Rainforest Aboriginal people respect and appreciate the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area as a series of complex "living" cultural landscapes. Natural features are interwoven with Rainforest Aboriginal people's religion, spirituality, economies, and their social and moral organisation to create and sustain this cultural landscape. Natural and cultural heritage are not separate.
Rainforest Aboriginal people are the original people of the Wet Tropics rainforests and have been since time immemorial. There are 18 Aboriginal tribal groups with ongoing traditional connections to land in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. Tribal groups’ traditional estate boundaries are usually identified by geographical features such as rivers or mountain ridges and often these same features are also story places for one of more family or clan group.
There are also hundreds of ‘story places’ across the Wet Tropics which hold deep significance to Aboriginal people. Usually seen to non-indigenous eyes as mountains, rivers, waterfalls, swimming holes and trees, to Aboriginal people these features are essential story places that symbolise features that were created during the ancestral creation period (sometimes called the "Dreaming" or the "Dreamtime").
These places have powerful meaning and properties and may be considered dangerous to approach or take resources from, except in prescribed ways or by the right person. These places must be respected, not damaged and must be managed carefully by the expert guidance of the relevant Traditional Owners.
Thriving in the rainforest
Over the ages, Rainforest Aboriginal people followed seasonal cycles moving their camps with the seasons, gathering and hunting food, collecting and processing materials for medicines and utilising other materials for daily use. In fact Rainforest Aboriginal people developed unique processing techniques not seen anywhere else in Australia so that they could use particular poisonous plants as a food source.
In the wet season (December to April), people who lived in the northern areas of the Wet Tropics often moved up to the Tablelands into drier country. They built large waterproof huts with frames made from tree saplings or lawyer cane and thatched them with palm leaves, grasses or bark. Some of their mijas (shelters) could house up to 30 people. In the more southern areas of the region, people would remain on the coastal floodplains during the wet season, but move to higher ground until the annual floods receded.
In the dry season (May to November), people used coastal resources and built temporary dwellings. Coastal groups made and used dugout canoes with a single outrigger to travel along the coast, islands and other reef areas for resources and ceremonies.
On land, they travelled along complex interconnecting networks of walking tracks. These tracks connected camps and neighbouring groups, and led to places of cultural significance, social and economic importance and areas rich with resources.
The walking tracks also defined the boundaries of each clan's traditional estates and there were certain protocols to follow when wanting to enter a neighbouring clan's estates. As such, Rainforest Aboriginal peoples walking tracks are considered important cultural heritage. Many of these tracks were used by the early settlers with their pack horses and wagons, and some of today's highways (such as the Gillies Highway) were built on top of some of these Aboriginal walking tracks.
With a deep respect for nature and an intimate knowledge of its cycles, Rainforest Aboriginal people harvested food sources that were in season. Seasonal indicators told them when different plants were fruiting or when certain animals were "fat" and ready to eat. The seasons also reflected when certain animals would be pregnant or birthing and this told Rainforest Aboriginal people when NOT to eat specific animals or take particular plants.
Language, stories, songs and dances continue to be used to pass important survival knowledge to the younger generations. In this way, young people learn how to use rainforest plants for food, medicine and shelter, how to hunt animals or when to collect the eggs of the brush turkey. They also learned their place in their community so they could function as part of the wider social group.
Today the sharing of stories, the use of language, and the performance of songs and dances are still very important because these activities maintain and generate Rainforest Aboriginal people's unique evolving cultural identity and connection to country.