Songlines: a sacred heritage for our First Nations people, and all Australians

Image: Aboriginal petroglyphs on a rockface()
From Save our Songlines website:

“Wayiba! We acknowledge the Ngarluma people, the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the land on which we live and work.

Murujuga is a place of worship. Our rock art tells our stories; it is our Bible.  We practise and continue to follow our cultural protocols, passing down knowledge of Lore and culture.  As custodians we are entrusted to carry on our traditional customs.

We are joining together to stop new industry on the Burrup from damaging our Songlines, our rock art, our health and our climate. We oppose planned expansion of Burrup Hub industry by Woodside, Perdaman and Yara.

Murujuga on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia is home to the world’s oldest and largest collection of ancient rock art. It is also home to big industry with plans for expansion.
Murujuga is a place of worship. Our rock art tells our stories; it is our Bible. We practise and continue to follow our cultural protocols, passing down knowledge of Lore and culture. As custodians we are entrusted to carry on our traditional customs.
Chemical emissions from industry are degrading our rock art, and the company Perdaman plan to move petroglyphs to make way for a urea plant. On top of this, we are concerned by the climate impacts of Woodside’s gas expansions planned for Murujuga.
At our request, the government has appointed an independent reporter to investigate cultural heritage at Murujuga. The reporter will make recommendations to Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek on how she should protect Murujuga.
The Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation has welcomed the independent investigation.

Songlines from the Deadly Story website

Songlines are the Aboriginal walking routes that crossed the country, linking important sites and locations. Before colonisation they were maintained by regular use, burning off and clearing.

The term ‘Songline’ describes the features and directions of travel that were included in a song that had to be sung and memorised for the traveller to know the route to their destination. Certain Songlines were referred to as ‘Dreaming Pathways’ because of the tracks forged by Creator Spirits during the Dreaming. These special Songlines have specific ancestral stories attached to them.

Video 1 background image
Dreamtime Pathways

Certain Songlines were forged by the great Creator Spirits of the Dreaming. These special Songlines have ancestral stories attached to them.

Image Source: Aboriginal traditions describe the complex motions of planets, the ‘wandering stars’ of the sky.

Markers for the journey

Songlines contain information about the land and how the traveller should respectfully make their trip. This includes the types of food were safe to eat, places to be avoided and the boundaries of each Mob’s Country that the traveller could pass through.

Songlines also describe features and landmarks that the traveller should look out for so they knew that they are going in the right direction.

Aboriginal traditions describe the complex motions of planets, the ‘wandering stars’ of the sky

The five planets we can see by naked eye were known to the ancient Greeks as “asteres planetai”, meaning “wandering stars”, due to their wandering journey across the sky relative to the fixed stars. This is where we get the word “planet”.

But knowledge of the planets and their movements goes back much further, being prominent in the traditions of the oldest continuing cultures in the world.

Recent research reveals a wealth of information about the planets and their complex motions in the Knowledge Systems of Indigenous Australians.

The wandering stars

These systems show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people carefully observe the complex motions of the planets.

Read more: The stories behind Aboriginal star names now recognised by the world’s astronomical body

In Wardaman traditions, the planets are ancestor spirits who walk across a celestial road. Wardaman Elder Bill Yidumduma Harney calls it the Dreaming Track in the Sky.

Astronomers call this celestial road the zodiac – the region of sky nine degrees on either side of the ecliptic (the path of the Sun). As the planets orbit the Sun in roughly the same plane, they all are visible along this band of the sky.

Ecliptic path (red line) with the zodiac constellations in the background. ESA

Uncle Yidumduma describes the planet-ancestors moving across the sky much like we walk down a busy footpath. We sometimes hurriedly pass each other, or slow down for a chat. Occasionally, we even stop and turn backwards to chat with someone before moving forward again.

Astronomers call this phenomenon retrograde motion. It is an optical effect that occurs as the planets orbit the Sun at different distances and velocities. It means the planets can appear to slow down and move backwards for a time before returning to their normal motion.

The retrograde motion of Mars. ESA

There are five planets visible to the naked eye and right now, and you can see at least four – Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – in the sky at sunset from most locations across Australia. All of these planets are currently in retrograde motion.

The sky at dusk one evening this week, August 2018. Stellarium.

The (non) twinkling stars

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognise that these wandering stars generally do not twinkle – a phenomenon the Meriam people of the eastern Torres Strait call epreki and observe to predict weather and seasonal change.

