Indigenous Australians

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A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment. This is a representation of the indigenous mode of life in the cooler parts of Australia at the time of European settlement.

The Indigenous Australians are the first inhabitants of the Australian continent and its nearby islands, continuing their presence during European settlement. The term includes the various indigenous peoples generally known to Europeans as Aborigines, whose traditional lands extend throughout mainland Australia, Tasmania and numerous offshore islands, and also the Torres Strait Islanders whose lands are centred on the Torres Strait Islands which run between northernmost Australia and the island of New Guinea.


The term indigenous Australians encompasses a large number of diverse communities and societies, with notably different modes of subsistence, cultural practices, languages, technologies and inhabited environments. However, these peoples also share a larger set of traits, and are otherwise seen as being broadly related. A collective identity as indigenous Australians is recognised and exists alongside the identity and membership of many local community and traditional groups.

There are also various names from the indigenous languages which are commonly used to identify groups based on regional geography and other affiliations. These include: Koori (or Koorie) in New South Wales and Victoria; Murri in Queensland; Noongar in southern Western Australia; Nunga in southern South Australia; Anangu in northern South Australia, and neighbouring parts of Western Australia and Northern Territory; and Palawah (or Pallawah) in Tasmania.

These larger groups may be further subdivided; for example, Anangu (meaning a person from Australia's central desert region) recognises localised subdivisions such as Yankunytjatjara, Pitjantjatjara, Ngaanyatjara, Luritja and Antikirinya.

The word aboriginal, appearing in English since at least the 17th century and meaning "first or earliest known, indigenous", has been used in Australia to describe its indigenous peoples as early as 1789. It soon became capitalised and employed as the common name to refer to all indigenous Australians. Strictly speaking, "Aborigine" is the noun and "Aboriginal" the adjectival form; however this latter is often also employed to stand as a noun. Given its lengthy association with Australia's Colonial history, the term "Aborigine" has acquired negative, even derogatory connotations among some sectors of the community. "Indigenous Australians" has found increasing acceptance as a preferred term, particularly since the 1980s.

(The once-common abbreviation "Abo" is now widely considered highly offensive, roughly equivalent to "nigger" in the United States. Use of the word "native", common in literature before about 1960, is now also deprecated.)

The Torres Strait Islanders possess a heritage and cultural history which they identify as being distinct from mainland indigenous traditions, and are more closely related to Melanesian peoples. Accordingly, they are not generally included under the designation "Australian Aborigines". This has been another factor in the promotion of the more inclusive term "indigenous Australians", when referring to all such indigenous peoples in general.


There is no clear or accepted racial origin of the indigenous people of Australia. Although they migrated to Australia through South-East Asia they are not related to any known Asian population. Nor are they related to the nearby peoples of Melanesia or Polynesia. There is some speculation that they are related to some racial groups in India. In view of the very long time they have been in Australia, almost entirely isolated from other human populations, it is unlikely that they will be found to be closely related to any identifiable racial group.

Indigenous languages are also quite unrelated to any other known languages. In the late 18th century, there were anywhere between 350 and 750 distinct groupings and a similar number of languages and dialects. At the start of the 21st century, only about 200 indigenous languages are still in use, all but about 20 of these are endangered to a greater or lesser extent.

It is believed that first human migration to Australia was achieved when this landmass earlier formed part of the Sahul continent, connected to the island of New Guinea via a land bridge. It is also possible that people came by across the Timor Sea. The exact timing of the arrival of the ancestors of the indigenous Australians has been a matter of dispute among archaeologists. The most conservative widely-accepted timeline for first arrival is between 40,000 - 50,000 years BP. This means there have been more than 1250 generations in Australia. A 48,000 BC date is based on a few sites in northern Australia dated using thermoluminescence. A large number of sites have been radiocarbon dated to around 38,000 BC, leading some researchers to doubt the accuracy of the thermoluminescence technique.

Thermoluminescence dating of the Jinmium site in the Northern Territory suggested a date of 200,000 BP. Although this result received wide press coverage, it is not accepted by most archaeologists. However, it should be noted that only Africa has older physical evidence of human habitation, although recent evidence based on mitochondrial DNA has indicated that some of the ancestors of the indigenous Australians must have resided in what is now India.

Humans reached Tasmania approximately 40,000 years ago by migrating across a land bridge from the mainland that existed during the last ice age. After the seas rose, the inhabitants there were isolated from the mainland for 10,000 years until the arrival of European settlers.

