Our essential Aboriginal Australia reading list includes books on the world’s oldest living culture covering archaeology, history, art, agriculture, and the food of Australia’s First Nations peoples. These are the must-read books if you want a deeper, more immersive and more enriching experience when you travel Australia.
It’s no coincidence that I’m updating this essential Aboriginal Australia reading list on 26 May, National Sorry Day, a National Day of Healing in Australia, and that tomorrow, 27 May, Reconciliation Week starts in Australia.
Today commemorates the forced removal of Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander children from their families during a period of ‘assimilation’. From 1910 to 1970, indigenous Australian children were taken from their homes by authorities, tearing apart families and communities, destroying lives and suppressing culture.
They became known as the Stolen Generations and they endured violence, suffering and trauma. Today is an opportunity to remember that tragic period in Australia’s history and to acknowledge their pain, loss, grief, and trauma.
Of course, that wasn’t the only shameful period in Australia’s history. From 1788, when the first fleet of British ships filled with convicts anchored at Gadi (now Botany Bay) on the land of the Eora Nation, ‘the killing times’ began, marked by hundreds of brutal massacres of Aboriginal people by the British colonisers.
These continued until 1928, when a new period of ‘protection’ saw indigenous Australians segregated on reserves and missions, where every aspect of their lives was controlled, and ongoing brutalities included institutionalisation, forced confinement and the removal of children from homes.
It wasn’t until 26 May 1998 that the first National Sorry Day took place, following an inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, and it was another decade before the government issued a formal apology in 2008 in what would become a historic speech made by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to members of the Stolen Generations
National Reconciliation Week is a time for Australians to “learn about our shared histories, cultures, and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia”. This essential Aboriginal Australia reading list is a good place to start.
It’s the first in a new series of reading lists for the destinations we cover on Grantourismo, a series we put on hold when the pandemic started, which we’re going to resume publishing starting today. We’ll be carefully selecting books that giving you a deeper understanding of places, so that when you travel, you have a more immersive and more enriching experience of the places you spend time.
More immersive experiences make for more meaningful travel, which becomes more memorable travel. That’s been our thinking since we launched Grantourismo in 2010, with a mission to make travel more meaningful and more memorable, by inspiring you to travel more slowly, locally and experientially, which for us meant to travel more sustainably, ethically and responsibly.
But first a favour: Grantourismo is reader-supported, so to keep creating these guides, stories, itineraries and recipes, we rely on income generated from our readers, such as commissions earned when you click through to affiliate partner links and book accommodation, buy travel insurance, rent a car or campervan, or buy books. Here are some ways to support Grantourismo, from shopping our online store to making a one-off donation to our cookbook project on Patreon.
Aboriginal Australia Reading List for a More Immersive Experience of Aboriginal Australia
Whether you’re an Australian planning a road trip to Kakadu or Uluru to learn about Australia’s sacred sites, see ancient rock art or go birdwatching or wildlife spotting, or you’re a foreign traveller with Australia travel in mind when borders open, we have a must-read book list for your pre-trip planning and to pack for your next Australian journey.
As I was reminded a few days ago on Australia Day – which for Australia’s traditional custodians and First Nations peoples is ‘Invasion Day’ and a day of mourning – there’s still so much to learn about Aboriginal Australia. That learning is important, because with that comes understanding, connection, empathy, and respect, and a deeper, more enriching experience of Australia.
I can’t tell you how many times on our travels around the world someone has told me that Australia is a “young nation” with a “short history”. In fact, Australia has long been host to many ‘countries’ and ‘nations’ as home to the world’s oldest living culture – and a sophisticated, resilient, resourceful, and creative culture at that, rooted in spirituality, storytelling and a deep connection to place.
Archaeological evidence confirms Aboriginal Australia to be the oldest continuous civilisation on earth at some 60,000 years or more, boasting more than 250 languages and 800 dialects at colonisation. It’s a culture that has long been sustainable, inventive and technically innovative. As these books we’ve selected illustrate, Aboriginal Australian culture is far from homogenous, but rich, diverse and dynamic.
With Australia’s borders still shut to the world at the time of publishing this essential Aboriginal Australia reading list, nobody knows when foreign travellers can venture to Australia again. But there’s nothing stopping you from planning an Australia itinerary focused on exploring Aboriginal Australia, and what an enriching trip that would be. Australians, you have no excuse!
Essential Aboriginal Australia Reading List
Our essential Indigenous Australia reading list aims to give travellers, foreign and local, deeper insights into Aboriginal Australia and its history, culture and peoples to better prepare you for your next trip.
