What can we learn from the world’s oldest culture?

Scholars believe that the first people came to Australia some 50000 years ago [1]. The indigenous Australian culture is thus probably the oldest surviving culture on the planet. Or at least it was until about 200 years ago. An interesting illustration of this continuity is described in [1]. The Aborigines have some sacred places which they are not supposed to trespass. It turns out that Aboriginal fishermen, while at sea, avoid sacred places that today lie 30 meters beneath the sea and that have been beneath the sea since many thousand years B.C. Their locations still live in the collective memory of the people through very elaborate mechanism described below.

I have been fascinated by the Aboriginal culture ever since I visited Australia back in the 80’s. I spent some time in Alice Springs where not much at all happens so I purchased and read a couple of books on the Aboriginal culture. Then recently I stumbled upon a book about the Aboriginal Nhunggabarra people and their culture written by Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe [2]. It explores the mechanisms which made the Aboriginal culture so robust and sustainable in the true sense of the word.

The book describes many remarkable aspects of the Aboriginal culture which western anthropologists have only recently come to recognize and appreciate. I will only touch upon a few of them and try to draw some parallels with our life today.


The first remarkable thing about the Nhunggabarra is that they had a shared and a clear mission for their existence on earth: to keep everything and everybody alive. Everything they did reflected this mission and led to a sustainable way of hunting, fishing, cultivating the land and behaving in general.

I can hardly think of a more positive and meaningful mission than that of the Nhunggabarra. It’s so simple to state, yet so powerful. It certainly rhymes well with what nature is striving for in general: to proliferate life. It is my feeling that this mission would sound foreign to today’s nations, corporations and even most individuals. Maybe this is an indication of how “unnatural” our lives have become.

In today’s corporations we talk about a mission and a vision. I’m not sure that the Nhunggabarra had or needed any vision in this sense, only a mission. Modern corporations would do better with a shared mission as strong as that of the Nhunggabarra irrespective of what their vision is.

Knowledge management

The second notable thing about the Nhunggabarra is that they had created what we would today call a knowledge-based economy. Sveiby cites estimates stating that between 50% and 80% of the economy was based on intangibles such as information, education, diplomacy, entertainment, ceremonies, decision making and maintaining order in the society through a legal system. The first settlers from the west entirely missed this part of the economy and considered the Aborigines plain lazy. When Aboriginal boys turned 12 years old they were sent on a literal learning journey where they learned about the land, the law and many other things. The women were trained at home and acquired solid knowledge in what today would be called pediatrics, ecology, biology, sprituality, and medicine. The women were responsible for all training of children up to puberty. The boys’ journey lasted for 14 to 16 years and the boys were not allowed to marry before they had completed it.

Knowledge was stored in cleverly constructed stories with multiple levels of meaning. The stories referred to the landscape which therefore in effect came to codify parts of the Aboriginal knowledge. Each story was typically known by four people. They were only allowed to teach their own part of the story but knowing the rest of it they would have been able to correct the story custodian would his memory have failed. In addition each story custodian had an appointed “back-up” person, a Tuckandee, living at some distance from the first custodian. The Tuckandee would step in if something happened to the first custodian. This way one could in computer terms say that each story was remembered with eight-fold redundancy.

The “knowledge management strategy” of the Nhunggabarra is really a combination of what today is called a personalized knowledge management strategy and a codified knowledge management strategy. The personalized strategy relies on people having knowledge constantly being involved in dialogs with people who need that knowledge. This was certainly a significant part of the Nhunggabarra knowledge management strategy. In addition to this interaction, the knowledge was also codified into the stories and also in a way in the way the stories related to the landscape.

Stories are often used in today’s corporations to manifest the corporate culture and values but not for anything more formal. Could we use stories in the quality management system manual to convey the recommended way of working? With not too much effort it would at least make the quality system manual less boring.

I find it very intriguing that the Aborigines seem to have made a choice not to pursue more material wealth than they needed to stay alive and healthy. Most sources indeed agree that the Aborigines lived good lives with healthy food, a fair amount of exercise and few illnesses. Instead they chose to spend the rest of their time on spiritual and social activities and on learning about the nature. This way they did not stress the fragile Australian nature too much and were indeed able to live in a sustainable way for all those thousands of years. As a comparison, the European cotton growers managed to erode and otherwise spoil the land in less than 100 years.

Leadership style

The third thing I want to mention is the leadership style of the Nhunggabarra. They did not have chieftains in today’s western sense. Instead leaders were defined per activity area. One person would take the lead for a hunting party. Another one when fishing was on the schedule. There was always the option not to follow the leader and the leader would in those cases not try to enforce his decision (recommendation). The leadership roles were hereditary. A very complex system of maintaining the leadership roles was maintained by the women who planned all marriages to this end.

Sveiby speculates that the Nhunggabarra were very aware of the downside of centralized power and had, in addition to the context-specific leadership discussed above, also other mechanisms preventing the concentration of power to “testosterone-filled males” (of which there were probably as many as in any culture).

The context-specific leadership system is interesting in the way that it reflects what usually happens in today’s western organizations: informal leaders rise spontaneously depending on the area in question. In western organizations we sometimes talk about “managing” these individuals; seldom do we give them any formal leadership role though. Instead western organizations are modeled according to male hierarchies that were used for hunting parties in which context it was probably a fairly efficient organization. The military continued the tradition of a male hierarchy. Eventually corporations were organized in the same way. It is interesting to note that today’s corporations still sound a lot like an army at war: they “kill” their competition, they engage in “hostile takeovers”, and Sun Tzu’s On the Art of War has been laying on more than one CEO’s bedside table.

Would it be possible to implement context-specific leadership in modern organizations? It after all worked for 50000 years in Australia.


[1] The Kakadu Man. Bill Neidjie et al.
[2] Treading Lightly. Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe.
[3] Aboriginal Australians. Richard Broome.


With this post I don’t mean to criticize modern Australians. All Australians I’ve met have been very nice and hospitable. Australia as a nation has also made strong efforts to put right their ancestors’ mistakes. Virtually all western nations did terrible things in the past including my own who treated the indigenous Sami people very badly in the 19:th century. I’m glad that we have all grown just a little bit wiser on average.

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