2016, ‘Maps and Mapmaking of the Australian Aboriginal People’ in Helaine
Selin ed., Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in
Non-western Cultures, Springer, Dordrecht, 2685-8.
One of the most common forms of representation in Australian Aboriginal
culture is the map. Bark paintings are often maps, as are sand sculptures,
body painting, and rock art. Spear throwers and log coffins may be decorated
with maps. Message sticks and Toas (waymarkers) may incorporate
geographical information. In 1957 the anthropologist Donald Thomson visited
the central Australian desert country belonging to the Pintupi people and
described his experience: I was able to...live and hunt with a group of
desertdwelling aborigines who still followed the life of their ancestors... On the
eve of our going (return) Tjappanongo produced spear throwers, on the backs
of which were designs deeply incised, more or less geometric in form.
Sometimes with a stick or with his finger, he would point to each well or rock
hole in turn and recite its name, waiting for me to repeat it after him... I
realized that here was the most important discovery of the expedition that
what Tjappanongo and the old men had shown me was really a map, highly
conventionalized, like the marks on a “message” or “letter“ stick of the
aborigines, of the waters of the vast terrain over which the Bindubu hunted.
Tjappanongo was clearly endeavouring to convey topographic information
and hence was non-problematically drawing a map. Peter Sutton argues such
maps should be distinguished from iconic representations which, while spatial,
are largely symbolic and performative (Sutton, 1998a, p. 362). However, it
seems plausible to accept an inclusive definition of a map as a device for
organizing knowledge spatially, Courts of law Maps and Mapmaking of the
Australian Aboriginal People 2685 M are now accepting paintings of the
Dreaming tracks of the ancestral beings as evidence of ownership and hence
the distinction between maps and icons is becoming blurred (Turnbull, 1998).
Why then are maps so ubiquitous in a culture that has no written language
and, purportedly, has little of the social complexity held to characterize
contemporary Western culture? The answer is that Aboriginal culture is far
from simple, having as it does one of the richest religious systems in the
world, and that its central values are embodied as knowledge; knowledge that
is spatially organized because the land and relationships to it underpin
everything. Aboriginal culture is spatialized linguistically, socially, religiously,
artistically, and epistemologically. Aboriginal ontology is one of spatialized
activities, of events and processes, people, and places. To talk of things is to
speak of the relationships of processes at named sites, it is to consider the
connections between actions of the ancestral beings and humans. Every
moment of daily life is replete with spatial references; asking someone to
move over may be phrased as “move northwards please”. Dreams and
narratives are cast in a framework of spatial coordinates. Visiting groups at
ceremonial gatherings distribute themselves in a spatial replication of the
location of their homelands. Ceremonial and initiation grounds are spatially
constructed and oriented either to other sacred sites or to the sun. The
pervasiveness of spatiality in Aboriginal daily life jointly derives from the
semantic structure of the language in which the subjects of sentences are not
things but relations and from the centrality of the land in Aboriginal cosmology.
It is the land that is the source of value and meaning, of rights and obligations.
Everywhere is sacred since all the land was created in the Dreaming by the
activities of ancestral beings as they moved across the landscape. These
journeys left Dreaming tracks, knowledge of which is recreated in song, story,
and ceremony. Everyone has a spiritual linkage to the land by virtue of birth
such that they are the land. Knowledge of the Dreaming tracks, of the
activities that created the land of one’s birth, is therefore evidence of
possession of the land and by the land. Continued prosperity of the land
depends on the fulfillment of the ceremonials and rituals which are in effect
both a celebration of ownership and a continuation of the act of creation. The
landscape is the source of meaning and value and the repository of history
and events and can be read as a map of itself and its own creation (Watson,
Helen and the Yolngu community at Yirrkala, 1993, p. 36). However, it is
knowledge that is the primary marker of status and the primary item of
exchange (Palmer, 1991). Surface knowledge is the outside knowledge that
anyone can speak of; inside knowledge is that which only the initiated can
speak of and which is gradually revealed through life as maturity is attained.
The way the Yolgnu of Eastern Arnhemland structure their system is typical of
the ways in which it is possible for Aboriginal groups to have a detailed
understanding of their environment. Their knowledge system is dependent on
the joint articulation of two modes of patterning. One is genealogical – gurrutu
the kinship system; the other is spatial – djalkiri the footsteps of the ancestors
or the Dreaming tracks (Watson, Helen, the Yolngu community at Yirrkala, &
David Wade Chambers, 1989, p. 37). The kinship system provides an
unlimited process of recursion that enables all things to be named and related
and thus imposes an order on the social and natural world that gives it
coherence and value. It provides the framework within which social
obligations with regard to life, death, marriage, and land can be negotiated.
The other mode of patterning is provided by the stories, myths, or Dreamings
that relate the travels and activities of the ancestors in creating the landscape
in the form of tracks or songlines that traverse the whole country. The kinship
system and the songlines together form a knowledge network that allows for
everything to be connected. The concept of connectedness is an extremely
powerful one in Aboriginal culture and is exemplified by the Yolgnu term likan,
which in the mundane sphere means elbow – the connection of the upper and
lower arm – and in the spiritual sphere connotes the connections among
ancestors, persons, places, and ceremonies. A wide variety of Australian
Aboriginal paintings have been 2686 Maps and Mapmaking of the Australian
Aboriginal People interpreted as being simultaneously geographic and social;
they represent both the tracks of the ancestors and detailed maps of places.
