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Australian Aborigines
a Brief Overview

Hunting the Kangaroo, Aborigines in New South Wales
Hunting the Kangaroo
John Heaviside—Giclee Print
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Early Colonisation of Australia

Australia's original inhabitants, known as Australian Aborigines, have the longest continuous cultural history in the world, with origins dating back to the last ice age. Although mystery and debate shroud many aspects of Australian prehistory, it is generally accepted that the first humans travelled across the sea from Indonesia about 70,000 years ago. The first visitors, called 'Robust' by archaeologists because of their heavy-boned physique, were followed 20,000 years later by the more slender 'Gracile' people, the ancestors of Australian Aborigines.

These people arrived at a time when the continent was wetter and the sea level more than 50 metres lower than it is today. They discovered a continent with large forests and numerous inland lakes, inhabited by huge, flightless birds and giant marsupials such as three-metre-tall kangaroos (megafauna).

Archaeological evidence suggests that the whole of the continent was colonised within a few thousand years, although the central areas were not occupied until about 24,000 years ago. The end of the last ice age, 15,000 to 10,000 years ago, caused inland lakes to dry up and created vast deserts. The coastal areas became more densely occupied, leading to more stable patterns of settlement and the diversification of cultural groups. Again, there is dispute surrounding these cultural groups as there are anthropological arguments for the existence of between 11 and 21 regional subdivisions. These groups followed different lifestyles and spoke different languages (language distribution). Some tribes were semi-nomadic, others sedentary, according to the availability of food.

Exactly how long the people have been in Australia is still up for debate. There have been archaeological discoveries which suggest that the Blue Mountains region of Australia was occupied by the Dar people 100,000 years ago.

Culture & Beliefs

The Australian Aborigines had, and continue to have, a special cultural tradition of rites and customs. This tradition is defined by the special emphasis which is placed on clanship, and their belief in the spiritual significance of the land and its natural features. A tribal people living in extended family groups, the Australian Aborigines believe that clan members are descended from a common ancestral being—a being with a continuing existence. Specific traditions, rituals, laws and art link the people of each clan to the land they occupy, and each clan has various sites of spiritual significance on their land, places to which their spirits return when they die. The ancestors left strict laws that determine correct behaviour, and it is the responsibility of the clan to correctly maintain and protect their sites. Australian Aborigines still believe that to destroy or damage a sacred site threatens not only the living but also the spirit inhabitants of the land.

Clan members continue to meet to perform rituals to honour their ancestral spirits and the Dreamtime creators. The links between the Australian Aborigines and their ancestral beings are called totems, each person having their own totem, or Dreaming. These take many forms—caterpillars, snakes, fish, magpies etc. Art is an integral part of Aboriginal life, a connection between past and present, between the supernatural and the earthly, and between people and the land. Songs explain how the landscape contains these powerful creator ancestors, who can exert either a benign or a malevolent influence (songlines). Today, as you drive through the outback, it is important to realise that many of the features visible in the landscape have an oral history, with a past and a present. In fact, you are driving through the pages of the world's most ancient illuminated manuscript.

Aboriginal Rock Art

Wisdom and skills obtained over thousands of years enabled the Australian Aborigines to use their environment to the maximum. An intimate knowledge of plant harvesting and the behaviour of animals ensured that food shortages were rare. Like other hunter-gatherer peoples of the world, the Australian Aborigines were true ecologists. The only major modification of the landscape practised by the Aborigines was the selective burning of undergrowth and dead grass to encourage new growth, which in turn would attract game. However, contrary to the nomadic image, some tribes did build permanent dwellings. Remote tribes were linked by the trade routes which crisscrossed the country, dispersing goods and a variety of produced items. Along these trading networks, large numbers of people would often meet for 'exchange ceremonies', where not only goods but also songs and dances were passed on.

The Effects of White Settlement

When Sydney Cove was first settled by the British, it is believed there were about 300,000 Aborigines in Australia. The clan-based, egalitarian nature of their groups meant that a coordinated response to the European colonisers was not possible. Despite the presence of the Australian Aborigines, the new arrivals considered the land to be up for grabs because they saw no recognisable system of government, no commerce or permanent settlements and no evidence of land ownership. This situation was different in New Zealand, where the presence of such evidence forced the English to legitimise their colonisation by entering into a treaty. The Sydney Cove colony was founded on the legal principle of terra nullius—a land belonging to no-one. Settlers were thus able to take land from the Aborigines without either treaty or compensation. It was not until 1993, and the controversial Mabo versus Queensland native title case, that the notion of terra nullius was legally overthrown, and the principle that native title existed before the arrival of the British in 1788 was finally recognised.

The effects of European settlement on the native population were disastrous—many were driven from their land by force, many more succumbed to the numerous diseases introduced by the whites, while others drifted to the fringes of settled areas to obtain useful commodities such as steel and cloth and less useful ones such as alcohol. The delicate balance between nature and the people was broken down. Sheep and cattle destroyed habitats and waterholes which had sustained wildlife and vegetation for tens of thousands of years, and many species disappeared altogether. Aboriginal acts of defiance were met with violent reprisals, and for many years very few Europeans were prosecuted for killing Aborigines, although the practice was widespread. Full-blood Aborigines in Tasmania were wiped out almost to the last individual, and Aboriginal society in southern Australia suffered terribly.

By the time the first white explorers had found a route over the Blue Mountains in 1813 there were very few Dars left. European diseases and weapons against which the Aborigines had no resistance took their toll in epidemics and massacres.

By the early 1900s, legislation designed to segregate and 'protect' Aboriginal people was passed in all states. Employment and property rights were restricted, and the state was given the power to remove children from Aboriginal mothers if it was suspected that the father was non-Aboriginal (the Stolen Generation). On the positive side, 'full-blood' Aborigines living on reserves were given a degree of protection, as non-Aborigines could only enter reserves with a permit, and mineral exploration was forbidden. The assimilation policy of the 1960s subjugated Aboriginal rights even further. The government had almost total control of people's lives, from where they could live to whom they could marry. Many were forced to move to townships, the idea being that they would adapt to European culture and become absorbed into the prevailing market economy.

After WW II, Australian Aborigines became more organised and better educated, and a political movement for land rights developed. Citizenship was finally bestowed in 1967, following a referendum voted on by non-Aborigines. The assimilation policy was dumped in 1972, to be replaced by a policy of self-determination.

Today, there are about 230,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, most heavily concentrated in central Australia and the Top End. Australian Aborigines living an urban life in towns remain distinctively Aboriginal—they still speak their Indigenous language (or a Creolised mix), and mingle largely with other Australian Aborigines. Much of their special bush knowledge has been retained, and many traditional rites and ceremonies are being revived.

However, many Aborigines still live in appalling conditions, and alcohol and drug abuse remain a widespread problem. All in all, it's been a bloody awful 200 years for Australia's Aborigines. One can only be thankful for the resilience which enabled them to withstand the pressures placed on their culture, traditions and dignity, and that after so many years of domination they've been able to keep so much of their culture intact.


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