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Songlines: Singing the Landscape

Article by Koen van Niekerk.

In the introduction of the TOPOS theme spiritual landscapes, we mentioned that particular places or whole landscapes can be of spiritual value. In Australia we find the ancient mapping and routing around this huge continent is actually very spiritual as well.

In this article I would like to explain more about the so-called songlines of Aboriginal Australia. I will describe this beautiful belief in songlines and show us what we can learn from it.

The aborigines are the native inhabitants of continental Australia. About 30.000 years ago these people migrated from Asia south to Australia. The culture of the aborigines is based upon the spiritual beliefs that ties these people to their land. There are about 500 to 600 different groups or tribes between the aborigines, yet they are connected to each other by their spiritual beliefs and history of the land (Siasoco, 2016).

An exceptionally well-written book about songlines is Bruce Chatwin’s “The Songlines” (figure 1). The book is a mixture of fictional passages but in the main line the book is non-fiction. It is about Chatwin himself who goes to Australia (near Adelaide) to learn about the songlines. He meets a man, Arkady, who appears to be the connection between Aboriginals and the Australian government and other organisations, and he introduces Chatwin to aboriginal traditions. The discussion in the book is about a new railway line across the country which construction will destroy some important sites in the Aboriginal culture. Chatwin and Arkady go on a search to find these sites (Chatwin, 1987).

Figure 1. The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin,

As the book starts with explanations of the songlines, I would like to do that as well. The story of Aboriginal Australia starts in the Dreamtime or Dreaming as they call this poetic beginning of the world. The aboriginal Ancestors ‘rose’ from below the earth to create the land, nature, animals, water and the sky. The aborigines don’t place the human species apart from other species, plants or parts of nature, such as mountains or rivers (Siasoco, 2016). The journeys of these ancestors across Australia are told in individual songlines (Wroth, 2015). The Aborigines believe that everyone is linked to one of the ancestors and learns the songline of that particular ancestor. The songlines also define the land they live on and that surrounds them. They too define ceremones and the respect to their country and land. Because these singing and walking ancestors created the whole country, an individual songline can be hundreds of kilometres long. Therefore, the language groups of the various aborigines have common grounds and they are able to interact with other groups in terms of their obligations along these songlines (Wroth, 2015). I will try to explain how that works with a passage of Bruce Chatwin’s book Songlines:

‘Our people’, Flynn said, ‘say they recognize a song by its “taste” or “smell” … by which, of course, they mean the “tune”. The tune always stays the same, form the opening bars to the finale.’ (…) ‘Words may change,’ Arkady interrupted again, ‘but the melody lingers on.’ (…) Around 1900, there was the case of an Arnhemlander (note KvN, Arnhemland is one of the northern coast territories named by a Dutch ship which explored this coast) who had walked across the continent in search of a wife. He married on the south coast and walked the bride back home with his new-found brother-in-law.

Not only are the songlines the base of the aboriginal religion, they are also the practical way the Aborigines move around their country and provide their selves with food and other goods. As the songlines are based upon the route the ancestors moved, they mark features of the landscape so they know how to navigate in their territory but in other groups’ territories as well (kuschk, 2010). Here follows another passage of Chatwin to explain this further:

White men, he began, made the common mistake of assuming that, because the Aboriginals were wanderers, they could have no system of land tenure. This was nonsense. Aboriginals, it was true, could not imagine territory as a bock of land hemmed in by frontiers: but rather as an interlocking network of ‘lines’ or ‘ways through’. “All our words for “country”’, he said, ‘are the same as the words for “line”’. (…) ‘So if A had fruits,’ said Flynn, ‘and B had duck and C had an ochre quarry, there were formal rules for exchanging these commodities, and formal routes along which to trade’. What whites used to call the ‘Walkabout’ was, in practise, a kind of bush-telegraph-cum-stock-exchange, spreading messages between people who never saw each other, who might be unaware of the other’s existence. (…) ‘The trade route is the Songline’, said Flynn. ‘Because songs, not things are the principal medium of exchange. Trading in “things” is the secondary consequence of trading in song’

The way the aborigines use these songs to navigate through their unforgiving land is remarkably smart. They are not dependent upon the weather, the stars, the sun, compasses or animals to move around their country. They only depend on the landscape which they took good care of before the colonialization begun. But the British came, and by the late 1880s most aborigines had joined (voluntary or not) white rural and urban communities. They were exposed to new diseases, became exploited by the white community and this remarkable culture started dying quietly under colonial power by the British (figure 2).

