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4 maps uncovering Aboriginal history and culture

The AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia maps the hundreds of nations within Australia. See the AITSIS page for a zoomable version.

Australia can lay claim to the oldest living culture in the world and new maps are helping to spread awareness about these rich, ongoing traditions.

The First Australians have occupied the continent for up to 65,000 years based on archaeological findings and there are an astonishing 250 language groups that are in use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups today. It’s no wonder then, that there is a lot of confusion and misunderstandings about the complexities of the history and evolution of Australia’s First Nations culture.

Last week’s NAIDOC week focussed on preserving these languages with the theme “Our Languages Matter.” As a result a lot of new initiatives using maps were launched to overcome the knowledge gaps.

The use of spatial applications in this context is unsurprising when you consider that location is inherently a strong part of Australia’s First Nations culture. Songlines have been used for thousands of years in Australia to help understand and navigate across the land. In combining song, cosmology and nature, songlines form an easily transferable form of map while also deepening connection to land. Some songlines are defined only within local area, while some extend across entire states.

At the same time, there are also distinct boundaries between each of the many nations, often defined by natural features such as rivers and mountain regions. In certain nations, the totem that a person is assigned is actually determined on where birth is given or where a mother first felt the child kick in the womb.

Aboriginal place names are familiar to most Australians, however there are many that people would not be aware of. Item names like Waratah and Kangaroo are familiar over the world, but place names like Wollongong (sounds of the sea), Wagga Wagga (place of many crows) and Toowoomba (swampy land) also have their meanings in the local languages.

These four new interactive spatial innovations showcase some of these rich traditions, and allows users to engage with Australian land on a deeper level, or perhaps to reflect on moments in history when First Australian lives were lost too soon.

1. Place names

One new service from the State Library of New South Wales called Muru View, turns Aboriginal place names across the state into an immersive mapping experience. By clicking on a word, the English meaning is revealed and that place is shown in Streetview.

To create Muru View, DX Lab partnered with the Library’s Indigenous Services team and creative studio Sandpit. Muru View (Muru – meaning path in Darug) was created using words, placenames and meanings drawn from historical sources that mostly were recorded by non-Aboriginal people about Aboriginal languages. New additions or feedback, however, are also invited.

Muru View dynamically uses data to display locations around New South Wales incorporating their Indigenous name and meaning that were recorded at that time, all using the Google Maps API in a way they had never been done before.

It’s easy to image a service like this being evolved into an augmented reality (AR) platform where users can travel though the real world, seeing the various nameplaces as they navigate.

2. Massacres

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following section may contain reference to deceased persons.

One service that has received a lot of media attention since its release during NAIDOC is the new resource, Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872.

It reveals the locations of more than 150 massacres of Aboriginal people by white first settlers. By clicking on each massacre reveals details including, the date, location, description and the number of people killed. It also shows 3D imagery of the site at which it took place, giving more context to otherwise dry historical data.

The map is the work of Newcastle University Centre for 21st Century Humanities. The service defines a massacre as the indiscriminate killing of six or more undefended people. The map is based on evidence such as newspaper articles or official government reports.

Altogether, the map accounts for the loss of some 4,000 aboriginal lives. However, there are many unconfirmed and unreported massacres that are not included in this figure. The true figure is perhaps an order of magnitude larger. In Queensland alone it has been estimated that more than 65,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were killed in massacres or conflicts between 1788 and 1930.

The massacres mapped so far occurred predominantly in Eastern Australia as pastoralists spread out from the original colonial towns. The number of massacres included on the map are anticipated to grow as the developers include additional data sources.

3. Historical sources

Weemala is another service that uses historical records to map the location of Aboriginal place names.

With some clever coding, creative technologist Chris McDowall, was able to put together the Weemala map based on the descriptions contained in the historical sources. The resulting service is an interactive map showing place names that could have been otherwise lost to time.

Weemala was developed at the State Library of New South Wales and is actually the data source underpinning the newer Muru View service described above. However, for readers of this publication, it is incredibly relevant as many of the documents include descriptions from surveyors.

Among the entries are that of D.M. Maitland, the first President of Institution of Surveyors NSW, whose survey description shown in the image above was written around 1899.

Cadastral surveyors and spatial scientists are therefore incredibly valuable to this service as they may encounter similar historical surveys as part of their investigations and submit them for inclusion in the map.

4. Preserving languages

Languages in Australia, as mapped by Gambay.

In the late 18th century, there were between 350 and 750 distinct Australian social groupings, and a similar number of languages. At the start of the 21st century, however, fewer than 150 indigenous languages remain in daily use, and all except roughly 20 are highly endangered. Of those that endure, only 10% are being learned by children and those languages are usually located in the most isolated areas.

To help overcome this situation and more accurately quantify Australia’s linguistic diversity, not-for-profit organisations First Languages Australia has collaborated with regional language centres to develop a map of Australian languages that reflects the names and groupings favoured by communities.

Known as Gambay the interactive web map currently lists 795 languages, which are broken into 270 language families. Knowing which languages are related can help communities share language resources, so some related languages are linked on the map by colour.

To create the map, regional language centres provided maps for their regions to be collated into the interactive map, and language workers around the country contributed video profiles that are attached to their languages. Gambay is a growing resource, and as such communities are encouraged to contribute to the map and share their stories.

Do you know of any more First Nations maps? Please share them with us in the comments below.  

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