Hence bark paintings are encoded knowledge of connections. The Kunwinjku
people of Western Arnhemland paint both bark and bodies at the Mardayin
ceremony in the “X-ray” style that shows internal body parts. In the Mardayin
ceremony the bodies of the initiates are painted so that in effect their own
body parts are mapped with a design that represents the body parts of the
ancestral beings and features of the landscape. These paintings can be read
on one level as maps of the way Kunwinjku “conceive of the spatial
organization of sites in their land in terms of an abstract model of the divided
yet organically related body parts of the ancestral beings that created those
lands. Such sites are described as transformations of the actual body parts of
the ancestral being, and all the sites thus created are considered to be
intrinsically connected” (Taylor, 1989). The connective function of bark
paintings like this helps children to learn the shape of the wanga (territory,
land, country) and to have respect for it and the animals in it by integrating the
activities of the ancestors, people, and places. Ownership of the land thus
means having the right speak of the land, the right to have the knowledge of
it, and also to have responsibility for both the land, and the knowledge and for
its sustenance and transmission. While the land may have boundaries that
can be known with precision, it is not good custom to display them, because
they are permeable rather than fixed entities with rites of access being
required and most frequently granted. “Boundaries are to cross” (Williams,
1983), and “the content of ownership is the right to be asked” (Myers, 1986, p.
99). Areas can be owned by more than one group, and routes can be
common property. Boundaries are more properly the subject of negotiation
and exchange in ceremony, ritual, and protocol. Protocols are exemplified in
the formal role of the go-between, the diplomat or djarrma the messenger.
Moreover Yolgnu conceptions of place do not correspond to Western legal
notions of enclosure but are more typically open and extendable “strings” of
connectedness (Keen, 1995). Consequently, while Australian Aboriginal
groups constantly map their land, this is a very different process from that of
the dominant white society. Being mapped in the white manner may have
advantages, for example, in making native title claims. In fact it has become
standard procedure for anthropologists to record Dreaming tracks on Western
topographical maps as evidence that this knowledge is the property of the
claimants. Aboriginal relationships with country do not equate with the notions
of boundary precision, exclusion, and individual property rights and the
linkages to the state implicit in Western maps. Aboriginal maps keep those
relationships alive by celebrating and performing connections between people
and land in stories, ceremony, and painting.
Keen, I. (1995). Metaphor and the meta-language: ‘Groups’ in northeast
Arnhemland. American Ethnologist, 22, 502–527.
Morphy, H. (1983). ‘Now You Understand’ – An analysis of the way Yolgnu
have used sacred knowledge to retain their autonomy. In P. Nicolas & L.
Marcia (Eds.), Aborigines, land and land rights (pp. 110–133). Canberra,
Australia: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.
Morphy, H. (1991). Ancestral connections: Art and an aboriginal system of
knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Myers, F. R. (1986). Pintupi country, Pintupi self: Sentiment, place and politics
among western desert aborigines. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution
Press and Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.
Palmer, K. (1991). Knowledge as a commodity in aboriginal Australia. In T.
David (Ed.), Knowledge, land and Australian aboriginal experience (pp. 6–10).
Geelong, Australia: Deakin University Press.
Sutton, P. (1998a). Icons of country: Topographic representations in classical
aboriginal traditions. In W. David & G. Malcom Lewis (Eds.), The history of
cartography (Book 3. Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic,
Australian, and Pacific Societies, Vol. 2, pp. 353–418). Chicago: University of
Sutton, P. (1998b). Aboriginal maps and plans. In W. David & G. Malcom
Lewis (Eds.), The history of cartography (Book 3. Cartography in the
Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian and Pacific Societies, Vol. 2,
pp. 387–413). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Taylor, L. (1996). Seeing the inside: Bark painting in western Arnhem land.
Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Turnbull, D. (1998). Mapping encounters and (en)countering maps: A critical
examination of cartographic resistance. In G. Shirey (Ed.), Research in
science and technology studies: Knowledge systems. Knowledge and society
(Vol. 11, pp. 15–44). Stanford Connecticut, CT: JAI Press.
Turnbull, D. (2000). Masons, tricksters and cartographers: Comparative
studies in the sociology of scientific and indigenous knowledge. Reading, UK:
Harwood Academic Publishers.
Watson, H., & The Yolngu community at Yirrkala. (1993). Australian aboriginal
maps. In Turnbull, David, Maps are territories: Science is an atlas (pp. 28–36).
Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Watson, H., The Yolngu Community at Yirrkala, & Chambers, D. W. (1989).
Singing the land, signing the land. Geelong, Australia: Deakin University
Williams, N. M. (1986). The Yolngu and their land: A system of land tenure
and the fight for its recognition. Canberra, Australia: Australian Institute of
Aboriginal Studies. Wood, D. (1993). Maps and mapmaking. Cartographica,