But sometimes they do twinkle, particularly if they are very low on the horizon. Kamilaroi people of northern New South Wales say Venus occasionally twinkles when it’s low in the sky. They say it’s an old man who told a rude joke and has been laughing ever since.

In the traditions of the Euahlayi people – neighbours of the Kamilaroi – Venus and Mars relate to songlines and trade with Arrernte people of the Central Desert.

During special ceremonies, the Arrernte travel from the MacDonnell Ranges to Quilpie in southwest Queensland, bringing with them a red stone that signifies Mars. The Euahlayi people bring a green and blue stone to the ceremony, representing Venus. They are seen as the different-coloured eyes of the creator spirit Baayami.

Venus – the Morning and Evening Star

Venus is commonly known in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures as both the Morning and Evening Star.

In the Dreaming stories of the Western Arrernte, a celestial baby fell from the Milky Way, striking the ground and creating the giant meteorite crater called Tnorala (Gosses Bluff). The child’s parents – the Morning and Evening Stars – take turns searching for their lost child to this day.

Arrernte mothers warn their children not to look at the Morning or Evening Star, as the celestial parents might mistake them for their lost child and carry them away to the sky.

In Yolngu traditions of Arnhem Land, a special ceremony is held to signify the rising of the Creation ancestor, Banumbirr (Venus), between the mainland and a Burralku – the sacred island of the dead.

The ceremony starts at dusk and continues through the night, reaching a climax when Banumbirr rises a few hours before dawn as Venus transitions from the Evening Star to the Morning Star. Banumbirr communicates with the people through a faint rope that holds her close to the Sun.

Astronomers call this zodiacal light – the glow of dust in the plane of the Solar System.

Zodiacal light over La Silla. ESO

The first rising of Venus as the Morning Star, after it transitions from the Evening Star, occurs every 584 days. Astronomers refer to this as Venus’ synodic period.

Read more: Stars that vary in brightness shine in the oral traditions of Aboriginal Australians

When astronomer Ray Norris asked a Yolngu elder how the people know when to hold the Banumbirr ceremony, the elder responded: “We count the days!”

That’s an achievement not often recognised, and just another example of the detailed understanding of these “wandering stars” in the Knowledge Systems of Indigenous Australians.

Kirsten Banks, a Wiradjuri woman and astrophysics graduate from the University of New South Wales, contributed to this research and this article. She can be contacted at

Songlines: the Indigenous memory code


Aboriginal petroglyphs on a rockface()
Like oral cultures around the world, Indigenous Australians use cues from the landscape to recall and pass on important knowledge, cultural values and wisdom. Lynne Malcolm and Olivia Willis discover how these songlines operate as a potent form of cultural memory.

Indigenous Australians have the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on Earth.

To this day, their history is preserved and passed down through intricate song, dance, art and stories of the Dreamtime.

Because of Aboriginal culture, we have these continuing stories to our country that other countries don’t have.

Woven into this history is the oral tradition of songlines—an ancient memory code used by indigenous cultures around the world.

‘Songlines and Dreamings are often held in physical parts of the country, and that assists us to maintain our continuing culture,’ says Karen Adams, associate professor in medicine and health sciences at Monash University and Wiradjuri woman.

‘Stories are handed down in families that relate to country,’ Adams says, ‘and often those stories are about social law.’

What are songlines?

Songlines trace the journeys of ancestral spirits as they created the land, animals and lore.

Integral to Aboriginal spirituality, songlines are deeply tied to the Australian landscape and provide important knowledge, cultural values and wisdom to Indigenous people.

‘They can be about creation stories, and they can be contemporary stories as well,’ says Adams.

‘It’s quite complex, but those land markers are very, very important, hence the importance of land claims and acknowledgement of traditional owners.’

Using songlines, Indigenous Australians have acquired an encyclopedic memory of the thousands of species of plants and animals across Australia.

‘They wouldn’t have survived if they didn’t have all this practical knowledge and handed down generation after generation,’ says Monash University researcher Lynne Kelly.

Read more: Stories of Indigenous recovery

Kelly has collaborated with Indigenous Australian people to gain an insight into their oral tradition and memory, and its deep connections to the landscape.

‘Songlines are known as navigational tracks, in that the elders or the trained Indigenous people will sing the landscape and therefore be able to move from location to location through it, and teach each other,’ says Kelly.