Welcome to Country, A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia by Marcia Langton
Whenever mainland Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander peoples travelled between each other’s nations, as they have done for millennia, they have performed ‘welcome onto country’ ceremonies to give visitors permission to travel and enjoy their country. That tradition continues to this day. If you only read one book on this essential Aboriginal Australia reading list make it Professor Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country, A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia. If you read a few, make this the first and make sure to take it with you. A travel guidebook to the history, languages, customs, and traditions of Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait Islands, Welcome to Country covers everything from etiquette, customs and cultural awareness to Aboriginal art, music, dance, and storytelling, as well as sights and sites you need to visit, and the Indigenous Australians you should experience them with. The book features some 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander owned businesses, communities and guides providing over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tours and experiences. Welcome to Country should serve as inspiration, as much as a practical planning tool, for your journey into Aboriginal Australia. Also see our picks of Australia’s best indigenous travel experiences which for us, have been some of our most life-changing travel experiences.
First Footprints: The Epic Story of the First Australians by Scott Cane
Of all the books on our essential Aboriginal Australia reading list, Scott Cane’s First Footprints: The Epic Story of the First Australians might be the one that most radically alters the way you’ve conceived Australia’s past. Cane charts the epic history of Australian Aboriginal peoples, the first ocean mariners, through archaeological discoveries, earth’s largest and oldest art galleries, and oral histories passed down since ancient times. Beginning from the moment a small group came ashore on Australia’s northern coast some 60,000 years ago, when the sea and estuaries were teeming with massive crocodiles and snakes and enormous mammals roamed the plains, Cane tells the story of ancient life on earth’s driest continent through environmental events, from ice ages and extreme droughts to inundating seas. Aboriginal Australians were the first peoples to engrave representations of humans, depict human emotion and sound, cremate their dead, and believe in an afterlife. In describing how they “created new technologies, designed ornamentation, engaged in trade, and crafted the earliest documents of war” and ultimately “developed a sustainable society based on shared religious tradition and far-reaching social networks across the length and breadth of the continent,” Cane dispels any misconceptions that Aboriginal Australians were primitive and Australia was a backwater.
Aboriginal Art by Wally Caruana
There are few better instructors to teach us about the history of Aboriginal art in Australia. Wally Caruana was the National Gallery of Australia’s Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art from 1984 to 2001. In Aboriginal Art, a beautiful Thames and Hudson book packed with colour and black and white images of artworks, Caruana provides the best introduction to Aboriginal art in all its diversity. This concise yet comprehensive overview covers some 50,000 years of indigenous Australian art and crafts and introduces Aboriginal Australian artists and their art from all parts of the country. It examines the traditions upon which artists built their work and the diverse variety of contexts and forms they’ve worked in, from the sacred and secret realm of ceremony to public spheres, and in media that has included engraving, painting, sculpture, weaving, textiles, photography, and printmaking. Try to get the latest edition, which includes a new chapter documenting recent developments in each of Australia’s geographical regions, the impact of urban living, growth of community art centres, and the rise of female artists – along with plenty of new illustrations – all of which demonstrate how dynamic, vital and exciting Aboriginal art is in Australia today. You will definitely want to take this handbook with you if you’re planning to travel to art centres such as Alice Springs, Arnhem Land, Darwin, and Broome. Perth and Adelaide in particular have outstanding art museums and galleries with Aboriginal Art collections.
The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia by Bill Gammage
After Cane’s First Footprints, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, below, might be the next books on our essential Aboriginal Australia reading list to most dramatically change your perspective of Aboriginal Australia. Once upon a time the thinking was that indigenous Australians were nomadic hunters and gatherers who left nothing but their footprints on the land they traversed. While it’s true that Indigenous Australians hunted and foraged, historian Bill Gammage’s decade of research tells a story of complex country-wide systems of land management by Aboriginal Australians. European colonialists and explorers describe in their diaries and letters and depict in sketches and watercolours sprawling ‘estates’ and ‘parks’ distinguished by grasslands, paths, woodlands, and abundant wildlife. Gammage explains how Indigenous Australians took a scientific approach to land management, using fire, the life cycles of native plants, and natural water-flows to guarantee food throughout the year. Different types of fires were burnt to promote growth of specific grasses, herbs, bulbs, and tubers. Patches of grassland were burned before storms so after the rain, fresh nutritious grass quickly sprouted. Without fences wild animals raised themselves, moving to wherever fresh food grew, but by controlling fires, Australia’s Aboriginals decided where the wildlife should be concentrated. The well-maintained grasslands only became overgrown and vulnerable to damaging bushfires after British colonization in 1788, when Aboriginal Australians were no longer able to tend their land. After reading Gammage’s book you will never gaze at Australia’s bushland and countryside in quite the same way again.
Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident by Bruce Pascoe
Bruce Pascoe’s engaging Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? is the perfect companion to Bill Gammage’s Biggest Estate on Earth and is another eye-opening book on our essential Aboriginal Australia reading list that will completely invert your thinking. Like Gammage, Pascoe draws from the diaries, letters and visual materials of the European colonisers and early explorers to build a very different picture to that which Australians formed at school of Aboriginals as nomadic hunter-gatherers. For Pascoe, these colonial myths worked to justify dispossession, however, the evidence that he gathered from early documents confirms that Indigenous Australians built homes and sewed clothes; altered the course of rivers to build dams; sowed, irrigated and tilled the land; planted, harvested and stored crops; and developed preservation techniques for milled flour, meat, witchetty grubs, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and more. Their scientific treatment of food enabled them to render toxic foods edible through complex preparations that involved techniques such as sluicing, immersion, drying, slicing, pounding, and cooking. They developed not only the systems of land management that Gammage describes, but complex systems of food production, preservation and storage, along with a pan-continental system of government that promoted cooperation, prosperity and peace. All behaviours that Pasco demonstrates are inconsistent with that of a hunter-gatherer. Don’t be surprised to find yourself looking very differently at Australia’s landscapes on your next road trip.
Fire Country, How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia by Victor Steffensen
If, like so many of our readers, you were moved by the bushfires that devastated so much of Australia in the summer of 2019-20 and you donated funds to save koalas and other Australian wildlife, then you’re definitely going to want to read Victor Steffensen’s Fire Country, How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia. It’s another must-read book on our essential Aboriginal Australia reading list. An Indigenous Australian writer, filmmaker, artist, musician, and consultant, Steffensen is a descendant of the Tagalaka people of North Queensland’s Gulf Country, and he was taught the importance of cultural burning from two community Elders who became his mentors. A co-founder of the National Indigenous Fire Workshops, which provide on-the-ground training for both Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australians, Steffensen’s work over the last few decades has been centred on reviving traditional knowledge with a focus on fire and burning. In this in-depth introduction to Aboriginal fire management, Steffensen provides a powerful argument that Australia actually needs fire, and how these ancient indigenous burning practices can help restore land and prevent the kind of bushfires that devastated so much of the country last year.
Aboriginal Australians: A History Since 1788 by Richard Broome
Richard Broome’s fifth edition of Aboriginal Australians: A History Since 1788 is considered to be the most authoritative account of Aboriginal-European relations in Australia. One of Australia’s most respected scholars of Aboriginal history, Broome tells the history of Australia from 1788 when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney’s Botany Bay, from the perspective of Indigenous Australians. Despite this being an important work of scholarship, Broome’s book is never dry or dull; he tells the history in an imaginative and engaging style. Covering two centuries of Aboriginal-European encounters, Broome shows how British colonisers supplanted First Nations peoples through force, violence and disease, and how Aboriginal Australians survived due to a combination of resistance, accommodation and struggle. The latest edition has new content covering the Northern Territory Intervention, the mining boom, the Uluru Statement, a resurgence of interest in traditional Aboriginal culture and knowledge, and a new generation of Aboriginal leaders. This is another must-read on our essential Aboriginal Australia reading list for travellers to the country.
Loving Country by Bruce Pascoe and Vicky Shukuroglou
The recently-released Loving Country by Bruce Pascoe and photographer Vicky Shukuroglou is the perfect companion to Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country. Whereas Langton’s book is a comprehensive guidebook to Aboriginal Australia, Pascoe’s Loving Country goes deep. While Pascoe covers history, Dreaming stories, traditional cultural practices, Indigenous tours, and examines the importance of recognition of and protection of place, he covers just 18 sacred Australian places and their histories and stories from an indigenous perspective. Focusing on places such as Brewarrina in New South Wales and its history of fishing and invention of ingenious fish traps and Margaret River in Western Australia and its whale stories, this is a guidebook for travellers who want deeper, more immersive and more enriching experiences of sacred places in Australia, rather than a whistle-stop tour of the country. Created in collaboration and consultation with Aboriginal communities, Pascoe shares their diverse stories, inviting readers to reconsider the accepted history of these places, helping travellers to develop a deeper understanding of them, and offering keys to unlock their heart, and the heart of the country. As much as Loving Country is a guidebook for travellers who want more meaningful experiences of Australia, it’s also intended as “a roadmap to communication and understanding between all peoples and country, to encourage environmental and social change”.
We’d love to hear from you if you’ve read any of the books on our essential Aboriginal Australia reading list, what you thought of them, and whether they helped you to have a deeper experience of the places you travelled.