CANBERRA - For thousands of years, the secret knowledge and wisdom of the world's oldest surviving cultures was handed down by word of mouth to specially selected successors.
But in the 21st century, with many of Australia's Aboriginal communities fragmented or dispersed, fears are growing that premature death could rob indigenous society of traditional knowledge, laws and myths dating from the Dreamtime.
Legal experts are also worried that Western law cannot adequately protect property willed to families by Aborigines, especially if distinctions blur between individual and traditional property.
New means of protecting cultural secrets and indigenous inheritances are now being studied in a joint project by the University of New South Wales (UNSW), the NSW Public trustee and Aboriginal legal groups.
UNSW Professor Prue Vines says new measures are needed to protect secret knowledge and objects because existing safeguards - such as copyright law - are not sufficient.
"Often customary law cannot be passed on until the recipient is perceived as being ready or qualified, and Aboriginal elders are very concerned about ensuring the information isn't lost before it can be passed on.
"A common question is 'if I die before the person is ready to receive the knowledge, how can I make sure the information isn't lost?'."
Vines says one way of protecting it could be found in the existing Western legal framework, using provisions for a secret trust in a will.
This could be adapted to indigenous needs by encasing customary law in a will, which would be protected by Australian law.
Other, more personal, issues are also under investigation.
Vines says that most Aborigines do not make wills, and that inheritances can be enmeshed in issues such as property and children.
"Is it common law property or native title? What happens to children and other relatives in a kinship system totally unlike that of Western society?
"Without a will, there is no executor to make decisions about disposal of the body and if there is a dispute, it has to go to court.
"That's a difficulty in itself."
Vines says the Australian system reflects Western kinship structures, not the Aboriginal family structure, in which words indicating kinship often do not exactly match Australian legal meanings.
The project intends finding solutions to produce protocols and wills for use by lawyers dealing with indigenous inheritances.