Aboriginal Peoples and Their Animal Totems

For thousands of years, Aboriginal peoples have lived in close connection with the nature, developing intricate relationships with the animals they share the land with. Through their animal totems, these communities have found guidance, protection, and a deep sense of belonging to the earth. While not all Aboriginal peoples practice totemism, those who do offer a fascinating glimpse into a worldview that cherishes the interconnection between all living things.

Totemism in Aboriginal Peoples

Totemism is a cultural phenomenon found in many Aboriginal peoples and characterized by the belief in the existence of a mystical relationship between humans and nature, especially animals. As with other totemistic indigenous peoples around the world, totems are seen as symbols that reflect the deep connection between humans and nature and are considered an important element of Aboriginal culture.

Origins of Totemism in Aboriginal Peoples

The exact origins of totemism in Aboriginal peoples are still a subject of scholarly debate. There is no clear consensus on how or when it emerged. Nevertheless, what is clear is that totemism has been an essential and enduring aspect of Aboriginal culture for thousands of years, woven into the fabric of their daily lives and social organization.

Archaeological evidence suggests that totemism in Australia may have emerged during the Paleolithic period, when the continent was inhabited by hunter-gatherer groups.1

Aboriginal Peoples and Their Animal Totems
Aboriginal rock painting in Australian Capital Territory featuring animals.
Photo: Martyman at the English Wikipedia (Wikimedia) ©️CC BY-SA 3.0

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, European explorers and anthropologists began documenting their observations of Aboriginal peoples, which included their totemic beliefs and practices.2 These early records offered valuable insights into the intricate and multifaceted nature of totemism in Aboriginal cultures, which were closely linked with their cosmological beliefs, mythology, and social structures. Through these records, scholars gained a deeper understanding of the diverse ways in which totems were used to regulate social organization, spiritual practices, and the relationships between humans, animals, and the nature.

Significance of Totemism in Aboriginal Culture

In Aboriginal peoples, totemism was not simply a matter of identifying with a particular animal or plant species. It was a multifaceted system of meaning and symbolism that pervaded all aspects of social life. Totemic animals and plants were believed to possess spiritual power and significance, and were regarded as sacred beings with whom humans could communicate and form relationships. These relationships were based on mutual respect and reciprocity, and were essential for maintaining social harmony and balance.

One of the key functions of totemism in Aboriginal peoples was to establish and maintain social identity and cohesion. Each clan or tribe was associated with a particular totemic animal or plant, which served as a symbolic representation of their shared identity and ancestry. The totemic system provided a framework for organizing social relationships, including marriage and kinship ties, and for regulating access to resources such as land, water, and food. It also provided a means for resolving conflicts and mediating disputes between clans and individuals.

Another important function of totemism in Aboriginal peoples was to facilitate communication with the spiritual realm. Totemic animals and plants were believed to have a direct connection to the ancestral spirits and the Dreaming, which was the Aboriginal cosmological framework that explained the origins of the world and the relationships between humans, animals, and the environment. Through rituals and ceremonies, individuals and clans could access the power and knowledge of the ancestral spirits and gain insight into the mysteries of the universe.

The significance of totemism in contemporary Aboriginal peoples remains a topic of debate among scholars and indigenous communities. Some argue that it is an essential part of indigenous cultural heritage and identity, and that efforts should be made to preserve and revitalize totemic traditions. Others argue that totemism is a relic of the past that is no longer relevant to modern indigenous communities, and that it may even hinder efforts to achieve social and economic progress.

Animal Symbolism in Aboriginal Beliefs

In Aboriginal totemism, each animal is believed to possess a unique set of characteristics and traits that can be used to represent different aspects of the human experience. These characteristics may include physical attributes such as speed or strength, but also emotional or spiritual qualities such as wisdom, loyalty, or courage. The following table provides some examples of animals commonly used in Aboriginal totemism, along with their symbolic meanings:

