Indigenous Science: “Australia Had Ancient Trade Routes Too”

Trade and trading routes have developed and existed for many thousands of years all over the world.  In the period when Europe and Asia had the Silk Road and Spice Trade, Australian Aborigines were also using trade routes along overland pathways.  These trading routes connected Aboriginal groups throughout the entire landscape of the country including the Torres Straits.  Routes intersected and criss-crossed at significant sites such as waterholes and rivers, where a particular material, such as red ochre was found in abundance, and at places created by the spirit ancestors.   

Red Ocre

Whilst there were caravans of camels and horses loaded with silks and spices and maps to guide the traders in Europe and Asia, the Aboriginal people developed a thriving bartering and exchange system by using their sacred pathways and songlines to guide them in their trade exchanges.

For the Aboriginal people, trade wasn’t just associated with physical objects but included songs, dances and art, stories, rituals and ceremonies.  These connected the people to the land and sky and animals.  Trade exchanges happened either with just one person or with large groups at market places and trading centres.  A flourishing economy existed through the people trading their commodities for items they didn’t have.

Mining for much sought after items as red ochre occurred around north western South Australia.  Greenstone was needed to create stone axes and this was obtained from Mount Isa and Cloncurry district and then transported and exchanged along the trade routes.

Aboriginal Stone Axe from the QM Collection



Research and artefact evidence suggests that the Baler shells Melo amphora or northern baler shell, from the East Coast of Australia was exchanged at  trading centres, such as Lake Nash and Camooweal  for ironwood spears, wooden shields, ochres, fish hooks, Spinifex gum resin, stone axes or boomerangs.

Just as marketplaces and trading centres were central points for the European and Asian civilizations these too were pivotal to the Aboriginal people.  The sight, sounds, smells, tastes and colours of a bustling marketplace was just as vibrant in the Australian landscape during ancient times.

About Letitia Murgha

I am an aboriginal elder from Queensland and an experienced teacher who is currently seconded to the Queensland Museum. I am a proud descendant of the Kudjala and Kalkadoon people of North Queensland and a member of a very large extended family. I am also a member of the strategic learning team based at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville and work closely with the Senior Curator of Cultures and Histories. I have worked in many locations in North Queensland, particularly in Cape York such as Aurukun, Mapoon, Weipa, Napranum and Coen. I have taught students from prep to Year 12 as well as working with their parents, care givers, and community members. I am very committed to the improvement of educational and social and welfare outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people especially children.
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6 Responses to Indigenous Science: “Australia Had Ancient Trade Routes Too”

  1. Thanks for the post Letitia. I love the way you have compared the trade routes and trading with the Silk Road and Spice Trade. Not just a science curriculum connection but history curriculum too.

  2. Liz Lang says:

    Hi Letitia. Interesting article. Have read about these routes once article in a newspaper some years ago. The article also contained a fascinating map of Australia with these trade routes marked on it..have always regretted not keeping it. Do you know of this map or where I can get a copy of it?

  3. Sarah says:

    Hi Letitia,
    I am also a teacher at a rural school on the darling downs. My class and I would like to ask you a few questions about the ways in which trading and bartering from your ancestory of the Kudjala and Kalkadoon people of North Queensland. We have been working on bartering from ancient societies and I will bring in a more contempory aspect, but I would like to explore the indigenous history of economy and trade. I would like to prepare questions with my class and possibly email these to you? or we could just blog on this website? what would suit you?
    from Sarah Courtney
    Year 4/5 Classroom Teacher
    Bell State School

  4. Karl Torkildssen-Hanssen says:

    Hi Letitia,
    Love reading histories of different cultures, folklore, the places they traveled to and the peoples they encountered etc.
    I am of Scandinavian descent and deeply intrigued as to what places my forefathers traveled, i was every excited by the recent discovery of the viking trade center in the top end of W.A.
    Do you know of any aboriginal elders that may know stories about the viking trade center?
    Any help here would be greatly appreciated, Tusen Takk(many thanks)

  5. Karl Torkildssen-Hanssen says:

    I have also heard stories, where the PNG peoples claim that men came in boats that where blonde haired, blue eyed, they were good people that showed them how to build dwellings etc.
    Not much imagination needed to figure out who they were 😊

  6. Rachael says:

    Hi Letitia,
    Can you tell me what was particularly traded in the brisbane area?
    Or what the brisbane area had to trade?
    Regards Rachael Kelly

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