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Key Aboriginal Trade Routes of Ancient Australia

Learn about the ancient trading routes that pre-dates the Silk road in this article to support small group tours for mature and senior travellers, couples and solo travellers. The routes developed technology and goods trading across the continent.

11 May 21 · 9 mins read

Key Aboriginal Trade Routes

By Marco Stojanovik

Trade was a central part of life in Aboriginal Australia prior to British settlement. Trading routes criss-crossed the breadth of the continent, flowing from one nation to the next, dispersing goods information, technologies, and culture. These routes were not necessarily narrow, well-defined trails, with some passing haphazardly between local group to local group. Some, however, did travel constantly for considerable distances in definite directions and through the same tribes as others before them.

A number of these routes travelled astounding distances in the process, reaching thousands of kilometres away from their origins. The anthropologist and archaeologist Frederick David McCarthy (1939) has called these ‘trunk trade routes’. Following the movements of the Dreamtime ancestors, often along coastal estuaries, river systems and catchment areas, they acted as roads which allowed Aboriginal travellers to move deep into the Australian heartland.

McCarthy explains that the trunk system functioned in sections, with the articles of trade moving between neighbouring tribes and horde territories. Outside the boundaries of their own trading journeys, the Aboriginal people only knew that an article came from far away in a certain direction. The constant demand for articles, for example for pearl and baler shells by the interior tribes, ensured a continuous flow along the trunk system.

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.

This article explores eight of the most important trunk routes that have been identified in Australia and are used in our tours: (1) the east coast route; (2) the south-eastern route; 3) the Pituri Road originating in the Channel Country, Queensland; (4) the Cape York to South Australia route; (5) the central route; (6) the Kimberley to Eyre Peninsular route; 7) the Kimberley to south Western Australia route; (8) and the north-west Australian coast route. For more information, readers are urged to take a look at Frederick David McCarthy’s “‘Trade’ in Aboriginal Australia, and ‘Trade’ Relationships with Torres Trait, New Guinea and Malaya”; and Dale Kerwin’s Aboriginal Dreaming Paths and Trading Routes. Both were used extensively in the writing of this article.

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

(1) East Coast Route

The 3000 km east coast trunk route functioned from the north to the south of this coast, from the Torres Strait down the north eastern coast of Cape York and down the Great Dividing Range into Victoria (McCarthy 1939: 99-100; Kerwin 2010: 110). It consists of a narrow strip of fertile land closed from the interior by the Great Dividing Range. At various points – such as the Brisbane district, Hunter River Valley, and the Hawkesbury-Nepean-Warragamba-Cox River system – there were also connecting routes between the coastal and interior tribes.

Along the trunk route flowed bunya nuts, multi-pronged and bone-barbed fish-spears, bark canoes and containers, and knowledge about the fish-hook technique. The route also incorporated the major Bora ceremonial grounds used for initiation rites.

Odyssey Traveller has drawn from this route for our tour of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River region. During this tour we visit several sites of Indigenous importance, including the Emu Cave excavation site, and learn more about the land and its story. The region’s Aboriginal people share a history that stretches back over 47,000 years, as demonstrated by archaeological finds of stone axe heads, quartz tools, and other small-backed tools, making the region one of the oldest sites of Aboriginal habitation in Australia.

Night sky showing the milky way over the Hawkesbury river, from Bar point. New South Wales Australia.

(2) South-eastern Route

The south-eastern route follows the river systems down the Murray-Darling basin to Port Augusta (McCarthy 1939: 100; Kerwin 2010: 111). It extends from south and central Queensland down the Paroo and Warrego Rivers to the Darling, which it then follows to the Murray River. From here it passes down the Lower Murray where it connects with a route from central Victoria (Mt. William), and at Lake Alexandria joins the Glenelg River-Coorong-Port Augusta-Lake Eyre route.

McCarthy explains that “trade connections along these rivers are suggested by the distribution of cylindroconical stones, ground-edge axes bark canoes and containers, and by the diffusion of spear-traits, netting techniques, hammer-dressing technique, and other traits.” Twine and possum skins are also believed to have been moved along the route.

The explorer Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell followed this trunk route on his three explorations. Meanwhile, several stock routes also follow this trunk, most famously Harry Redford who drove his stolen cattle from Cunnamulla to Adelaide. The largest, though, is the Darling stock route, which carried stock and people from south-western Queensland through NSW, Victoria and on to Adelaide.

Odyssey Traveller travels along this ancient trade route during our Darling River Run small group tour. Joining a small group tour following the Darling River we visit several Aboriginal sites of importance and take you through the traditional lands of the Ngemba and Barkindji Aboriginal people, to who the river is an integral part of their lives and lifestyle.

The Darling river in the far west of New South Wales. The third longest river in Australia.

(3) Pituri Road

The Pituri Road was also one of the most important roads, serving as an extensive network of Aboriginal trading routes across the continent. The trunk route began in the Channel Country at Bedourie and travelled to Birdsville, the Lower Diamantina, Goyders Lagoon, Mungeranie, and Kopperamanna, where the pituri was then distributed in many directions. Low (1987: 257-60) and Watson (1983: 303-311) suggest that it was traded over an area of more than 550,000 square kilometres as far north as the Gulf of Carpentaria, south to Lake Eyre, east to the mid-region of Queensland, and west into the Northern Territory to the area where Alice Springs is now located.

