Before the arrival of the Europeans, Aboriginal societies organised themselves in a variety of ways, differing in terms of what roles individual members and subgroups performed in work, decision making, ceremonies and many other aspects of their daily life. However all Aboriginal societies also had several characteristics in common. They were essentially egalitarian, no one had significantly higher status than anyone else. With this egalitarian system people with the most knowledge ( usually Elders ) earned the most respect and commanded the most authority. All aboriginal groups exchanged relationships with other groups to whom they had ties by blood or marriage. Popular writers often describe Aboriginal groups as tribes.
However their traditional groups lacked the political unity usually associated with other groups that anthropologists call tribes. Aborigines generally lived in extended-family-based clans, each with its own totemic spirit ancestor. Clan membership defined pattners of kinship and descent and determined what rights a person had, for instance, use a particular area of land or recite a unique story of the Dreaming. Several clans with the same language and cultural heritage often organised themselves into a loosely structured kind of tribe and occupied a defined territory. When clan members ranged over into neighbouring estates for food gathering, trading or ceremonial purposes they maintained high principles of reciprocity, proprietary rights and neighbourly behaviour. two or more tribes came together for important ceremonies, to trade or to exchange in warfare with other tribes, but otherwise they stayed basically independent.
Traditionally an important site such as a watering hole, an outcropping of high quality rock or a grove of fruit trees served as the focal point of the activities of a group. Aborigines commemorated such sites in stories of the Dreaming, and each site was associated with a particular spirit.