Societies and Trade

The community structure and social aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is complex. It is important to understand that social relationships and structures of communities in Aboriginal language groups are quite different to those in Torres Strait Islander language groups.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups consist of one or more families, which create the basic economic unit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies. The relationships within and between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still strong today. Through their tribal laws, each clan, has responsibilities for specific tracts of land and sea country.

Certain ceremonies and rituals can draw groups together from different areas. Trade, marriages, initiations and other ceremonies mean that some language groups form political and trade alliances.

In the past, some language groups would sometimes go to war with each other and the dynamics in some areas would mean alliances between groups changed and developed over many thousands of years.

The social structure between language groups also influenced many aspects of life including:

  • which groups could trade with each other
  • the places where groups could pass across each others territorial boundaries
  • the places where meetings and ceremonies were held
  • which person was chosen to provide the cross-cultural link between language groups.

Traditionally, anything done within an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander group is done for the benefit of the group. Hunting, fishing and gathering of food still occurs in groups and the food is shared between all members of the language group.

Hunting, fishing and gathering of food still occurs in groups, and the food is shared between all members of the language group. The position of a person within the social structures determines which member of the group gets served first and which member gets the best type of food.

In the past, important members, usually elders, would deal with individual behaviour that was destructive to the organisation and social well being of the language group. This would be made known throughout the whole language group to ensure other individuals did not repeat the behaviour. Tribal punishment could be inflicted and still occurs today. 

Some cultural ceremonies are sensitive in nature and some are very sacred; these should not be discussed without a local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person being present.

Travel and Trade

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people travelled throughout the Great Barrier Reef using canoes and outriggers for trade, warfare or to collect resources. As maritime hunters and gatherers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are skilled navigators using the wind and the constellations as well as their intricate knowledge of the marine environment to guide them on their journeys.

Nomadic Aboriginal people of the Whitsunday Islands, the Ngaro, built sturdy three-piece bark canoes that were capable of open sea journeys. Evidence suggests that there were trade links between coastal and hinterland Aboriginal people of the region.

Torres Strait Islanders also travelled through the Reef's waters for trade, covering vast distances in their outrigger canoes. They had traditional connections with the outer islands of the Great Barrier Reef, where they collected resources such as bird and turtle eggs, bird droppings (used for fertilising garden beds), turtles and feathers.

Intricate trade networks and resource bartering were commonplace amongst societies and provided Indigeneous groups with their necessities. Mainland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people traded with each other, as well as with visiting parties from Papua New Guinea.

Historical records also document Torres Strait Islanders trading turtle shell and pearl shell for iron and steel products with Europeans. The trade network into and out of the Torres Strait with Papua New Guinean residents is well known and recognised under the Torres Strait Treaty.

The Treaty allows traditional trade to continue and includes the exchange of items such as Kundu Drums, snake skins, mats, bamboo spears, wood carvings, sea shells, fish, crab, dugong or turtle meat, yams and other things.