For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal culture has been handed down orally through song and poetry without the need to write anything down.
This video is an excerpt from A to Z: The First Alphabet.
Aboriginal Elder Sings Ancient Creation Song
Published: September 25, 2020
Narrator: In the Northern Territory of Australia, Yidumduma Bill Harney, an elder of the Wardaman people, is singing an ancient song about the creation of the world.
Yidumduma Bill Harney: All these song line trails that were made, happening all the way right back from the beginning of everything, to people, to people, to people, all the way right back billion years ago, to million years, come down to hundred years, and now come back, right up to us. And we know all the songs now. That is why we will never throw that creation song away. We’ve still got it there today.
In a song line trail there is the knowledge that is given to you from the old people, in what they call song line trails, for naming all the different sites, the plants, trees, mountains, water hole, and all of that. Like a map, it is a map, in your mind. It all links up.
Narrator: Aboriginal culture has been handed down orally through poetry and song for tens of thousands of years, without the need to write anything down. So, the first question about writing is, why did our ancestors feel the need for it? What prompted them to start recording things not for the ear, but for the eye? Images, of course, are part of all human cultures.
Harney: In the site now where we are sitting down, it’s called the Moon Dreaming Site. That’s the moon that you can see there, that’s the half moon, and the Aboriginal name is called Jabali, and that’s the headdress he used.
Narrator: In the Wardaman Creation story, all the plants and animals of the world were once people, the Wardaman’s ancestors, wandering across a formless muddy land, until the creation dog let out a mighty howl.
Harney: When he sung out “kooooo” like this, the dog is the one whose sound made everything change, he changed the whole world, and this country now, from the soft high mound became a rock, and all these people become a tree, and changed into different animals, kangaroos, dingoes, whatever you can make it, lizards, snakes and all.
Narrator: As the mud hardened, some of the ancestors passed into the rock, leaving traces of that moment of creation.
Harney: That was the mud, and people come along and put their foot there. See? And that’s what it is there. He was in the mud, now he’s in the rock. Human footprints. Human there. There is a dog there. Then there is all human footprints, all over, you can see it. Then the shadow of the old moon, he went into all the rock as well, during the creation time.
Narrator: At the Moon Dreaming Site Bill can sing to his ancestors, for these are not representations of them, these are the ancestors, gone into the rock.But Bill sings from memory. These images, powerful as they are, cannot tell him which words to use. For images to do that, they would have to gain a new power, the power to represent something else.
A the Z: The First Alphabet
Produced by: Hugh Sington
Designed by: Brody Neuenschwander
Co-produced by: Martin De La Fouchardière
Written and directed by: David Sington
Digital production: Ana Aceves
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2020