AntHard work, diligence, community, and determination are some of the values associated with the ant. It is seen as a role model for those who value persistence and teamwork.
BandicootThe bandicoot symbolizes creativity, resourcefulness, and adaptability. It teaches us to make the most of what we have and to be resilient in the face of adversity.
BatThe bat represents death and rebirth, transformation, and initiation in Aboriginal culture. It is also a symbol of the spirit world and the unknown, as it is a creature of the night.
Black SwanThe black swan is a symbol of beauty, grace, and elegance. It also represents the deep mystery and hidden beauty within ourselves and our world.
BrolgaThe brolga symbolizes dance, harmony, and balance. It is a graceful bird that inspires us to find our own rhythm in life and to live in harmony with others.
CockatooThe cockatoo represents communication, self-expression, and sociability. It is a reminder to be true to ourselves and to communicate our thoughts and feelings honestly and openly.
DolphinThe dolphin is a symbol of playfulness, joy, and freedom. It reminds us to enjoy life and to take pleasure in the simple things. It is also associated with intelligence, intuition, and inner strength.
EchidnaThe echidna symbolizes protection, defense, and self-preservation. It is a reminder to stay grounded and protected, and to be resourceful and resilient in the face of danger.
EmuThe emu represents endurance, strength, and resilience. It is a reminder to keep moving forward and to persevere in the face of adversity. It also symbolizes loyalty and devotion to family and community.
GoannaThe goanna is a symbol of transformation and regeneration. It teaches us to shed our old skin and embrace new growth and change. It also represents independence, freedom, and self-sufficiency.
KangarooThe kangaroo symbolizes strength, power, and agility. It also represents balance, stability, and the ability to move forward. The kangaroo is a reminder to stay grounded and to be mindful of our surroundings.
KoalaThe koala represents intuition, nurturing, and protection. It is a reminder to trust our instincts and to protect those we love. It also symbolizes adaptability and the ability to find comfort in difficult times.
KookaburraThe kookaburra represents laughter, joy, and good humor. It reminds us to find the joy in life and to not take things too seriously. It is also associated with clarity, insight, and intuition.
LizardThe lizard is a symbol of transformation, growth, and regeneration. It teaches us to adapt to changing circumstances and to shed our old skin. It also represents the power of observation and the ability to blend in with our surroundings.
PelicanThe pelican symbolizes sacrifice, selflessness, and generosity. It is a reminder to give of ourselves and to help others. It also represents abundance, nourishment, and the ability to find sustenance in difficult times
SnakeA symbol of fertility, renewal, and transformation. It is also associated with healing, protection, and the cycle of life and death.
TurtleA symbol of longevity, patience, and wisdom. It represents the importance of respecting the natural world and living in harmony with it.
WallabyA symbol of agility, adaptability, and resourcefulness. It teaches the importance of staying agile and being able to quickly adapt to changing circumstances.

List of Aboriginal Peoples and Their Animal Totems

The relationship between Aboriginal peoples and their environment is ingrained in their culture and spiritual beliefs. One aspect of this relationship is the concept of totems, which are symbols or objects that represent a particular clan or family group. These totems are often associated with a particular animal or plant and are seen as a source of spiritual guidance and protection for the group.

The table below shows a selection of Aboriginal peoples and their totems. Note that the totems listed can vary depending on the source and the variation within each Aboriginal group.

