A remarkable thing: uncontacted tribal Aboriginal groups, in this very modern nation




In 1977, Australia had already constructed and begun operating a nuclear reactor 20 years earlier, which was also when construction of the Sydney Opera House had been commenced. The Australian film industry was in full flight, and Australian scientists had won Nobel Prizes as early as 62 and 32 years before 1977. So Australia was certainly as modern and sophisticated a nation as any. Yet, incredibly, while we all flew overhead in jumbo jets, a small number of Australian Aboriginal people still lived their 100% tribal, hunter-gatherer lifestyles in the deserts directly below, and had never been in contact with the modern world!


Such a situation was vaguely understandable, although still remarkable and true for very few people, in the dense jungles of New Guinea or Brazil, but it seems truly incredible in the wide-open, easily-surveillable plains of Australia!


In 1977, Warri and his wife Yatungka were found in the Gibson Desert. In 1984, a group of nine Pintupi people also left this desert. Like all hunter-gatherers, these individuals' living patterns were incredibly fine-tuned to their particular environment. Warri and Yatungka lived at a “desert well” -- a subsurface water source (the only source available) accessible only by wriggling several metres down a steeply-inclined sand tunnel barely able to fit a person. Their dogs were totally dependent upon the humans retrieving water in this way. So, when the couple gave up that life, they were inevitably leaving their dogs to die -- a source of great distress -- and the “native well” to close-over forever.


In “Leaving the Simpson Desert” [1], detail is provided about life around, and the abandonment of, very similar water wells in a second Australian desert, again with no surface water, and again with access via steep narrow tunnels down into the sand for as much as seven metres. Wells like this had developed over tens of thousands of years, as people had followed the water downwards as the water table fell due to increasing aridity.


When abandoning the hunter-gatherer life, great hardships were often involved. When the group abandoned the Simpson Desert wells, it is recorded that the group’s leader carried his elderly mother on his back, over hundreds of the Desert’s massive sand dunes, until she could proceed no further. She died and was buried there.


Familiarity with the details of these lifestyles always leads all of those who have it to possess great respect for the people, their amazing hunting, tracking and food-gathering skills, and the ways of life involved. That has certainly been the case with my own encounters with the details and culture of such tribes as the Adnyamathanha, Wangkangurru and Pitjantjatjara and the individuals I’ve known.


And we all should be truly amazed that some of the world’s last remnants of the finely-honed savannah hunter-gatherer lifestyle, a lifestyle from which the entire human population originated, still lingered on, in the easily surveillable wide-open grasslands directly below, as countless Australians flew directly overhead to Europe or Asia in huge modern jets!






1. Hercus, L. (1985). Leaving the Simpson desert. Aboriginal History, 9, 22.