Until the second half of the eigh- teenth century this vast and vir tually uninhabited continent with no clearly defined boundaries was known as the Terra Australis Incognita by Europeans. Mapmakers of that time called it the Land of the South and thought it spread out over most of the southern Pacific. In actual fact, Australia had already been inhabited for over fifty thousand years by the Aborigines. The black Dravidian race originating from India had reached the island via Malacca and the stretches of land that connected Australia to New Guinea and Asia during the Ice Age. According to recent anthropological studies, Australia was the world's first battleground as well as the first land in which mankind depicted his thoughts. In Northern Territory, quartz scrapers and hematite pigment fifty-three thousand years old, according to carbon dating, were found in 1993. These were the tools used to engrave and colour rupestrian paintings. Studies of hundreds of wall carvings depicting battles with boomerangs and lances date tribal conflict back by roughly ten thousand years. Once the Aborigines reached Australia, they spread throughout the entire continent and divided up into approximately five hundred tribes. Their economy, based on hunting and picking fruits, forced them to migrate continuously, in order to find new sources of water and follow the migratory courses of their prey and reach fruitful lands in specific seasons. Within each clan, composed of thirty or forty individuals, prevailed a division of tasks according to age and sex. The menfolk hunted kangaroos, wallabies, emus, porcupines and ant-eaters using the kulata, a sharp javelin up to three metres long when used by the most primitive tribes ofTasmania, but far shorter in central Australia where it was propeller-driven.
The boomerang was invented about ten thousand years ago and was used only by certain tribes of the central deserts to hunt birds and small marsupial creatures. The women and children would gather fruit and berries but also worms and larvae. It was up to them to ensure food every day for their clan members, as hunting related to migration of the herds could not grant regular resources, partly due to the fact that the Aborigines did not know how to store and preserve food. Because they were nomads, they did not build huts but simple refuges from branches and marsupial hides.
The nomadic lifestyle is recurrent in every aspect of the Aborigine culture, starting with the Dream Time, their myth of creation, when their forefathers were giant kangaroos, emus or serpents, and moulded the landscape with their songs, giving life to the plants, animals and to mankind. They then merged with the Earth in the semblance of rocks, trees or other elements of nature. This is why many tribes of central Australia identify features of nature as parts of a totemical geography. Mountains, caverns, wells, livers, dunes, bushes and stars represent creation, the incarnation of their ancestors, and map out the ancestral routes retraced by the Aborigines to perpetuate the Dream Time.
Most of the tribes lived for tens of thousands of years in total isolation from the rest of the world. The only ones to associate with the outside world were the north coast tribes, who had dealings with the Macassan fishermen of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The different clans did however maintain links with each other through the corroboree: ritual music sessions in which chants, dances and offspring were exchanged and right of way through the respective ancestral routes granted. At the start of British colonisation in 1788, three hundred thousand Aborigines lived in Australia, according to the official poll, but a research carried out by the University of Melbourne would indicate that there were one and a half million.