Mungo Man, whose remains were discovered in 1974 near Lake Mungo in New South Wales, is the oldest human yet found in Australia. Although the exact age of Mungo Man is in dispute, the best consensus is that he is at least 40,000 years old. Stone tools also found at Lake Mungo have been estimated, based on stratigraphic association to be about 50,000 years old. Since Lake Mungo is in south-eastern Australia, many archaeologists have concluded that humans must have arrived in north-west Australia at least several thousand years earlier.

Before white settlement

At the time of first European contact, it is estimated that between 300,000 and 1 million people lived in Australia. Population levels are likely to have been largely stable for many thousands of years. The common perception that Aborigines were primarily desert-dwellers is in fact false: the regions of heaviest indigenous population were the same temperate coastal regions that are currently the most heavily populated. The greatest population density was to be found in the southern and eastern regions of the continent, the Murray River valley in particular. However indigenous Australians maintained successful communities throughout Australia, from the cold and wet highlands of Tasmania to the more arid parts of the continental interior. In all instances, technologies, diets and hunting practices varied according to the local environment.

Post-colonisation, the coastal indigenous populations were soon absorbed, depleted or forced from their lands; the traditional aspects of Aboriginal life which remained persisted most strongly in areas such as the Great Sandy Desert where European settlement has been sparse.

All indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers, while those along the coast and rivers were also expert fishers. Their mode of life and material cultures varied greatly from region to region. Some Aborigines relied on the dingo as a companion animal, using it to assist with hunting and for warmth on cold nights. While the communities managed their food resources in various sophisticated ways, none practised agriculture. No Australian animal other than the dingo was domesticated. The typical indigenous diet included a wide variety of foods, such as kangaroo, emu, wombats, goanna, snakes, birds, many insects such as honey-ants and witchetty grubs. Many varieties of plant foods such as nuts, fruits and berries were also eaten. In present-day Victoria there were two separate communities with an economy based on eel-farming in complex and extensive irrigated pond systems; one on the Murray River in the state's north, the other in the south-west near Hamilton, which traded with other groups from as far away as the Melbourne area.

A primary tool used in hunting is the spear, launched by a woomera or spear-thrower. Boomerangs were also used, with the non-returnable boomerang (known more correctly as a throwing stick) more powerful than the returning kind, and these could be used to injure or even kill a kangaroo.

In some areas indigenous Australians lived in semi-permanent villages, most usually in areas where fishing could provide for a more settled existence. Most indigenous communities were semi-nomadic, moving in a regular cycle over a defined territory, following seasonal food sources and returning to the same places at the same time each year. From the examination of middens, archaeologists have shown that some localities were visited annually by indigenous communities for thousands of years. In the more arid areas indigenous Australians were completely nomadic, ranging over wide areas in search of scarce food resources.

The indigenous Australians lived through great climatic changes and adapted successfully to their changing physical environment. There is much ongoing debate about the degree to which they modified the environment. One controversy revolves around the role of indigenous people in the extinction of the marsupial megafauna (also see Australian megafauna). Some argue that natural climate change killed the megafauna. Others claim that, because the megafauna were large and slow, they were easy prey for human hunters. A third possibility is that human modification of the environment, particularly through the use of fire, indirectly led to their extinction.

Indigenous Australians used fire for a variety of purposes: to encourage the growth of edible plants and fodder for prey; to reduce the risk of catastrophic bushfires; to make travel easier; to eliminate pests; for ceremonial purposes; and just to "clean up country." There is disagreement, however, about the extent to which this burning led to large-scale changes in vegetation patterns.

There is evidence of substantial change in indigenous culture over time. Rock painting at several locations in northern Australia has been shown to consist of a sequence of different styles linked to different historical periods. Harry Lourandos has been the leading proponent of the theory that a period of hunter-gatherer intensification occurred between 3000 and 1000 BC. Intensification involved an increase in human manipulation of the environment (for example, the construction of eel traps in Victoria), population growth, an increase in trade between groups, a more elaborate social structure, and other cultural changes. A shift in stone tool technology, involving the development of smaller and more intricate points and scrapers, occurred around this time.

Indigenous communities also had a very complex kinship structure and in some places strict rules about marriage. In central Australia, for example, men were required to marry women of a specified degree of cousinage. To enable men to find suitable partners, many groups would come together for annual gatherings (commonly known as corroborees) at which goods were traded, news exchanged, and marriages arranged amid appropriate ceremonies. This practice both reinforced clan relationships and prevented inbreeding in a society based on small nomadic groups.

Impact of European settlement

A 19th century engraving showing "natives opposing the arrival of Captain James Cook" in 1770.