Pituri is a mixture of leaves gathered from the shrub Duboisia hopwoodii and wood ash which was traditionally chewed by Aboriginal Australians before European tobacco replaced it. Its nicotine content is up to 8%, four times more potent than that found in commercial tobacco. It was used as both a stimulant to wave of hunger and in larger doses as a depressant for numbing pain and its hallucinogenic effects.

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

Odyssey Traveller conducts a tour of the Channel Country, the central point of the Pituri road, as part of various small group tours into Queensland including our 11-day tour of Queensland, our 19-day tour of Queensland, our 15-day tour of Outback Queensland, and our 13-day tour to Broken Hill and back. During these tours we have the opportunity to learn about local Aboriginal culture and visit various archaeological and rock art sites.

(4) Cape York to South Australia Route

The Cape York to South Australia route follows the inland river systems of eastern Australia and connects with the Murray Darling catchment areas. It extends from Princess Charlotte Bay on the east coast of Cape York, to the Lake Eyre tribes and further south to the Parachilna red ochre deposit (McCarthy 1939: 101; Erwin 2010: 111). Smaller routes branch off at various points.

The first expedition by the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (1844-46) surveyed the part of this trail that runs across the top end of Australia. Mitchell also followed part of this route in 1845 as did Sir Augustus Charles Gregory in 1855 when he surveyed from east to west.

Today, the Birdsville Track lies along this route as does the railway line that heads north to Oodnadatta. So too the Great Northern Road, the Channel Country, and the Gulf Road stock routes follow this road.

Odyssey Traveller follows the Birdsville Track during our small group tour: Broken Hill and Back. Aboriginal communities have occupied and transited across this part of central outback Australia for up to 40,000 years. During its 13-day itinerary, this Australian outback tour learns from Aboriginal guides and sees some of the key places that the indigenous communities are willing to share about their history culture, including Middens, quarries, camp sites, ceremonial sites, tool production sites, rock art and scarred trees.

Birdsville Track
The remote Birdsville Track, one of Australia’s great 4WD odysseys.

(5) Central Route

It is difficult to say where this central Australian trunk route commences as it has three major arteries (McCarthy 1939: 102; Kerwin 2010: 111). The main artery begins in the Kimberley, from where it heads south-west across north Australia to the Waramanga people of Tennant Creek, with a branch onward along the Barkly Highway to Mt Isa. Another major artery of the trunk route connects the Kimberley to a route that runs from Arnhem Land to the Roper River by way of Victoria Highway. The final artery, meanwhile, connects the Kimberley to the Daly-Victoria rivers district by way of the Buchanan Highway.

This artery re-joins the main artery at the Waramanga country, where it then passes south through central Australia, following the Rainbow Serpent Dreaming, along route of the Overland Telegraph Line and today’s Stuart Highway. It then branches at Alice Springs south-west to Ooldea and southeast down the Finke to the Lake Eyre tribes via the Oodnadatta Track.

Odyssey Traveller explores this ancient route, learning about the local Aboriginal culture and history on a number of our tours, including our small group tour of the Oodnadatta Track and Flinders Ranges; our small group tour exploring Alice Springs and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park; and our Darwin and Kakadu small group tour.

Oodnadatta Track.
The vast empty spaces of the Oodnadatta Track.

(6-8) The Kimberley Routes: to Eyre Peninsula; to South-western Australia; and Along the Northwest Australian Coast

The Kimberley to Eyre Peninsula route (6) runs from the Kimberley south through eastern Western Australia until it crosses the border of South Australia and passes through Ooldea onwards to the west coast of Eyre Peninsula (McCarthy 1939: 102). It was used largely for the trade of pearl shells.

The Kimberley to south Western Australia route (7) travels from the Kimberley south-westward to the Central Division in the interior of Western Australia, skirting the Great Sandy Desert and crossing the headwaters of the De Grey, Fortescue, Ashburton, Gascoyne, and Murchison Rivers (McCarthy 1939: 102-3). It then continues into the southwestern portion of Western Australia before passing south of the Great Victoria Desert to Eucla. This route later became the Canning Stock Route (Kerwin 2010: 112).

The north-west Australian coast route (8) also begins in the Kimberley, heading along the north-west coast to Exmouth Gulf and thence southward (McCarthy: 103). There is not enough data about local trade to determine whether a trunk route also existed on the southern coast of Western Australia.

Odyssey Traveller conducts a small group tour of the Kimberley, where we learn about the unique adaptations and management approaches that have ensured a sustainable occupation and trade for Indigenous Australians for over 40 000 to 65 000 years. This includes the privilege of viewing the region’s incredible ancient Aboriginal rock art.

Aboriginal Artwork The Kimberley Australia
Wandjina rock paintings in the Kimberley.

Tour of Aboriginal Australia

Travellers with an interest in learning more about the Aboriginal heritage of Australia may want to check out our various outback Australia tours.

These include visits to:

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:

We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

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