Fortunately, by the 1970s the aborigines spoke out for equal rights against the British settlers with the help of a civil rights movement. In 1976, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act passed and they began to take back property of the former British settlers. In the 1990s the government returned a degree of autonomy to the aborigines and increased wages and welfare. Nowadays, aborigines use their culture to keep their culture alive in a colonized Australia. The white community also brings travellers to Australia. Every year, more people come to visit Australia for the beautiful wildlife parks. In those parks the aborigines can keep their culture alive, although this is not controversial either. Another ‘lifesaver’ for the Aboriginal culture is the popularity of Aboriginal art.

To experience the Songlines, we would need to go to Australia, find an Aborigine who can explain a songline and can walk you around the country. Because that is only for an exclusive and rich part of our society, the aborigines and European modern art found a way to present the songlines in another medium; paintings (figure 3 & 4). With the arrival of British settlers, eventually European painters came to Australia and helped the Aborigines to paint their songlines. The paintings represent a part of the Dreaming narrative, by certain symbols to create the drawing which explains the Dreaming or a part of it. Paintings can too describe a part of a songline where the song is represented by the painting. In those paintings the painters use site- and group specific symbols to mark specific ceremonial sites or landmarks. The interesting part of those paintings is that they not always represent the landscape with the physical appearance of the songlines. Traditional Aboriginal people see a physical landscape but all the significance in that landscape comes from what the ancestors did and then handed down to the people through songline ceremonies (Wroth, 2015). In Wageningen spatial planning a concept called ‘layering’ is used to separate different layers of the landscape. This is, in essence, what the aborigines already do for thousands of years.

(text goes on below the images)

Figure 3. Barramundi & Water Python by Leslie Nawirridj, aboriginal art is still sold today,

Figure 4. Seven Sisters Songline, by Josephine Mick, Pipalyatjara, 1994,

What remains for me is to explain why I think this is important for us, interested in the practises around the landscape, to know about this. First of all, I like this beautiful culture to be in a historical canon of landscape, if that even exists or should exist. The respect and care for the landscape by the Aborigines is something very precious. The way these people contribute their lives to the landscape they live in, is exceptional and I don’t think that there are people who have so much respect for their landscape. In Europe, landscape has always been a wild animal which had to be domesticated, the Aboriginals show us that domestication is not necessarily the only of even the best thing to do.

The second thing I like to conclude is maybe even more important. Chatwin’s book illustrates a phenomenon landscape architects encounter daily: The architect designs something new, something which would ‘improve’ the current situation, like a railway line. What the designer should never forget is that something that is not of value to you or me or the mass, might be valuable to people who form a minority, like the holy sites of the aborigines which to you and me may be ‘just’ a rock. And as Chatwin tells us, that doesn’t have to mean it is not beautiful and interesting for us if we get a closer look, like Chatwin does. This becomes clearer if you read his book, it is definitely worth it.

I would like to close this article with another passage of Chatwin. In this passage Chatwin explains the passing, dying, of an Aborigine:

As I wrote in my notebooks, the mystics believe the ideal man shall walk himself to a ‘right death’. He who has arrived ‘goes back’. In Aboriginal Australia, there are specific rules for ‘going back’ or (..) how you can become – or re-become – the Ancestor. The concept is quite similar to Heraclitus’s mysterious dictum. ‘Mortals and immoratals, alive in their death, dead in each other’s life.’

Figure 5. Indigenous Communities Map of Aboriginal Australia by National Geographic,


Chatwin, B. (1987). The Songlines. Picador.

kuschk. (2010). Songlines: How Indigenous Australians Use Music to Mark Geography. Retrieved November 5, 2016, from The Basement Geographer:

Siasoco, R. V. (2016). Aboriginal Australia. Retrieved November 11, 2016, from Infoplease:

Wroth, D. (2015). Why Songlines Are Important In Aboriginal Art. Retrieved November 5, 2016, from Japingka Arboriginal art:

december 12, 2016

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