First Australians

Aboriginals had the continent to themselves for 50,000 years. Today they make up less than 3 percent of the population, and their traditional lifestyle is disappearing. Almost. In the homelands the ancient ways live on.

A finger across the throat and a glance seaward. That’s the signal. The two men grip their spears, hand-carved from stringybark trees, and walk barefoot over the red soil to the water’s edge. Then into the aluminum dinghy, engine revved, and across a warm shallow bay of the Arafura Sea, at the wild edge of Australia’s Northern Territory.

Terrence Gaypalwani stands at the bow, feet spread for balance, staring intently at the water and indicating with the tip of his spear which direction to travel. He’s 29 years old, mid-career as a hunter. Peter Yiliyarr, over 40, a senior citizen, works the motor. The shoreline’s a lattice of mangrove roots; the sun’s a heat lamp. No sign of another human. Gaypalwani stares, points. Thirty minutes. The men haven’t spoken, though even when they’re not hunting, the Yolngu sometimes communicate solely in sign language.

Then Gaypalwani raises his spear, cocks his shoulder, and I look over the side of the dinghy and see a great shadow in the water. Yiliyarr guns the motor, and the spear is heaved, a violent throw. The shadow rises, the spear falls, and the two intersect at the water’s surface.

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