Ancient Aboriginal Marketplaces

By Marco Stojanovik

Trade was a central part of life in Aboriginal Australia prior to British settlement, with trading routes criss-crossing the breadth of the continent, flowing from one nation to the next. Isabel McBryde (1987: 267) explains that lying at the intersections of various routes on mutual soil were exchange centres, which may justly be called ‘marketplaces’: “[These] were crucial in the ebb and flow of exchange transactions that transmitted knowledge, materials, and artefacts between local and regional communities otherwise isolated by vast distances.”

The marketplaces were important as goods and intellectual property that were absent in various regions could be purchased and taken back to be introduced into daily lives (Kerwin 2010: 103). The items traded over Australia were extensive, including but not limited to various types of ochres, ornaments, hair-belts, pearl and baler shells, stone implements, shields, weapons, animal traps, wild tobacco, food and medical resources, and intellectual property such as stories, song, and dance.

Large numbers of people would gather at the marketplaces, marked by large corroborees to initiate the trading. Great centres existed at places such as Koppermana, Goyder’s Lagoon, Birdsville, Bedourie, Boulia, and Toko, but there were also smaller local equivalent exchange markets. This created a complex web of connection, in which great exchange networks were intermeshed with local ones (McBryde 1987: 268).

Aboriginal trading routes - map
Map displaying the extent of Aboriginal trading routes across Australia.

This article explores some of the key trading centres based around two of the most valuable items of exchange in precolonial Australia, pituri and ochre, as well as the trade of intellectual property at these marketplaces. Much of the information used is drawn from Dale Kerwin’s Aboriginal Dreaming Paths and Trading Routes, as well as journal and web articles linked to throughout the article.

This is intended as practical knowledge for a number of Odyssey Traveller small group tours in Australia, part of a continuing series of pieces on Aboriginal art, culture, trade, and settlement. An appreciation of Indigenous activity is recognised as an important facet of learning in our tours for mature and senior travellers, a part of our commitment to understanding and sharing our knowledge of the history, culture, and landscapes of Australia.

Pituri Marketplaces

Pituri is a psychoactive plant substance made from the leaves of the shrub Duboisia hopwoodii, the most potent of Australian plants containing nicotine. Widely harvested, prepared, traded and chewed by Indigenous people across much of Australia, it has been described as the ‘gold standard’ of Indigenous trading (Brady & Long, 2003).

A highly popular commodity, pituri was traditionally used in Australian Aboriginal society on long journeys as an appetite suppressant, to sharpen the senses during important meetings, and as a painkiller in higher doses.

The leaves of – known as pituri – were chewed as a narcotic and widely traded across the Australian landmass.

Although Duboisia hopwoodii grows naturally in large parts of the desert areas of southern and western Australia, the most sought-after pituri was prepared in south-western Queensland. It is considered likely that the leaves from the plants growing in this region were favoured because they contained nicotine in a less immediately toxic form.

From here, pituri was cured, packaged, and then distributed by foot over a region of 500,000 square kilometres. Through hot and dry desert country it was passed along Aboriginal trading routes running south to Lake Eyre, north to Cloncurry and West into the Northern Territory.

Map displaying the general directions in which Pituri was traded

The Australian ethnographer and outback pioneer George Aiston proved an account of pituri district in 1937, focusing on the centres where it was traded (see anthropologist Pamela Watson’s blog). He noted the sighting of a centre at Koppermana in South Australia, “although the pituri had probably changed hands several times before it got there” (Aiston 1937: 373).

Koppermana consists of two Dieri Aboriginal words: ‘kapara’, meaning hand, and ‘mara’, meaning root (Kerwin 2010: 105). It has been described as ‘one old trade centre’, with the roads leading to it the mara, the root (Howitt 1882). Parties arrived here through the months of cool weather and the market was kept open all this time. Pituri was traded for stone and ochre, the trade continuing until everyone was satisfied and left for home.

Pituri came to Koppermana and other destinations from further trading centres northwards. Anne McConnell noted its movement from trade centres located at Boulia, Bedourie, Birdsville, the lower Diamentina, Goyders Lagoon and Mungerani before reaching Kopermanna, where it was distributed in many directions (McConnell 1976: 18).

