Crawford House Publishing
A Speaking Land An Ethnology of Aboriginal Australia

A Speaking Land analyses the technological and aesthetic achievements of Australia’s Aboriginal societies, as known at the period of first contact. The central thesis of the book is that Aboriginal people fashioned a civilisation founded upon elegant solutions to an enduring problem – how to live and prosper in one of the harshest of the world’s environments, in which options for agriculture and the domestication of native animals did not (and could not) emerge.

Given the prevailing stereotype of traditional Aboriginal culture as spiritually rich but materially impoverished, this book has an ambitious brief, but one founded upon a distillation, in plain language, of a wealth of complex data, linked to tangible objects and their stories, and localised to their Aboriginal contexts. The text moves from continent-wide generalisation set within an international frame, to fine-grained anecdotes that show how, for example, fire-making, bird-trapping techniques or shield design varied from region to region. The tangible evidence for these Aboriginal solutions now rests in museum collections - and this book will be based on the world’s most outstanding and comprehensive collection of Aboriginal material culture, held by the South Australian Museum.

The book is organised around a double, interweaved structure of ‘themes and technologies’. Each informs the other: the various technologies enabled Aboriginal society to function socially and aesthetically, and to successfully sustain itself. Conversely, a society functioning with its norms and social rules intact enabled those technologies to be applied to best effect. It is thus possible to conceive of most Aboriginal material culture as vital evidence for the successful solution of a series of related problems: how to create efficient weapons, locate and conserve supplies of water, undertake the daily food quest, provide shelter and warmth, create and preserve meaningful social links between individuals and groups, and express ideas of beauty, symmetry and order. These challenges must be met for a culture to flourish.

Each solution, arrived at during the millennia of Aboriginal occupation of this country, finds material expression in an artefact or a technique. Through their variation across the continent, these artefacts suggest a breadth and depth of adaptation that confounds most stereotypes of Aboriginal culture as primitive and shallow. The deft knotting of a Diamantina fishing net, the dappled patterning of a Queensland rainforest shield, the jagged stingray barbs of a Cape York spear, the tight weave of an Arnhem Land honey basket, or the interlocking key design of a Kimberley shield - all are cultural gestures that reflect the successful engagement of their makers’ knowledge with the local environment.

The reader will be shown that Aboriginal technology should be regarded against the canvas of social action, or conversely, that the quest for food and water was not simply a technological problem, but may also be regarded in social terms. In other words, the material elements of the culture have a place in a coherent system, and are not merely disconnected artefacts.

A Speaking Land places Aboriginal material culture in a vivid social and historical context, offering a fresh explanation of the viability and strengths of traditional ways of life. While such a discussion can never be definitive, this book will become known as a basic text on traditional Aboriginal culture and society, written from the perspective of the material evidence.


Philip Jones






Numerous colour and black-andwhite photographs, maps and diagrams


Hardcover; c. 300 pages


285 x 285 mm



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