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Ancient Wisdom: How Aboriginal Peoples Mastered Sun Management and Skin Health

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Summer, winter, rain or shine, the UV rays from our Australian sun are powerful and require protection. Now that summer is firmly here, and scorching temperatures are predicted across much of the country, many Aussies will seek ways to protect themselves from the sun.

While skin cancer is most common in those with fair skin and complexions, it's a strong misconception that people with darker skin, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, are not susceptible to sun damage. This could not be further from the truth. Yes, skin containing higher melanin levels is less likely to burn, but it may also mean it is harder to spot cancerous sun damage. Ultraviolet light penetrates all types of skin, and excessive damage mutates your DNA and can lead to skin cancer, regardless of the colour of your skin.

Indigenous peoples have lived in the land known as Australia for over 65,000 years, living off the flora and fauna to sustain themselves and treat diseases. Broad-spectrum sunscreen, as we know it, was only manufactured in the 1980s. Despite modern medicine and increasing technological advancements, here are tips we can take away from ancestral sunburn techniques.

Aboriginal Sun Shelter

Traditional Aboriginal Sun Management Techniques

Shelter, Shade and Science

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples thoroughly understand how light behaves when in contact with various surfaces. This knowledge aided their construction of homes and structures that provided shade in hot environments. When light hits a light-coloured surface, it is mainly reflected rather than absorbed and converted into heat. According to their needs, this information indicates which natural materials were suitable for shelters.

For example, the Warlpiri peoples of the Tanami Desert, northwest of Alice Springs, would make structures out of spinifex or eucalyptus leaves to shade themselves during long, hot, and often cloudless summer days. These shelters, called malurnpacontained a western wall to maximise shade, were open on all sides to allow airflow, and were covered with silvery eucalyptus leaves to reflect the majority of the intense rays.

The Warlpiri Peoples also took advantage of yama-puralji (shade trees). Anything that stops light hitting your skin will protect you from ultraviolet light. Seeking shelter during the hottest parts of the day (10 am to 4 pm) and locating wide-berth trees at the beach are easy and helpful ways to minimise direct sun exposure.

Clothing and Climate

While clothing was mostly worn depending on the environment, cloaks made from animal skins were common. In the colder climates of Tasmania, Victoria, and southern New South Wales and South Australia, these cloaks were full-body, whereas waist coverings were worn more regularly in warmer areas. The fabrics of cloaks depend on the native animals available but have been known to be of possum skin, wallaby, kangaroo, quoll, sugar glider, and emu.

Sun-safe clothing remains one of the most effective ways to prevent overexposure to the sun. From sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats to UPF-rated fabrics, strong, effective coverage is one of the best ways to protect yourself from harmful UV rays.

Aboriginal Man with his hand on a tree, holding leaves.

Natural Remedies Used for Skin Health

Natural camouflage resources are remedies for maintaining skin health in harsh, sunny conditions. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples used mud or other materials that stop light from hitting one's skin, like leaves and wood ash.  

Sunburn was often treated with tea tree oil by some tribes of First Nations Peoples. Affectionately known as Australia's "first aid kit", the antiseptic properties of tea tree oil also mean it is a natural remedy for skin issues like acne, lice, athlete’s foot, nail fungus, and mite infection at the base of the eyelid.

These ancestral remedies emphasise the importance of applying and reapplying broad-spectrum sunscreen. However, herbal healing alternatives like aloe vera and tea tree oils remain as treatments for soothing sunburn.

Young Adult talking with Elder about Sun safety with an iPad

Cultural Practices and Sun Safety

Traditionally, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, the movement of the planets, stars, sun and moon was evidence of the changing seasons, informing navigation and calendars and helping to predict the weather. Thus, the sun influenced traditional lifestyles, dictating when it was best to hunt, gather and fish different food sources, informing the behaviour of animals and plants throughout the year, when to enact ceremonial practices, and informing law and social structures. The study of these oral histories reveals explanations and predictions of natural disasters and climate change and the resilience of First Australians.

The ancestral Dreaming stories passed down for thousands of years by Elders to younger group members through oral tradition, song, dance, and art reinforced the importance of astronomical bodies. These narratives formed the foundation of community connection to land, kin and spirituality.

Clearly, the sun is powerful. The Wotjobaluk people of northern Victoria explained that the sun was a mother who ascended into the sky to search for her lost son with her blazing torch of flames. Such stories highlighted the sun's usefulness but reminded each generation of the sun's fiery nature.

Father with surfboard and two children at the beach

Modern Implications of Ancient Sun Management Wisdom

Regardless of your cultural background, there is a range of learning to be gained from the longest-lasting cultures in the world that can complement contemporary skincare practices. It's part of our privilege as modern Australians to respect, celebrate and support the histories of First Nations populations. 

And, when it comes to sun safety, with tens of thousands of years of an innate connection to the Country and the Australian sun, the resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples makes them an incredible source of wisdom for how to manage during intense summers:

  • Seek shade — anything opaque that blocks the sun will better protect you from UV radiation.
  • Dress in and construct shelters with light colours to better reflect the sun's rays.
  • Clothing and sunblock are effective physical barriers against UV rays.
  • Natural remedies for sunburn are effective ways to soothe burned skin, including tea tree oil and aloe vera.
  • Avoid the Sun during the hottest parts of the day (10 am to 4 pm).
  • Educate your children on the importance of sun safety.
female skin cancer doctor talking to patient

Learning from Aboriginal Wisdom for Better Skin Health

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are some of the most resilient people in the world, having survived and thrived in a hot, dry land for tens of thousands of years. Heed their knowledge: stay out of the sun at times of peak UV, lather up your skin with something to block UV radiation, treat your burns, and be mindful of the effects that intense sun exposure can have on the health of your skin.

If you are concerned for your skin's health, the doctors at SunDoctors are the experts in checking for signs of skin cancer. With skin cancer clinics across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, make sure you book in to give both yourself and your family peace of mind, letting you and your loved ones get back to work and play that much sooner!

Call us on 13 SKIN (13 75 46) to book your appointment today!

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