Traditional Aboriginal Sustainable Society

Traditional Aboriginal Sustainable Society

Original Sustainability

We do not know enough about traditional Aboriginal society, as their way of life had already been seriously disrupted before it was ever understood or appreciated. We now know there was much more happening than many settlers were able to perceive.

This chapter explores some aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture that are known and may have relevance to modern Aboriginal sustainable communities.

Early Observations

During his mapping of Australia, Capt. James Cook exclaimed in his diary his delight in discovering what he considered an idyllic paradise of indigenous peoples.

“They appeared to be, in reality, far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them.

“They live in tranquillity which is not disturbed by the inequality of condition. The earth and the sea, of their own accord, furnish them with all things necessary for life. They covet not magnificent houses, house-hold stuff, etc.

“They live in warm and fine climate, and enjoy a very wholesome air, so they have very little need of clothing. In short they seemed to set no value on anything we gave them.”

Aboriginal people have lived on this land for at least several tens of thousands of years. Recent thinking in Australia is that the Lake Mungo remains are 62,000 years old, and may represent an origin in its own right, as Aboriginal people have been telling us.

Aboriginal society was well structured and the people were highly disciplined in societal behaviour. They had a stable sustainable society that endured throughout a period when many of the planet’s great unsustainable civilisations began, rose to a peak, declined, fell and ceased to exist. These ‘temporary’ civilisations include the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mayan and Mongol civilisations.

Traditional Lifestyle

Prior to European settlement, Aborigines were a healthy, robust people, who had perfected the art of living off the land sustainably, without the need of complex agricultural regimes or sophisticated technologies. The whole of the Australian continent was divided into distinct tribal areas, within which each tribe was able to live and maintain its own food supplies for over tens of thousands of years. The key elements of this were as follows:

  • Having an detailed knowledge of the whereabouts of water holes and plant and animal foods;
  • Knowing the best times to visit each food site, and organising their lives to enable visiting each site when supplies were abundant. Their walkabout lifestyle kept them supremely healthy and fit;
  • Enriching pasture regrowth to improve foraging and wildlife breeding conditions through burning off various areas of grasslands at appropriate times;
  • Being able to track animals over any terrain, and kill them using simple wooden weapons;
  • Not over taxing any area or source of food, but always leaving enough for natural replenishment;
  • Using the plant kingdom as a vast cornucopia of medicinal herbs;l
  • Involving everybody in contributing to the perpetual success of this way of life.

Traditional Sustainable Farming Practices

Aborigines enjoyed an environmentally gentle, materially minimalist lifestyle that enabled free movement to travel to where the food was plentiful, or to places of ceremonial gatherings. They had refined their way of living to be able to maintain their way of life for at least tens of thousands of years, whilst enhancing the food content in their environment, so that it would continue to provide for them. They were able to inhabit the entire continent, including the deserts, by relating to it and maintaining it as their functional Garden of Eden.

Hunting and Gathering Koori Style

Not over-taxing any area of life, and so foster future abundance, was always the common understanding and practice. Their intimate knowledge of the whereabouts of waterholes, of food and medicinal properties of plants, and the capacity to track animals even over difficult terrain, all enabled them to live a relatively free, walkabout life, relating to the environment as a veritable Garden of Eden, and indicates the degree of attunement with nature that was natural to them.

Firestick Agriculture

Practiced for tens of thousands of years by Aborigines, who were rather more than simply hunter-gatherers. The whole continent was divided into distinct tribal areas, within which each tribe sustainably maintained their own food supply. Various areas of grasslands were burnt off as appropriate to enable rich pasture regrowth, improve foraging and breeding conditions for wildlife, and make tracking and hunting easier. During the burn-off animals within the patch would be driven towards waiting hunters who speared many of them as they passed through.

By adopting this sensible, responsible and comprehensive approach to food supply, Aborigines were able to sustain their hunter gathering lifestyle throughout the entire continent. This was no mean feat, given that Australia is the driest of the continents, with the most fragile soils and the greatest proportion of desert. That they could achieve all this using only simple wooden hunting weapons is testament to their skill and competence, and indicates how attuned they were to the natural environment.

It also required a deep understanding of the consequences all of their actions on the living ecology, and to ensure that their activities did not create long-term ecological problems. They understood that all human garbage and waste produced by their natural lifestyle will compost down to enrich the soil, which feeds plants, and the plants in turn feed animals to render food more available. This harmonious integration of their own life with natural processes helped to sustain producing their own dietary needs free of pollution and waste.

It is understood that food gathering took a relatively small proportion of the day, leaving more time for cultural and spiritual pursuits, which were always of the highest importance to Aborigines.