In 1770, Captain James Cook took possession of the east coast of Australia and named it New South Wales in the name of Great Britain. British colonisation of Australia, which began in 1788, was catastrophic for many indigenous Australians. This was true regardless of the good intentions or otherwise of colonial governors and settlers. The most immediate consequence of British settlement was a wave of European epidemic diseases such as chickenpox, smallpox, influenza and measles, which spread in advance of the frontier of settlement. The worst-hit communities were the ones with the greatest population densities, where disease could spread more readily. In the arid centre of the continent, where small communities were spread over a vast area, the population decline was less marked.

The second consequence of British settlement was appropriation of land and water resources. The settlers took the view that the indigenous Australians were nomads who could be driven off land wanted for farming or grazing and who would be just as happy somewhere else. In fact the loss of traditional lands, food sources and water resources was usually fatal, particularly to communities already weakened by disease. Proximity to settlers also brought venereal disease, which greatly reduced indigenous fertility and birthrates, and alcohol, to which indigenous Australians had no tolerance. Substance abuse has remained a chronic problem for indigenous communities ever since. The combination of disease, loss of land and direct violence reduced the Aboriginal population by an estimated 90% between 1788 and 1900. Entire communities in the moderately fertile southern part of the continent simply vanished without trace, often before European settlers arrived or recorded their existence. The indigenous people in Tasmania were particularly hard-hit, with the last full-blood indigenous Tasmanian, Truganini dying in 1873 - although a substantial part-indigenous community survived.

A wave of massacres and resistance also followed the frontier of European settlement. In 1838, twenty eight indigenous people were killed at the Myall Creek massacre and the hanging of the white convict settlers responsible was the first time whites had been executed for the murder of indigenous people. Many indigenous communities resisted the settlers, such as the Noongar of south-western Australia who were led by the Aboriginal warrior Yagan, who was killed in 1833. The Kalkadoon of Queensland also resisted the settlers, and there was a massacre of over 200 people on their land at Battle Mountain in 1884. There was a massacre at Coniston in the Northern Territory in 1928. Poisoning of food and water has been recorded on several different occasions. The number of violent deaths at the hands of whites is still the subject of debate, with a figure of around 10,000 deaths being advanced by historians such as Henry Reynolds. Nevertheless, disease and dispossession were always the major causes of indigenous deaths. By the 1870s all the fertile areas of Australia had been appropriated, and the indigenous communities reduced to empoverished remnants living on the fringes of European communities.

Some initial contact between indigenous people and Europeans was peaceful, starting with the Guugu Yimithirr people who met James Cook near Cooktown in 1770. Bennelong served as interlocutor between the Eora people of Sydney and the British colony, and was the first indigenous Australian to travel to England, staying there between 1792 and 1795. Indigenous people were known to help European explorers, such as John King (explorer), who lived with a tribe for two and a half months after the ill fated Burke and Wills expedition of 1861. Also living with indigenous people was William Buckley, an escaped convict, who was with the Wautharong people near Melbourne for thirty-two years, before being found in 1835. Some indigenous people adapted to European culture, working as stock hands or labourers. The first Australian cricket team which toured England in 1867, was made up of indigenous players.

File:Aboriginal cricket team at MCG in 1867.jpg
The first Australian cricket team to tour England, was made of indigenous players (1867)

In the later 19th century, settlers made their way into the interior, appropriating small but vital parts of the land for their own exclusive use (waterholes and soaks in particular), and introducing sheep, rabbits and cattle, all three of which ate out previously fertile areas and degraded the ability of the land to carry the native animals that were vital to indigenous economies. Indigenous hunters would often spear sheep and cattle, incurring the wrath of graziers, after they replaced the native animals as a food source. Nevertheless, some indigenous communities in the most arid areas survived with their traditional lifestyles intact as late as the 1930s.

In general, the first European colonisers were welcomed, or at least not opposed, but there were violent conflicts from time to time frequently culminating in killings. In the Northern Territory, both isolated Europeans (usually travellers) and visiting Japanese fishermen continued to be speared to death occasionally until the start of the Second World War in 1939. It is known that some European settlers in the centre and north of the country shot indigenous people during this period. One particular series of killings became known as the Caledon Bay Crisis, and became a watershed in the relationship between indigenous and settler Australians.


By the early 20th century the indigenous population had declined to between 50,000 and 90,000, and the belief that the indigenous Australians would soon die out was widely held, even among Australians sympathetic to their situation. But by 1900 the ruthless process of natural selection imposed on indigenous Australians by European settlement had run its course. Those who had survived had acquired better resistance to imported diseases, and birthrates began to rise again as communities were able to adapt to changed circumstances.

