Songlines are a knowledge system. They can be visualised as corridors or pathways of knowledge that crisscross the continent laid down by creator beings over millennia. It is along these routes mapped by ancestral beings that people travelled to learn from Country as one would access knowledge from libraries across the country.
Like the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey and The Iliad or the Book of Genesis — all epic poems from the great oral traditions of the world — the songlines are a way of recording and passing on knowledge. They carry the laws and protocols as well as information for survival in a volatile environment, mitigating risk, mapping place, guarding and preserving scarce resources.
Because First Peoples’ cultures were oral and not a written, this knowledge was embedded in stories and performed in dance and song to keep them alive and to teach successive generations. The natural features of the land have served as memory aids for some 2,000 generations of people who have learnt to read the ancestral script imprinted on the land. A cascade of red rocks could indicate the site of an ancestral battle and a cave on the Seven Sisters Songline or tell us where the women hid in advance of their male pursuer; the marks of these encounters remain visible in the rock formations today.
Each language group across the continent have their own language words that approximate the songlines or Dreaming tracks, the most well-known is a western desert language word Tjukurrpa. Songlines are active and continuous and are forever present and animate. They are reactivated whenever custodians walk Country or sing, talk and perform ceremony on Country.
People inherit their Dreaming stories and totems from their place of birth and their kin. Songlines link the places mapped by the creator beings from that place. Custodianship of the stories are determined by gender, kinship, and relationship to Country and layered in this living, physical archive, communicated through art, storytelling and ceremony.
It is a knowledge system that is as ancient as the land itself, but also as timeless as the Dreaming.