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Video clip synopsis – Australian ‘prehistory’ is the time before written language was used to record information. Culture was passed from one group to another, and from one generation to the next, in oral form, ceremonial dance, and through rock and bark visual art.
Year of production - 2008
Duration - 0min 51sec
Tags - aborigines, Australian landscape, beliefs, belonging, communication, communities, generations, historical maps, identity, Indigenous Australia, indigenous cultures, land, mythology, oral history, socialisation, symbols and symbolism, terra nullius, The Dreaming, see all tags


Trade Routes

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About the Video Clip


Trade Routes is a video clip from the documentary series and website First Australians produced in 2008 by Blackfella Films for SBS Television. First Australians chronicles the birth of contemporary Australia as never told before, from the perspective of its first people. First Australians explores what unfolds when the oldest living culture in the world is overrun by the world’s greatest empire.

Curriculum Focus


Students will:

  • discuss and reflect upon the historical and contemporary relevance and importance of indigenous culture through an examination of the existence of trade routes across Australia before and after European settlement in 1788.
  • drawing from historical research, construct an informed and informative media display.
  • extrapolate information to plan and write a considered appraisal of historical issues affecting the impact on Aboriginal lives of an increasingly European presence.
  • select appropriate information to assess and comment on the significance of an historian’s works.

Background Information


The age-old indigenous Australian ‘trade routes’ referred to in the video clip were not as Europeans would have understood the term when they began arriving and settling in 1788, nor as many today would even understand it.

Today we might understand a ‘trade route’ to be a particular route or passage of travel from one location to another in order to buy and sell commercial goods for monetary profit. For Australian Aborigines a trade route was an ancient and pre-designated passage through the landscape, often ‘mapped’ out in song, for the purpose of meeting at particular locations of great cultural and mythical-historical importance, and ceremonially exchanging, renewing and reinforcing friendship rites with other Aboriginal tribal groups, clans or nations. At these locations goods, objects or Dreaming songs considered valuable for their spiritual, religious, cultural and artistic worth were exchanged or passed from one group to another.

The arrival of Europeans, who immediately began parceling and fencing off tracts of land, severely disrupted these ancient routes.

In this sense, therefore, the Trade Routes clip has direct connections in subject matter and theme to those presented in the First Australians video clips, The Songlines, The Rainbow Serpent, and European Observers.

More information may be found about the topic by viewing and reading the references below. For example, Professor John Mulvaney, who appears in the clip, has written extensively on Australian ‘prehistory’, the time before written language was used to record information. Aboriginal history and culture was passed through space and time, from one group to another, and from one generation to the next, in oral form, ceremonial dance, and through rock and bark visual art.

Classroom Activities

  1. From the video clip of Trade Routes, discuss in class then write responses to the following:
    1. At the time of the first settlement of Europeans in 1788 there were long-established ceremonial trade routes across Australia. What is a ceremonial trade route?
    2. Beyond the basic trading of goods, what were the purposes and benefits of specifically fixed trade routes managed through established clan ceremonies? (See the Further Resources section for more information.)
    3. Food was not traded over long distances. Explain why. What kinds of goods might have been traded, and for what purposes? Why might these goods increase in value the more they were traded with other clans over long distances?
  2. Following from the previous activity, in pairs carry out research then create either a poster display or a written description about a particular item of significance that was passed from clan to clan, region to region, along an established indigenous trade route. An example may be ochre. Explain its purposes and uses, why it might be traded, and how its value might be ascertained from location to location.
  3. Carry out historical research then write an account in 400-500 words of how indigenous ceremonial trade routes may have been disrupted as European settlement spread across parts of Australia, and what the effects of this would have been. Provide specific examples of where and when this may have occurred.
  4. The speaker throughout the video clip is Emeritus Professor John Mulvaney. Carry out appropriate research then write a biography about Mulvaney’s significance as an historian and archaeologist in the field of Australian prehistory. You should refer to his important publications, and provide the reader with an insight as to what those publications are about.

Further Resources


Bill Arthur and Frances Morphy, Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia: Culture and Society Through Space and Time, Macquarie Library, North Ryde, NSW, 2005
Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime: The Story of Prehistoric Australia and its People, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 4th revision, 1999
Sven Lindqvist, Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One’s Land, translated by Sarah Death, Granta, London, 2007
John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1999

Rolf de Heer (director), Ten Canoes, Madman, 2006