Songlines and Stone Axes, by John Nicholson

English-speaking people talk about ‘Dreaming tracks’ or ‘songlines’ when referring to the many pathways that criss-crossed ancient Australia. These are rough translations of Aboriginal words. People used the Dreaming tracks for everyday travel or trade, but originally these pathways followed mythical journeys of ‘Dreamtime’ ancestors.

Traders exchange shells for hunting spears. The shells are exchanged again, until they have been traded all the way to central Australia. Canoes are ordered, manufactured and delivered without the buyer ever meeting the manufacturer. Trade or exchange, ceremonial and spiritual, these transactions were governed by complex cultural understandings. Exchanges established or extended trust, or signified extra-clan patronage arrangements. Gatherings might be cued by need or by annual periods of plenty, for example the arrival of Bogong moths in the mountains of Victoria. Trade would follow the feasting. In the far north-west, traders from Sulawesi came annually and brought with them canoes, beads, belts, fish hooks and alcohol. They even brought Dutch coins, long before the First Fleet landed on the east coast of Australia.

Songlines and Stone Axes is the first in a new series, Transport, Trade and Travel in Australia. It provides a wide-ranging view into the culture of the first Australians. John Nicholson shows relationships between clans and between clans and their environment. These relationships shaped trade, travel and transport across the continent. Songlines and Stone Axes is a rich, rewarding read. There is a contents page, general and language group index. The narrative is interspersed with smaller information bites, encouraging and rewarding the ‘flitting’ reader as much as the more traditional reader. Nicholson’s drawings are almost photographic in detail. Recommended for upper primary readers.

Songlines and Stone Axes, by John Nicholson
Allen & Unwin 2007