Except in the remote interior, however, all surviving indigenous communities were from this time on dependent on the settler population for their livelihood. As the European pastoral industries developed, several economic changes came about. The appropriation of prime land and the spread of European livestock over vast areas made a traditional indigenous lifestyle less viable, but also provided a ready alternative supply of fresh meat for those prepared to risk taking advantage of it. As large sheep and cattle stations came to dominate outback Australia, indigenous women, men and children became a significant source of labour. Most indigenous labour was unpaid, instead indigenous workers received rations in the form of food, clothing and other basic necessities. Several other northern industries, notably pearling, also employed Aboriginal workers. In many areas Christian missions also provided food and clothing for indigenous communities, and also opened schools and orphanages for indigenous children. In some places colonial governments also provided some resources.

Indigenous Australians today

The Australian Aboriginal population is for the most part urbanised, but a substantial number live in settlements (often located on the site of former church missions) in what are considered remote areas. The health and economic difficulties facing both groups are substantial. For example, life expectancy of Aboriginal people is 20 years shorter than the wider Australian population. Aboriginal people, particularly youths, are substantially more likely to be imprisoned than the general population, and the rate of suicides in police custody remains quite high. Rates of unemployment, health problems and poverty are likewise higher than the general population; and school retention rate and university attendance is lower.

Reconciliation: recent events

See also: Australian governments and indigenous Australians; Stolen Generations

Albert Namatjira was the first Aboriginal Australian to be given Australian citizenship, in 1957. Aborigines were given the right to vote in Commonwealth elections in Australia in 1962, and in state elections shortly after, with the last state to do this being Queensland in 1965. The 1967 referendum passed in Australia with a 90% majority which allowed the Commonwealth to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people, and for Aboriginal people to be included in Australia's census. This has been the largest affirmative vote in the history of Australia's referendums.

In 1972, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra, the Australian capital. The continuous protest has remained in place for over thirty years to demand sovereignty for the Aboriginal peoples.

In 1992, the Australian High Court handed down its decision in the Mabo Case, declaring the previous legal concept of terra nullius to be invalid. This decision legally recognised certain land claims of indigenous Australians in Australia prior to British Settlement. Legislation was subsequently enacted and later amended to recognise Native Title claims over land in Australia.

In 1999 a referendum was held to change the Australian Constitution to include a preamble that, amongst other topics, recognised the occupation of Australia by indigenous Australians prior to British Settlement. This referendum was defeated by a huge majority, though the recognition of indigenous Australians in the preamble was not a major issue in the preamble referendum discussion, and the preamble question attracted secondary attention compared to the question of becoming a republic (see republicanism in Australia for more details on the 1999 referendum).

Most recently, in 2004, the Australian Government has abolished The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which had been Australia's peak indigenous organisation. The Commonwealth cited corruption and in particular, has made allegations concerning the misuse of public funds, as the principal reason. Indigenous specific programs have been mainstreamed, that is, reintegrated and transferred to departments and agencies serving the general population. The Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination has been established within the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs to coordinate the government-wide effort.

In June 2005, Richard Frankland, founder of the 'Your Voice' political party, in an open letter to Prime Minister John Howard, advocated that the eighteenth-century conflicts between indigenous and colonial Australians "be recognised as wars and be given the same attention as the other wars receive within the Australian War Memorial”. In its editorial on 20 June 2005 the Melbourne Age newspaper, said that “Frankland has raised an important question” and asks whether moving “work commemorating Aborigines who lost their lives defending their land … to the War Memorial [would] change the way we regard Aboriginal history.”

On the mainland


Clans, groups and communities

File:Aus map covered text lined.JPG
Indigenous Australian communities, past and present


Before the British colonisation, there were a great many different Aboriginal groups, each with their own individual culture, belief structure, and language (approximately 300 different languages existed at the time of European settlement). These cultures overlapped to a greater or lesser extent, and evolved over time. Indigenous Australian Aboriginal communities are often called tribes, and there are several hundred in Australia, although the exact number is unknown, because in many parts of Australia, there are no clear tribes or nations. The word 'community' is often used to describe Aboriginal groups as a more acceptable word. Sometimes smaller communities are referred to as tribes, and other times many communities are included in the same 'tribe'. Sometimes the different language groups are called tribes, although it can be very difficult to distinguish between different languages and dialects of a single language. The situation is complicated by the fact that sometimes up to twenty or thirty different names (either spelled differently in English, or using a different word altogether) are used for the same tribe or community. The largest Aboriginal communities today are the Pitjantjatjara, the Arrente, the Luritja and the Warlpiri, all from the Northern Territory.