‘At every location, each sacred site within that sung track, they perform rituals. Those rituals are repeated songs, and those songs encode the information.’

According to Kelly, research has shown that up to 70 per cent of Indigenous songs is knowledge about animals, plants and seasonality—’the sort of information you need to survive and know that environment backwards’.

‘They are singing the information in songs that tell stories because song, story, mythology, is so much more memorable than a list of facts.

‘By describing a plant and giving it characteristics and behaviour, you’re actually making the information much more memorable.’

The role of songlines in memory

In 2014, the Nobel Prize for Medicine established how closely memory and spatial awareness are intertwined in the hippocampus. The finding confirmed the pairing of place and memory seen in many of the world’s indigenous cultures.

Songlines link positions in landscape. Each location in the landscape acts as a memory aid to a particular part of the information system, so the knowledge is literally grounded in the landscape,’ says Kelly.

The technique is reinforced by the use of portable devices, such as message sticks.

‘Using these devices, and the landscape, and song and dance and story and mythology—that combination is an extraordinarily powerful memory technique that reinforces itself,’ Kelly says.

Kelly says evidence has emerged of a cultural knowledge of landscape changes dating back 7,000 years.

‘The mechanisms are so robust that things like formation of islands around the coast of Australia and sea level rises are accurately recorded in [the] oral tradition,’ she says.

The practical uses of the memory code

Australia is home to an extensive network of traditional songlines, some of which traverse hundreds of kilometres through lands of many different Indigenous peoples.

Songlines offer rich explanations of land formations, plant remedies and animal behaviour. Before Indigenous hunters head out, they will perform rituals and repeated acts to improve the success of their hunt.

‘If they are hunting kangaroos, for example, dancers will demonstrate the way the ears move if they have detected movement. That sort of information is hugely helpful to get close enough in order to hunt a kangaroo.’

Though deeply tied to the landscape, Kelly has discovered how memory codes like songlines can be used in everyday life.

Like many oral cultures, Kelly used the environment around her to create her own songline, through it, she’s been able to memorise all 242 countries by population order.

‘I’ve got Brazil linked to a window in my study. I always know Brazil is number five,’ says Kelly.

‘I was blessed with a terrible memory, and now I can memorise all this stuff, but it’s so much fun and so vivid… I’ll just create stories.’

The importance of caring for songlines

Given the significance of the Australian landscape to Indigenous people’s cultural heritage, Karen Adams says it’s important the land is cared for and respected.

‘A lot of the ceremonies and rituals and continuing stories reinforce belonging and social connection and strength of identity and who you are, your confidence and how you travel in the world, and that has an enormous impact on mental health,’ she says.

Lynne Kelly agrees, and says the ‘invigorated’ Australian landscape is an encyclopedia ’embedded’ with Aboriginal history, culture and knowledge.

‘I had no concept of the depth of knowledge, the absolutely critical nature of the songs and stories, and in particular the landscape, and the bonds between people,’ she says.

‘The thought now of what the colonisers did to Indigenous people is just horrendous.’

Adams says Australia’s long Indigenous history is something all Australians should ‘take a great deal of pride in’.

‘Because of Aboriginal culture, we have these continuing stories to our country that other countries actually don’t have. And I think that that’s something to be really proud about.’

Sources & Further Reading from the Deadly Story website


NITV Documentaries on Songlines

To view these, a free SBS OnDemand account is required. These videos will expire after a period of time.

  • Songlines: Wurray. Wurray is a Dreamtime character. He is one of our “makers”. He’s a traveller with an open mind and an open heart to the land.
  • Songlines: Tjawa Tjawa. The “Tjawa Tjawa” songline is about a group of women who came from around Roebourne in the Pilbara and travelled, in some cases underground, all the way through to Kiwikurra in the Great Sandy Desert.
  • Songlines: Bulunu Milkarri. This Manikay is sung traditionally by Djambarrpunu Clan. Milkarri is a sorrow Manikay (songline), is sung by women from this clan to cry about a longing for Ngurruyurrtjurr (homeland/clan).
  • Songlines: Njambi. Following the spiritual, legal and economic significance of Njambi (stone spear), senior custodian Roy Wuynjumbi Ashley shares an all encompassing story of identity, culture and law.
  • Songlines: Goorrandalng, Damari and Guyala, Naji, Wardbukarra. The Songlines on Screen initiative presents films that show Aboriginal people’s ongoing connection to land and culture as told throughout time by the way of creation songs
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