Songlines: How Indigenous Australians Use Music to Mark Geography

Today, some people have become so reliant upon paper maps, Internet maps, and GPS systems that one wonders how they can make it across the street unaided, let alone navigate an entire city, region, or continent. And yet, that’s how humanity existed for thousands of years before the arrival of literacy and, eventually, cartography. Oral instructions and traditions passed down through generations, coupled with the knowledge that one can only gain from cold, hard exploration, led humanity to every nook and cranny of the inhabitable globe. Trade networks between vastly disparate peoples spanned entire continents.In hunter-gatherer societies, intimate knowledge of the landscape and its amenities was the key to survival.

There are many different methods of pre-literate navigation that have been documented around the world. One of the most unique, a fusion of navigation and oral mythological storytelling, originated among the indigenous peoples of Australia, who navigated their way across the land using paths called songlines or dreaming tracks. In Aboriginal mythology, a songline is a myth based around localised ‘creator-beings’ during the Dreaming, the indigenous Australian embodiment of the creation of the Earth. Each songline explains the route followed by the creator-being during the course of the myth. The path of each creator-being is marked in sung lyrics. One navigates across the land by repeating the words of the song or re-enacting the story through dance, which in the course of telling the story also describe the location of various landmarks on the landscape (e.g. rock formations, watering holes, rivers, trees). In some cases, the paths of the creator-beings are said to be evident from their marks on the land (petrosomatoglyphs), such as large depressions in the land which are said to be their footprints (parallels can certainly be seen in some North American First Nation creation stories).

Songlines often came in sequences, much like a symphony or album today. By singing a song cycle in the appropriate order could navigate vast distances, often travelling through the deserts of Australia’s interior (a fact which amazed early anthropologists who were stunned by Aborigines that frequently walked across hundreds of kilometres of desert picking out tiny features along the way without error). Each group had its own set of songlines that were passed from generation to generation so that future generations would know how to navigate when in neighbouring tribes’ territories. The extensive system of songlines in Australia varied in length from a few kilometres to hundreds of kilometres in length crossing through lands of many different Indigenous peoples. Since a songline can span the lands of several different language groups, different parts of some songlines were in different languages corresponding to the region the songline was navigating through at the time, and thus could only be fully understood by a person speaking all of the languages in the song.

As the various peoples of the continent traversed songlines, they left numerous glyphs and etchings along the way, serving as landmarks to help future travellers navigate, and as reflections of deep connections with the supernatural world. In some cases, a songline has a particular direction, and walking the wrong way along a songline may be a sacrilegious act (e.g. climbing up Uluru where the correct direction is down).

Many songlines were lost during the colonial encroachment of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but thankfully many others exist to this day, preserving the living link between the land and the people who have lived on it for tens of thousands of years.

Watch a short clip here from the 2008 documentary/web project First Australians on songlines.

Further Reading

Atkinson, J. (2002). Trauma Trails, Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia. North Melbourne, Victoria: Spinifex.

Cabinet of Wonders (2010). The Songlines lead to ancient meteorite crater. Available at: http://www.wunderkabinett.co.uk/damndata/index.php?/archives/2037-The-Songlines-lead-to-ancient-meteorite-crater.html. Accessed 17 October 2010.

Chatwin, B. (1987). The Songlines. Toronto: Penguin.

JoyZine (2009). Songlines in Aboriginal Culture. Available at http://www.artistwd.com/joyzine/australia/abr_culture/songlines.php. Accessed 17 October 2010.

Molnar, H. and M. Meadows (2002). Songlines to Satellites: Indigenous Communication in Australia, the South Pacific and Canada. Winnipeg: Fernwood.

Woodford, J. (2003). Songlines across the Wollemi. Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 2003. Available at http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/09/26/1064083186183.html. Accessed 17 October 2010.

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