Life in the Northern Territory of Australia is sustained by sedimentary aquifers accessed by remote wells, caves, and soaks. The indigenous people of the Northern Territory have survived for millennia in this arid country by knowing how to find sources of water and by keeping the locations of water sources to themselves. These locations are often well hidden—a cave entrance may be covered with branches, and a usable soak may be no more than a depression in the ground filled with sand. Traditionally, the custodian of this knowledge was the Water Man, represented in the painting Children’s Story (Water Dreaming for Two Children) by the Indigenous Australian artist Johnny Warangkula (1925-2001) as a figure wearing body paint and gesturing with ritual devices. The skills and spatial memory of the Water Man were indispensable. He knew how to scoop sand from a soak until water seeped into the base of the hole and how to find water in a trackless desert using mental maps known as songlines. By repeating the words of a song or the movements of a dance, Indigenous Australians could follow routes and identify landmarks in open country. Long distances could be traversed by stringing songs together, even songs in different languages. The songlines are presumed by Indigenous Australians to have been maintained throughout eternity, a concept referred to as the dreamtime.
Cole TB. Children’s Story (Water Dreaming for Two Children)Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula . JAMA. 2015;313(15):1498-1499. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.11709