The anthropologist and medicinal practitioner Walter Roth (1894), stationed in north-west Queensland at the turn of the twentieth century, attended what he described as a ‘swapping ground’ at Boulia. In addition to pituri, he also witnessed the trade in opossum-hair, eagle-hawk feather ornaments, mother-of-pearl, and curiously barbed spears, which were only made a by a tribe in the Northern Territory over 1,000 km away.

The trading places are confirmed by Aiston’s (1937: 373) sightings “at Annandale, on the Herbert”, i.e., the Georgina-Mulligan river system. “Crowds would be waiting… for the collectors [of pituri] to come in, and getting as much as they could, would make off to Birdsville, Bedourie, Urangangie, and down the Herbert.”

Others at Annandale would be waiting to take pituri and other goods down the Diamantina to a main centre at Goyder’s Lagoon, where others in turn would also be waiting to then take it back east and west as far away as the Darling and, in good seasons, the lower Finke. Aiston (1937: 374) reported to have seen “over 500 Aborigines waiting at Goyder’s Lagoon”.

Aiston also witnessed a trading centre at Birdsville, where people would come in “from the overland telegraph line, Innamincka, Arrabury, Durham and some from near Broken Hill” to purchase “big lots” of pituri (Aiston 1937: 376).

The Diamantina river at Birdsville, Queensland, Australia.

The Toko Ranges have also been identified as “once a major distribution point for pituri where it would be traded for goods such as dugong tusks from the Gulf of Carpentaria” (Letnic 2000: 113). The nations around the Toko ranges themselves sourced the pituri from a marketplace at Gordons Creek, using the Aboriginal road along the Georgina River via Glenormiston.

Roth (1894) described several further trade markets at Lake Nash, Austral Downs, and Camooweal in the east of the Northern Territory. At these locations, along with pituri traded were “pearl shell, eagle-hawk feathers, stone-knives, large coolamons, human-hair belts, spears, hook and simple boomerangs, European knives, blankets, shirts, trousers, small coolamons and emu feathers (1983: 8). From here items moved southwards to Alice Springs, and even further along with the movement of water to Lake Eyre.

Ochre Marketplaces

The natural clay ochre was one of the most important and valuable trading items for Australian Aboriginal people. An iron oxide pigment, it is found in a range of colours, ranging from white, through yellow to red and brown.

Ochre miners would crush the soft ochre rock into a powder and then mix it into a paste, usually with water, but sometimes saliva or the fat or blood of fish, emu, possum or goanna (Flood 1983: 272). The paste was then utilised for a variety of artistic and decorative purposes, including to adorn the body during corroborees and spiritual ceremonies, decorate wooden and stone implements, in rock art, and even as medicine (Paterson & Lampert 1985: 1).

View from above of four aboriginal art colours​ used traditionally from ochre

Ochre deposits are common throughout the continent, but the most highly valued in Aboriginal mythology came from only a few ochre sites connected to the final resting place of a significant totem or ancestral being (Kerwin 2010: 101; Patterson & Lampert 1985: 1).

These were differentiated by the colour of the ochre, each holding a geographical and spiritual significance. The white ochre from the Lachlan River, for example, was kept by the giant kangaroos of the creation period, Wirroowaa; and yellow ochre was traded from the Yirritja moiety group of north-eastern Arnhem Land.

The most valuable pigment in ancient Aboriginal Australia though was red ochre, with pieces from deposits created by ancestral spirits essential for use in rituals amongst tribal groups across the continent (Flood 1983: 272). As such, long expeditions were commonly made to these sites, functioning as trade centres. These quests have been likened to pilgrimage-like expeditions to the resting place of a totemic ancestor.

The Yarrakina red ochre mine at Parachilna in the northern Flinders Ranges is the most notable example, attracting traders from over a wide region of central Australia for its spiritual significance. Here, the red ochre is said to be the blood of a sacred emu, which was killed by Marindi (Mindari) the dog (Horne & Aiston 1924: 128-30; Kerwin 2010: 101-2). Although plenty of ochre could be obtained at deposits hundreds of kilometres nearer to various Aboriginal groups, this was considered the proper ochre, treasured for ceremonial purposes, believed to cure, protect and strengthen.

Parachilna Gorge. Ochre from Parachilna in the Flinders Ranges was particularly prized.

