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Which clippings match 'Pre-literate Societies' keyword pg.1 of 1
07 NOVEMBER 2014

Songlines: How Indigenous Australians Use Music to Mark Geography

"There are many different methods of pre–literate navigation that have been documented around the world. One of the most unique, a fusion of navigation and oral mythological storytelling, originated among the indigenous peoples of Australia, who navigated their way across the land using paths called songlines or dreaming tracks. In Aboriginal mythology, a songline is a myth based around localised 'creator–beings' during the Dreaming, the indigenous Australian embodiment of the creation of the Earth. Each songline explains the route followed by the creator–being during the course of the myth. The path of each creator–being is marked in sung lyrics. One navigates across the land by repeating the words of the song or re–enacting the story through dance, which in the course of telling the story also describe the location of various landmarks on the landscape (e.g. rock formations, watering holes, rivers, trees). In some cases, the paths of the creator–beings are said to be evident from their marks on the land (petrosomatoglyphs), such as large depressions in the land which are said to be their footprints (parallels can certainly be seen in some North American First Nation creation stories).

Songlines often came in sequences, much like a symphony or album today. By singing a song cycle in the appropriate order could navigate vast distances, often travelling through the deserts of Australia's interior (a fact which amazed early anthropologists who were stunned by Aborigines that frequently walked across hundreds of kilometres of desert picking out tiny features along the way without error). Each group had its own set of songlines that were passed from generation to generation so that future generations would know how to navigate when in neighbouring tribes' territories. The extensive system of songlines in Australia varied in length from a few kilometres to hundreds of kilometres in length crossing through lands of many different Indigenous peoples. Since a songline can span the lands of several different language groups, different parts of some songlines were in different languages corresponding to the region the songline was navigating through at the time, and thus could only be fully understood by a person speaking all of the languages in the song."

(The Basement Geographer, 21 October 2010)

Fig.1 "What are song lines?" Colin Jones, lecturer in Aboriginal History, talks about his culture, his history and his art. Queensland Rural Medical Education.

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TAGS

Aboriginal mythologyancestral beings • ancestral heroes • animist belief systemAustralia • Colin Jones • creation narrative • creation spirits • Creator Beingscultural memory • cultural webs of memory • dreaming (spirituality) • dreaming tracks • earth motherFirst AustraliansFirst Nations • genii loci • geographical point • Indigenous Australians • kin-grouping system • kinship • landmarkslandscapelocationmappingmarkers • mythological storytelling • navigation systemnavigational methodsoral historiesorientationorigin myth • paths • petrosomatoglyph • place • point-to-point • pre-literate navigation • pre-literate societiessequences and spatial practisessmooth space • song cycle • songlinesspatial literacyspatial narrativespiritualitysymbolic placeterritorytimeless timetopology • totemic ancestors • voice map • watering holewayfinding

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
01 APRIL 2007

Images do not embody information about their use

"Most of the knowledge that we have of pre–literate societies comes from the interpretation of archaeological 'works' that have survived. However, key aspects of the argument are speculative. Let me take as an example the cave paintings at Lascaux. Opinion is divided about whether the paintings show a hunting expedition or represent a ritual activity in which image–animals are slaughtered symbolically as an auspicious prelude to the actual hunt. The reason that this important distinction cannot be reliably made is because the images do not embody information about their use, i.e. whether it is depictive or symbolic. This is not a problem confined to objects of great antiquity. For example, there is little material difference between a pair of chop–sticks and a pair of knitting–needles except the cultures in which they are found and the way in which they are used. This is even more apparent if one considers that there is nothing about their physical form that prevents them being exchanged and the one used for the purpose of the other."

(Michael A. R. Biggs, 2003, Practice as Research in Performance)

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