Aboriginal groups were generally mobile, and travelled to various hunting, foraging and ceremonial grounds within their tribal boundaries in an orderly manner that ensured perpetual good eating by not over taxing any areas, thus optimising their living potential.


All early accounts of Aborigines describe an alert, aware, robust, healthy people, free of disease. Having a completely natural diet would contribute much to this. We know they had a vast pharmacology of plant and animal products, to deal with all ailments, and that children began to learn about this at an early age.


Aborigines had an understanding of how genetics worked mathematically and marriages were arranged between members of differing tribes in such a way that problems of inbreeding and genetic weakening did not occur.

Conception in some areas is thought by some to have been substantially under an inner, natural control, so that pregnancy tended to occur as appropriate. This natural ability regulated the population so that it did not over-stretch the sustainable ecological yield of the land.

Aboriginal People have always understood that babies were much more than mere genetic inheritances. They understood a baby came from spirit, each with an exquisite uniqueness, and took care to nurture and appeal to that aspect of the developing child. Children were brought up consciously untraumatised, with much freedom and allowance for play and creative curiosity.

During childhood, much sensible understanding about properties and various usages of plants and animals, as well as cultural understandings were conveyed. Children grew up in a harmonious, sensible, spiritual atmosphere, which would naturally encourage centeredness, balance and spontaneity. Upon this sound foundation, at the first initiation, an in-depth, fully committed, permanently responsible spiritual life began, built upon an open, creative balanced childhood.

Social Order

Aborigine nations were successful for a number of underlying, connected reasons:

  • they ruled by consensus council of their wisest people, their initiated elders, rather than by arbitrary figureheads;
  • they had a process of advancement through developing wisdom;
  • despite tribal boundaries, they maintained a similar system throughout the entire continent;
  • they lived over the entire continent, even in the most physically inhospitable areas;
  • they lived an enduring, sustainable lifestyle over at least tens of thousands of years;

It seems that the whole orientation of traditional Aboriginal communities was to create sensible, competent, subsistence living, in ways that were highly self-maintaining, with minimum effort, and without clutter or pollution, where children could grow up uncorrupted and untraumatised, where people co-operated, and living in general was expected to hassle free. This was subsistence living at its best.

Traditional Aborigines had a wisdom culture, where people knew they were expected to grow up to become wiser, more understanding and knowledgeable, and where the culture facilitated responsible living, and the entire way of life reflected that. Their spirituality led them in this direction, and provided them with the understanding the enabled them to keep it working for tens of thousands of years.


Many diverse tribes, from over wide areas, came together at corroborees, which were major ceremonial occasions, and provided the venue for the refreshing of relationships, and renewal of certain understanding. Relationships between tribes were sufficiently reasonable that there was no need to develop sophisticated weaponry.


Spirituality is a very private, sacred and secret matter to traditional Aborigines. From what we do know, there are consistencies, similarities and commonalities with many indigenous cultures around the planet.

Many indigenous peoples around the world have an intimate, even sacred relationship with nature, and understand the interconnectedness of all life. Their natural spirituality utilise states of higher consciousness, yielding wisdom to apply in daily life. Spiritual progress amongst such peoples is often via initiations, where higher-level understandings were imparted and intuited.

A minimal lifestyle enabled more time for the more important business of accessing heightened states of awareness, from where understanding and guidance is revealed. Keeping to a simple lifestyle ensures they are not distracted from these important functions.

The reason indigenous peoples all over the world have such a non-materialistic life, is that they have generally figured out how to satisfy their needs with the least time and effort. This leaves more time for enjoyment, appreciation and spiritual pursuits, which gives them the rejuvenation, balance and wisdom to live optimised, stable, healthy communal living, without pollution, ecological destruction, or unemployment.

Because Aboriginal people embraced the minimalist lifestyle of all, despite some of the harshest conditions, they are understood to have solved the issues of basic living most easily, allowing for a more complete spiritual involvement than other indigenous peoples.

Relevance of Traditional Values to Modern Communities

Traditional Aboriginal society and culture throughout Australia have been examples of highly effective sustainable community living under all conditions, including throughout arid deserts. Traditional sustainable practices can make a huge contribution to modern, permanent, sustainable communities.


  • Traditional Aboriginal people understood the healing and regenerative powers of nature, and chose to live close to and compatibly with nature.
  • They solved the problem of living subsistently and sustainably in an easy, uncomplicated way, enabling them to live well in all climates and over all terrain during all seasons.
  • They understood how, through their spiritual practices, to access deeper, wiser levels of consciousness, enabling sound guidance to ensure sustainable regeneration and perpetuation of themselves and their intelligent ways of streamlined, least-effort living over tens of thousands of years.
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