Indigenous Peoples of Australia

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Introductory Paragraph

‘Aborigines1’ is how Europeans called the native peoples of Australia after British explorer and sea captain James Cook2 discovered this smallest continent on the Earth in April 1770. The word ‘aborigine’ derives from the Latin ‘ab origine’, meaning “from the beginning”. Aboriginal people were the first human inhabitants of Australia. Biologists proved that the Australian Aborigines are the oldest living civilization in the world has ever known as well as the least studied. These people racially differ from others as they belong to the particular Australoid race. The history of the Aborigines is considered to be unique as Aboriginals were indigenous people of Australia who endured the British colonization and maintained one of the most ancient cultures on the Earth.

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Aboriginal peoples were the first people to live in Australia.


When Cook reached Australia, he considered the land uninhabited. In fact, the continent was sparsely populated by Aborigines as the indigenous people of Australia. They were dark-skinned, broad-nosed, fluffy and curly haired people of middle stature with long upper and lower extremities. They were quite skinny but muscular. Scientists believe that the ancestors of the Aboriginal peoples canoed to Australia from Southeast Asia at least 50,000 years ago and around 20,000 years before that, groups migrated from Africa to Asia. At that time, sea levels were lower and land bridges connected Asia and Australia. First Australians settled primarily along the fertile northern and eastern coast of the continent. The reasons for this migration could be accidental or purposeful, for example, a search for better opportunities or a result of climate change and even a major flood. However, the Aborigines have believed they were created by spirit Beings who created their land. “…from time immemorial, we believe as Aboriginal people, Australia has been here from the first sunrise, our people have been here along with the continent, with the first sunrise. We know our land was given to us by Baiami 3” ( Jenny Munro 4 ). (9)

Estimates of the Aboriginal population when the first British settlers arrived in Australia in 1788 range from 320,000 to 750,000 people. There were about 500 different tribes across the continent. They each spoke their own dialect of one of the more than 250 Aboriginal languages. Indigenous Australians lived in friendly extended-family groups known as clans, speaking and sharing language, customs, beliefs and belonging to the same land. At certain times, family groups would come together for social, ceremonial and trade purposes. An Aboriginal tribe was made up of a number of clans. The number of people belonging to one tribe could be from about one hundred to as many as fifteen hundred. The territories were divided by geographic boundaries such as rivers, lakes, and mountains. Aboriginal communities had no political organizations or government.

Aboriginals were traditionally hunters and gatherers who lived a partly nomadic lifestyle. They moved from place to place as needed to provide themselves with resources. Their diet consisted of wild animals, insects, fish and clams, fruits, nuts, and roots. Food was abundant, as was fresh water and shelter. Indigenous Australians lived in a communal environment where members of the tribe shared resources and tasks such as child rearing, hunting, foraging and tool making. They did not try weaving or wearing clothes. The Aborigines never engaged in agriculture or used metal or built houses and towns. They had a division of labor but had no private ownership of property. Economic relations existed between groups. Trade routes connected people across the continent. Common trade items included boomerangs, spears, grinding stones, seashells, and ochre for painting. However, many Aboriginal groups lived apart and could not communicate due to language barriers.

Being completely isolated from other nations, the Aborigines created a system of beliefs known as ‘the Dreamtime5 ‘ or ‘the Dreaming’, which reflected their religion-cultural worldview. It was the way they understood the world and described their laws for living. Aboriginal people believed that the world was created by Ancestor Beings and the spirit of those Ancestor Beings was present in the country, in the animals, places, and people of this country. Dreamtime was more than a mythical past; it prescribed a spiritual connection of indigenous people with everything around them. Dreaming history was passed from generation to generation through stories, song, dance, and art. The dreamings are our ancestors, no matter if they are fish, birds, men, women, animals, wind or rain. It was these dreamings that made our law. All things in our country have a law, they have a ceremony and song, and they have people who are related to them. ‘ (Yanyuwa elder from Borroloola) (5)

The basis of Aboriginal religion was totemism6. Totemism is a belief system that connects human beings to other animals, plants, and aspects of nature. Groups and individuals are assigned a particular animal that they are related to and have to care for. Such an object, called a totem, served as their emblem or symbol. This gave them a profound sense of connection to and responsibility for the natural world. Totemic rules played an important role in maintaining the balance with their surroundings. “…we have a sacred duty to protect that land, we have a sacred duty to protect all the animals that we have an affiliation with through our totem system”. ( Jenny Munro4) (9) Researchers note that the Australian Aborigines were one of the most superstitious peoples who performed magical rituals.


Soon after the discovery of Australia the British Empire began colonizing the continent with convicted criminals. Building a penal colony on the new land was the way to prevent overcrowding of prisons in England. In 1788 on January 26 the captain Arthur Phillip7 and his “First Fleet” of 11 ships with about 1,000 settlers on board arrived on the south-east coast of Australia. After their release, the newly freed prisoners could buy land and settle. Free British immigrants also arrived on the continent. The first European settlement was named Sydney. The colonists declared the continent as terra nullius8 (not inhabited by humans) for taking whatever they wanted. It was the beginning of the most difficult period in the Aborigines’ history because the next two centuries were a cultural obliteration of native peoples.

At first, the majority of Indigenous Australians met the visitors peacefully and with interest. The Aborigines thought Europeans were the spirits of their dead ancestors as all they were so white. The settlers cleared land for farming and for towns, which disrupted Aboriginal peoples’ hunting and gathering activities. They also fenced off the land, which cut off access to clean water and food supplies for Aboriginal communities. The colonists forced Aboriginal people off their lands and destroyed their sacred sites. Aboriginals had to move into the dry deserted center from the favorable coastal zones.

