Before visiting Matamata, a lost-in-the-bush village of 25 or so people in Australia’s Northern Territory, Michael Finkel needed permission from the village’s matriarch, Phyllis Batumbil. She agreed and asked him to bring dinner for everyone:
I unloaded two duffels of personal effects and a dozen bags of groceries. Dinner for 25, I mentioned, is quite a load. Batumbil nodded. Take a look at all that food, she said. Could you imagine catching that much in one day using only a spear? And then again the next day and the day after that? I said it would be just about impossible. Aboriginal people, she said, have been doing it every day for at least 50,000 years.
For 49,800 of those years they had the continent to themselves. There were once about 250 distinct Aboriginal languages, hundreds more dialects, and many more clans and subgroups. But there is deep spiritual and cultural overlap among them, and indigenous Australians I spoke with said it was not insulting to combine everyone together under the general title of Aboriginal. They call themselves Aboriginals. They lived for a couple of thousand generations in small, nomadic bands, as befits a hunter-gatherer existence, moving in their own rhythms about the vast expanse of Australia. Then on April 29, 1770, British explorer James Cook landed his ship, the Endeavour, on the southeastern shore. The next two centuries were a horror show of cultural obliteration — massacres, disease, alcoholism, forced integration, surrender.
More than a half million Aboriginals currently live in Australia, less than 3 percent of the population. Few have learned to perform an Aboriginal dance or hunt with a spear. Many anthropologists credit Aboriginals with possessing the world’s longest enduring religion as well as the longest continuing art forms — the cross-hatched and dot-patterned painting styles once inscribed in caves and rock shelters. They are one of the most durable societies the planet has ever known. But the traditional Aboriginal way of life is now, by any real measure, almost extinct.
Almost. There remain a few places. Foremost is a region known as Arnhem Land, where Matamata is located, along with a couple dozen other communities, all connected by rough dirt roads passable only in dry weather. [Continue reading…]