Main article: Category:Australian Aboriginal culture



Indigenous Australians have a complex oral tradition and spiritual values based upon reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime is at once the ancient time of creation and the present day reality of Dreaming. There were a great many different groups, each with their own individual culture, belief structure, and language. These cultures overlapped to a greater or lesser extent, and evolved over time. The Rainbow serpent is a major mythological being for Aboriginal people across Australia. The Yowie and Bunyip are well known mythological characters.




Main article: Australian Aboriginal music

Aborigines developed unique instruments and folk styles. The didgeridoo is commonly considered the national instrument of Australian Aborigines, which has been claimed to be the world's oldest wind instrument. It has possibly been used by the people of the Kakadu region for 1500 years. More recently, Aboriginal musicians have branched into rock and roll, hip hop and reggae. One of the most well known modern bands is Yothu Yindi playing in a style which has been called Aboriginal rock.


Main article: Australian Aboriginal art

Australia has a long tradition of Aboriginal art which is thousands of years old. Modern Aboriginal artists continue the tradition using modern materials in their artworks. Aboriginal art is the most internationally recognisable form of Australian art. Several styles of Aboriginal art have developed in modern times including the watercolour paintings of Albert Namatjira, and the acrylic Papunya Tula "dot art" movement. Painting is a large source of income for some Central Australian communities such as at Yuendumu today.

Traditional Recreation

Aborigines once participated in the traditional game of Marn Grook, a type of football played with possum hide. The game is believed by some to have inspired Tom Wills, inventor of the code of Australian Rules Football, Australia's most popular winter sport. Similarities between Marn Grook and Australian football include the unique skill of jumping to catch the ball or high "marking", which results in a free kick. The word "mark" may have originated in "mumarki", which is "an Aboriginal word meaning catch" in a dialect of a Marn Grook playing tribe. Indeed, Aussie Rules has seen many indigineous players at elite football, and have produced some of the most exciting and skillful to play the modern game. Testifying to this abundance of indigenous talent, the Aboriginal All-Stars are an AFL-level all-Aboriginal football side competes against any one of the Australian Football League's current football teams in pre-season tests.


Main article: Tasmanian Aborigine

Torres Strait Islanders

Main article: Torres Strait Islanders
File:Torres Strait Islander flag.png
Torres Strait Islander flag, officially an Australian flag since July 14, 1995

Between 6% and 10% of Indigenous Australians identify themselves as Torres Strait Islanders. There are more than 100 islands which make up the Torres Strait Islands where they come from. There are 6,800 Torres Strait Islanders who live in the area of the Torres Strait, and 42,000 others who live outside of this area, mostly in the north of Queensland, such as in the coastal cities of Townsville and Cairns. Many organisations to do with Indigenous people in Australia are named "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander", showing the importance of Torres Strait Islanders in Australia's indigenous population. The islands were annexed by Queensland in 1879. The Torres Strait Islanders were not given official recognition by the Australian government until the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was set up in 1990. Eddie Mabo is from Murray Island in the Torres Strait, which the famous Mabo decision of 1992 involved.


As at June 2001, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated the total resident indigenous population to be 458,500 (2.4% of Australia's total), 90% of whom identified as Aboriginal, 6% Torres Strait Islander and the remaining 4% being of dual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parentage.

In the 2001 census the Aboriginal population in different States was:

While the State with the largest total Aboriginal population is New South Wales, as a percentage this constitutes only 2.1% of the overall population of the State. The Northern Territory has the largest Aboriginal population in percentage terms for a State or Territory, with 28.8%. All the other States and Territories have less than 4% of their total populations identifying as Aboriginal; the ACT has the lowest percentage (1.2%). The populations in the eastern states are more likely to be urbanised sometimes in city communities such as at Redfern in Sydney. Whereas many of the populations of the western states live in remote areas, closer to a traditional Aboriginal way of life.

Prominent indigenous Australians

Main article: Prominent indigenous Australians

There have been many distinguished indigenous Australians, in politics, sports, the arts and other areas. These include senator Neville Bonner, olympic athlete Cathy Freeman, tennis player Evonne Goolagong, Australian Rules footballer Michael Long, rugby league player and boxer Anthony Mundine, actor Ernie Dingo, painter Albert Namatjira, and singer Christine Anu, as well as many others.

See also

External links

Listed alphabetically:

bg:Аборигени bs:Aboridžini de:Aborigine eo:Aborigenoj de Aŭstralio fr:Aborigènes d'Australie it:Aborigeni australiani he:אבוריג'ינים nl:Aborigines ja:アボリジニ pl:Aborygeni pt:Aborígene australiano fi:Aboriginaalit uk:Австралійські аборигени sv:Aboriginer