The Dieri speakers, who lived 500 kilometres to the north of Yarrakina, for example, regularly sent 70-80 men (with reports of even up to 300 at certain times) through hostile territory in order to barter with the traditional owners for the eagerly sought-after ochre (Paterson & Lampert 1985: 1). They then used the ochre not only for their own ritual purposes, but also as middle men traded with people further to the north for pituri at the aforementioned trade centre of Koppermanna, where it would be distributed northwards to the same markets as pituri.

Further expeditions were made to the Yarrakina mine to obtain the sacred ochre all the way from western Queensland, the Simpson Desert, New South Wales, and the Northern Territory. The journeys were conducted following an intricate network of Songlines and river systems. Aboriginal groups travelling south from Cloncurry and the Gulf of Carpentaria, for example, exchanged baler shells, stone axes, shields, and pituri for the ochre, while other groups from NSW exchanged light spear shafts. Boomerangs, flints, down feathers used in ceremonies, and some bush foods were also commonly exchanged.

For Aboriginals in the west, the Wilgie Mia ochre deposit, located in the Murchison region of Western Australia, was considered “a place of fabulous wealth” (Flood 1983: 272-3). In the local Wajarri people’s tradition, the ochre is said to have been formed by the death of a great kangaroo, speared by the Spirit Being called Mondong. In an agonizing leap, the kangaroo landed at what is now Wilgie Mia, spilling the red ochre his blood, the yellow his river, and green his gall. In his final leap the kangaroo landed at another hill, called Little Wilgie, which marks his grave.

Silhouette of a Kangaroo on a rock with a beautiful sunset in the background

The intensely deep red coloured ochre was particularly sought after over a huge area of Western Australia. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Noongar people from as far away as King George Sound and Experience, for example, travelled to Wilgie Mia to obtain this precious substance.

Corroborees & the Trading of Intellectual Property

The trade centres hosted large gatherings of various Aboriginal groups, acting as sites of corroborees (Kerwin 2010: 104). These corroborees could have involved hundreds of people and lasted for days. Rituals were performed, disputes settled, and marriages arranged, while at night the participants shared stories through dance and song.

An emphasis was particularly placed on education, corroborees used as a medium to present information and new technology. In this way, intellectual property was also traded at marketplaces, enriching the knowledge of those who participated (Kerwin 2010: 104-105). In addition to pituri, ochre, and other material items, people traded technology, stories, songs, and dance.

Yugambeh Aboriginal warrior dance during Aboriginal culture show in Queensland, Australia.

Roth observed that at the marketplaces “ideas are interchanged, superstition and tradition are handed from district to district, new words and terms are picked up, and corroborees are learnt and exchanged” (Roth 1894: 8).

Kerwin (2010: 104) explains: “Lines on a body, body ornaments, and colour of paint, they setting they are performed in, are all informative. Corroborees are used to convert tangible knowledge to a tangible form.”

The corroboree ceremonies themselves could be traded. McCarthy (1939) traced the movement of the Molonga corroboree, for example, to discover that it originated at the Diamantia River and Cooper Creek in South Australia. From here, it travelled across to Western Australia before returning to Central Australia. Roth also described the Molonga corroborree in Queensland in 1897, and Walter Spencer and Francis Gillen observed it performed by the Arrernte people of Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and surrounding area in 1904. It was also exchanged from north-west Queensland to the Great Australian Bight between 1893 and 1918, a distance of over 1,700km (Isaacs 1980: 91-94).

Tour of Aboriginal Australia

In our international tours, Odyssey Traveller has drawn upon ancient trading, exploration, and pilgrimage routes as a point of entry to understand our location, whether that’s tracing medieval European pilgrimage routes such as the Camino and the Via de la Plata in Spain; or following the ancient Silk Road through China and Uzbekistan. Now, we have drawn from ancient Aboriginal trading routes to build our Australia tours, enabling us to understand the history and significance of the landscape that surrounds us.

These include visits to:

Jim Jim Falls
Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu.

Every Odyssey guided tour is designed especially for mature and senior travellers, who want an authentic and informed experience of their destinations. Our tours aren’t the typical tourism Australia holiday – Blue Mountains, the Great Barrier Reef, and the penguin parade on Port Phillip Island. Instead, we pride ourselves on getting of the beaten path and making you think about Australia and New Zealand in new ways. We move in genuinely small groups – usually 6-12 per tour – and all tours are cost-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Australia:

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