies during birth ceremonies. Aboriginal people had special responsibilities to their totems and ensured their survival by protecting them in different ways.
In the old days there were certain traditions in childbirth: a woman in labor squatted over the prepared hole, laid by leaves and grass, and the umbilical cord was cut with a sharp stone. The process of labor involved only women who provided physical and moral support to future mother. Indigenous people believed that it was necessary for mother and child to give birth in their native land, as in this case, the land owns a child, and a child owns the land. It was the basis of tribal membership (Broome 17).
Even in 19th – 20th centuries, in traditional societies, women were not allowed to give birth in hospitals. Year Book Australia 2012 reports that most (98%) aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in 2008 had been born in hospitals, despite the fact that almost for half of future mothers this meant travelling a considerable distance (Pink 152).
Death Practices, Rituals and Beliefs
Death for aboriginal people always meant only the end of physical life, because the spirit of the deceased only freed from the body, but did not die. It went to heaven, where it lived with its heavenly heroes.
In some tribes, there was a belief that the spirit of the deceased is sent across the sea to the land of the dead. In the future, it can be reborn again in human form and live another life. Especially people feared insidious spirit, which was crafty and troublemaking and constantly striving to stay near the deceased. It was better not to disturb it.
After mourning, often accompanied by loud lamentations, and even self-inflicted cuts, the name of a dead person was not mentioned again not to disturb the insidious spirit. Grave or platform in a tree for air burial served as a reminder of the deceased. Mourning people wore signs of mourning – ornaments painted with white clay or bracelets made of bark.
Any death, except natural passing away of old and death of soldiers, was considered the result of hostile forces. This inevitably resulted from the belief in magic. People believed that death could only be plagued by magic. Such a death demanded vengeance, and nothing could prevent the punishment of guilty. The vendetta could be directed towards the man who quarreled with the deceased, insulted him in some other way, or just was jealous. After determining guilty a person by a number of features, relatives sent to him a group of avengers. However, a special agreement with the guilty party could help solve the problem. Most often vendetta took place in a form of magical damage.
Today, Australian government pays lots of attention and allocates funds to provide Aboriginal Australians with quality health services. However, there remain some problems determined by remoteness or cost of service. According to 2007–2008 National Health Survey, indigenous people are twice more likely to report poor or fair health (Pink 153).
Health care is provided to Aboriginals by doctors, midwives or nurses and aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers. While working with indigenous population, it is necessary to remember that they are people with strong cultural beliefs. Firstly, it is significant to build trust with them. Secondly, if a person refuses to accept medical service, it is expedient to show him/her its effectiveness through examples and strong evidences, probably confirmed by respected member of Aboriginal society. Thirdly, the only way to provide health services and preserve identity of a group is to provide culturally safe health care. Fourthly, in addition to supplying medical services, it is important to support the well-being of the community making contributions to community events and activities and conducting research of Aborigines’ ongoing needs.
To my opinion, in order to preserve cultural heritage and improve health of Aboriginal Australians, it is more expedient to provide medical care and health education locally in their reservations. Especially important this issue is in relation to beliefs that a child has to be born in ancestral land. With this regard, it is necessary to improve the cultural and language competency of doctors and other personnel providing health services. This will also contribute to health education of indigenous population. Another important step is reduction of systemic racism and equalization of opportunity to receive health assistance.