Every Aboriginal newborn is assigned a ‘tjukurpa’ — a story from the time of the world’s creation which, in its details, will tell them everything they need to know about where to find food, medicine and water for hundreds of miles around. It will teach them about magic and spirits and detail an elaborate moral code. A tjukurpa is a cross between a Bible parable, a Just So story, a supermarket plan and a travel guide. It is a multi-dimensional map of life that speaks of time, space and meaning. Events in the story’s plot — battles and birthplaces and hideouts — correspond to actual facets of the physical landscape, so you will know that you can find carrots, for instance, in the spot where the bush carrot beat the bush potato in a fight. Tjukurpas are incredibly complex. They are taught in stages, with each new level of detail being revealed by elders when an individual is considered ready. They are imparted in as many ways as possible: dance, song, body-painting, rock-carving and sand-drawings that cover a hectare. But they are highly secret. They are passed down strictly between members of the same ‘skin group’. Men do not know the women’s tjukurpas, and women do not know the men’s. White people have only ever been told as much as the youngest Aboriginal children. The paintings that artists such as Shorty produce are highly codified and obscured, so that their tjukurpas remain hidden. But they are all based on these essential, ancient lessons.
It is said that the Australian Aboriginals belong to the oldest surviving culture on earth. It appears profoundly different from ours. But I have come to believe that, in one crucial sense, we are just like the Aboriginals. We share their means of negotiating reality. Our lives, to an almost unimaginable degree, depend on stories.
—from The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science