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Understanding symbols in Aboriginal art

Symbols vary widely between the many different Aboriginal cultures found across Australia. But all symbols used in regions have a long history, going right back to prehistoric times, and since that time they have been used consistently by the local people. Examples of symbols engraved or painted on rock art sites show a record of use of these marks for tens of thousands of years. The remarkable thing is that these same symbols are understood and are still being used by Aboriginal people today.

Aboriginal people of the Central and Western Desert use a range of symbols that derive from their hunting and tracking background. This means that the marks left by animals and humans as track prints in the sand have come to represent those animals and people. The U shape that is marked on the ground when a person sits cross legged on the earth has come to represent a human. Then the implements that they carry and put beside them define whether the U shape represents a male or female. A woman may have an oval-shaped coolamon bowl and a digging stick next to her, and this combination of symbols – looking like UOI – represents a woman with her hunting implements. A man may carry spears and possibly boomerangs, so his symbols may look like U || ( .

Where people come together is usually marked as a circle or a set of concentric circles. These can represent a campsite, a fireplace, a meeting place or a waterhole. Where people travel between a series of locations, this journey can be shown as parallel lines linking up between the circles.

Animals for the desert Aboriginal people are represented by the tracks they leave behind. An emu leaves a three- pointed V track as its footprint. Kangaroos leave a set of mirror-image tick shapes from its back paws with a long line between where its tail drags. A possum or other small marsupial leaves an E shape – a line with four marks coming out from the claw marks.

Many of the symbols used in the Central Desert developed through sand painting, where stories and Dreamtime legends were marked out on the sand as a means of teaching each new generation. Many of these stories revolved around Creation Ancestors who travelled the land and created important sites in the landscape, which were often associated with totemic animals. To tell these stories, traditionally the elders of the tribe used the same types of symbols as Aboriginal artists use today in their contemporary paintings. For ceremonial use the symbols were also painted onto the bodies of dancers who performed the stories, and this reinforced the links between the people and the timeless stories of the creation of their lands.

The ceremonial use of certain clan patterns to show that a person has links to a particular clan is used throughout Arnhem Land in the far north of Northern Territory. These patterns made of fine lines drawn in specific ochre colours can represent elements such as fire and water, and when combined with certain totemic animal designs, all signify which clan the owner belongs to. A person’s identity is closely linked to the symbols that they use, and this shows their relationship to the Dreaming story that gives their clan its Creation mythology.

Symbols are a graphic way to communicate meaning for Aboriginal people, who did not have a history of writing. Therefore the oral tradition was very strong and was reinforced by illustrating stories using shared symbols. The symbols taken as a group are referred to as iconography, a set of visual signs that have a shared meaning between all the people in the group. These symbols and the way they have been traditionally used in Aboriginal life have provided the building blocks for the modern Aboriginal art movement, using ancient signs expressed with modern art materials.