Bruce Chatwin and The Songlines

The Songlines (Penguin, 1987) is Bruce Chatwin's autobiographical/literary travelogue of the Australian outback. In it, he sketches out the idea of the songlines, the "dreamtime" relationship between the Pintupi and the land. The relationship is very close - the land is not owned in any Western sense, nor is it just an undifferentiated range that nomads travel to find food, water, etc. It is a mythological structure that goes back to creation. As such, it is sacred, and secret (outsiders are not supposed to know what the specific songlines are). They are related to life (e.g., animals).


It means that the aboriginal tie to the land is much more than simple inheritance. The land is important not just because these people were there first, but rather because the land had specific meanings, that extended far past the boundaries of any one group. The lines were known by those of one group only to the "edges" of the territory, where they were picked up by those in the adjacent group. Periodically there would be a gathering in a "Big Place", where the ritual knowledge would be swapped (58ff).