The conflicting interests of the colonists and the Aborigines soon led to violent clashes. Colonists systematically killed and poisoned native Australians. The Aboriginals started guerrilla warfare. An estimated 20,000 indigenous people were killed in the fighting. Much greater numbers died from diseases, including measles and smallpox that the colonists brought with them. The Aborigines had no resistance to these new diseases. For example, within just two years smallpox had killed almost half the aborigine population around Sydney. Between 1788 and 1900 the Aboriginal population was reduced by as much as 90 percent. ‘In less than twenty years we have nearly swept them off the face of the earth. We have shot them down like dogs and consigned whole tribes to the agonies of an excruciating death.” (6) (Edward Wilson9, Argus, 17th March 1856)

In the 20th century, the Australian government started a policy of assimilation10. The goal was to force the Aboriginal people to abandon their traditional way of life and to adapt to the dominant white culture. From 1909 till 1970 Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families and placed in white institutions or foster homes. They were not allowed to speak their language but were given some kind of primary education that was just only enough to work on farms. The communication between the children and their parents was forbidden. These children later became known as ‘The Stolen Generations ‘. Thus, the Indigenous Australians endured the British colonization with catastrophic consequences and experienced the intergenerational trauma11.

The killing and exploitation of Aboriginal people by whites continued well into the twentieth century. In 1921 there were only about 60,000 Aborigines left. After the mass protests in the 1990s, Australia made progress in the movement known as reconciliation—acknowledging the past mistreatment of Indigenous Australians and resolving to right those wrongs. In 1967 Aboriginals got the right to vote and officially admitted being the citizens of Australia. Where possible the government has been returning land to their traditional owners and encouraging Aborigines to rebuild their culture and lives. In 1998 was introduced Sorry Day, an annual event now called the National Day of Healing, to remember the Stolen Generations. On the 13th of February 2008 the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, made a formal apology to the Indigenous Australians for their past mistreatments.


In the Australian census of 2018, the Aboriginal population was more than 760,000 people that constitutes about 3% of the total Australian population. Nowadays there are only 40 languages left out of 250 ones. The vast majority of Indigenous Australians live in big cities, regional towns, and rural areas. Only about one-fifth still live in remote areas, where they rely in part on traditional skills as hunter-gatherers. Tourists are not allowed to enter some territories where a few wild tribes keep leading the primitive lifestyle as their ancestors did for centuries.

Some Aborigines successfully integrated into the modern social environment. Being naturally creative and freedom-loving people, they frequently choose professions connected to art, religion, and sport. There are lots of artists, actors, writers, pastors, and sportsmen among the native Australians. However, the majority of the indigenous population still remain the most disadvantaged group of Australians. Native peoples have continued to experience racial discrimination in employment, housing, education, and other areas of everyday life. There are many issues facing Aboriginals these days including poverty and low life expectancy, poor education and medical assistance, drug, and alcohol abuse, crime and social pressures. “ There’s a wound in our nation. It’s an injustice towards Indigenous Australians that began with colonization and is ongoing today.”(6)

Despite two centuries of oppression and mass intrusion of European culture the Aborigines have maintained their unique traditional culture. Indigenous Australia culture is tens of thousands of years older than many other ancient civilizations, such as Mesopotamia (dating back as early as 3500 B.C.), Egypt (3100 B.C.), Greece (2700 B.C.), Maya (2600 B.C.) and China (1600 B.C.). Today the aborigine tribes still perform their traditional way of life and keep truly their stories, art, and rituals. Their painters decorate tools, totems, and weapons with the ancient tribal colors. Their dancers perform the scenes of Dreamtime myths. Their hunters surprise tourists with the skillful use of boomerang. Their shamans practice special rituals for the treatment of diseases. Many anthropologists credit Aboriginals with possessing the world’s longest enduring religion and art forms, such as the cross-hatched and dot-patterned painting styles once inscribed in caves. Today the Aboriginal people of Australia are the custodians of the world’s oldest living culture. “Aboriginal elders knew that their ancestors possessed among the earliest of human cultures.”

Respect for the land and all living creatures remains fundamental to Aboriginal culture today. ‘The land is our food, our culture, our spirit, and identity’. (5) Aboriginals see themselves as children of their land. To Indigenous people land is not just something that they can own or trade. They perceive their land as living material. The land is sacred to them and has a spiritual value. Thus to push the natives away from their areas means their spiritual death and losing the links with their ancestors. “Being Aboriginal is not the color of your skin or how broad your nose is. It is a spiritual feeling, an identity you know in your heart. … It is a unique feeling that is difficult for non-Aboriginal to fully understand.” (9) ( Linda Burney12)

Concluding Paragraph

Australia is currently showing a high rate of economic growth. However, that is the country where numerous clans have still been living without changing the level of development since the Stone Age. Indigenous people do not use the usual achievements of a modern man, but they have a special connection with everything that is natural. The ancestors of today’s Aboriginals were the first Australians. The colonization of Australia devastated Indigenous people and cultures. But, although the difficulties of the history the Aborigines survived. Nowadays Aboriginal culture is one of the most ancient cultures on the Earth, and today this unique culture struggles not to disappear. “They are one of the most durable societies the planet has ever known.”(3)       

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indigenous peoples of Australia. (2021, Oct 08). Retrieved June 6, 2023 , from

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