NameStateAnimal Totems
AnaiwanNSWKangaroo, Emu, Echidna, Koala, Black snake, Carpet snake, Goanna, Honey bee
ArrernteNTRed kangaroo, Desert Rat, Witchetty Grub, Honey ant, Perentie, Bush turkey, Thorny devil, Sand goanna
AwabakalNSWDolphin, Black snake, Koala, Grey Kangaroo, Kookaburra, Lyrebird, Magpie, Pelican
BarkindjiNSWRed kangaroo, Murray cod, Emu, Goanna, Brown snake, Barking owl, Black swan, Pelican
BidjaraQLDEmu, Kangaroo, Carpet snake, Dingo, Black cockatoo, Brolga, Frilled-neck lizard, Goanna
BirpaiNSWKoala, Bandicoot, Dingo, Eastern grey kangaroo, Pelican, Osprey, Wallaby, Flying fox
BundjalungNSWDolphin, Pelican, Carpet snake, Emu, Sea turtle, Sea eagle, Black cockatoo, Kangaroo
DharawalNSWBlack swan, Eel, Grey kangaroo, Kookaburra, Wallaby, Snake, Magpie, Dolphin
EoraNSWGrey nurse shark, Stingray, Wallaby, Flying fox, Possum, Dolphin, Penguin, Osprey
GamilaraayNSWRed kangaroo, Goanna, Emu, Brolga, Black cockatoo, Carpet snake, Bandicoot, Echidna
GithabulNSWBlack snake, Red-bellied black snake, Lace monitor, Brush turkey, Kookaburra, Platypus, Satin bowerbird, Sacred kingfisher
GunditjmaraVICEel, Koala, Kangaroo, Black swan, Pelican, Snake, Wallaby, Possum
KamilaroiNSWEmu, Kangaroo, Goanna, Brolga, Black cockatoo, Carpet snake, Brown snake, Wombat
KaurnaSADolphin, Red kangaroo, White-bellied sea eagle, Koala, Magpie, Rainbow lorikeet, Brown snake, Brush-tailed possum
KijaWABarramundi, Brolga, Emu, Kangaroo, Monitor lizard, Red-tailed black cockatoo, Turtle, Turkey
KulinVICRed-tailed black cockatoo, Grey kangaroo, Emu, Brolga, Turtle, Goanna, Platypus, Black swan
LarrakiaNTCrocodile, Barramundi, Mud crab, Sea turtle, Osprey, Brolga, Dolphin, Pelican
MartuWAPerentie, Honey ant, Bush turkey, Goanna, Red kangaroo, Bustard, Eagle, Snake
MeriamQLDDugong, Turtle, Shark, Saltwater crocodile, Dolphin, Porpoise, Stingray, Octopus
MurrawarriNSWEmu, Kangaroo, Carpet snake, Brolga, Cockatoo, Pelican, Crow, Fish
NgarlumaWADugong, Turtles, Dolphin, Shark, Crab, Manta ray, Octopus, Hammerhead shark
NgunnawalACTKangaroo, Emu, Possum, Rainbow Lorikeet, Carpet Snake, Black Swan, Echidna, Platypus
NoongarWAKangaroo, Emu, Black Swan, Crow, Western Grey Kangaroo, Magpie, Carpet snake, Willy Wagtail
NyamalWAEmu, Kangaroo, Goanna, Crow, Black-headed python, Bowerbird, Monitor lizard, Red-tailed black cockatoo
NyangumartaWAHoney ant, Emu, Desert oak, Bowerbird, Kangaroo, Mulga snake, Euro, Goanna
NyikinaWAFreshwater crocodile, Black-headed python, Turtle, Snake, Brolga, Ibis, Red kangaroo, Honey ant
PaakantyiNSWEmu, Kangaroo, Carpet snake, Crow, Goanna, Barking owl, Murray cod, Redfin
PalykuWAEmu, Kangaroo, Bustard, Honey ant, Sand goanna, Red-capped robin, Rainbow bee-eater, Mallee fowl
PitjantjatjaraSAHoney ant, Perentie, Mala (Rufous hare-wallaby), Emu, Wedge-tailed eagle, Sand goanna, Rock wallaby, Kangaroo
WarlpiriNTHoney ant, Goanna, Thorny devil, Black-headed python, Rock wallaby, Perentie, Emu, Wild turkey
WarumunguNTRed kangaroo, Bush turkey, Emu, Honey ant, Brolga, Freshwater crocodile, Black-headed python, Thorny devil
WiradjuriNSWEmu, Kangaroo, Black swan, Eaglehawk, Eel, Crow, Murray cod, Carpet snake
WongathaWAEmu, Kangaroo, Goanna, Honey ant, Rock wallaby, Thorny devil, Mallee fowl, Bowerbird
WorimiNSWDolphin, Stingray, Emu, Pelican, Kangaroo, Koala, Echidna, Black swan
WunambalWATurtle, Saltwater crocodile, Whale, Dugong, Rock wallaby, Honey bee, Stingray, Hammerhead shark
YawuruWABlack-tailed godwit, Dugong, Dolphin, Humpback whale, Whale shark, Turtle, Stingray, Osprey
YindjibarndiWAEmu, Kangaroo, Brolga, Goanna, Red-tailed black cockatoo, Honey ant, Thorny devil, Carpet snake
Yorta YortaVICTurtle, Eel, Murray cod, Redfin, Koala, Kangaroo, Emu, Carpet snake
YuinNSWSea eagle, Pelican, Dolphin, Whale, Black swan, Echidna, Flying fox, Goanna
YulparijaWAKangaroo, Emu, Goanna, Brolga, Blue-tongued lizard, Carpet snake, Honey ant, Mala (Rufous hare-wallaby)
YungngoraWAEmu, Kangaroo, Brolga, Black-headed python, Sand goanna, Honey ant, Thorny devil, Rainbow bee-eater

  1. “Archaeology of Ancient Australia”, Peter HISCOCK, Routledge; 1st edition, ISBN: 9780415338110[]
  2. “The Dreaming & Other Essays” William Edward Hanley STANNER, Black Inc. Agenda, ISBN: 9781921870187[]