aboriginal australians 4140

Aboriginal Australians

April 29, 2021

Aboriginal Australians or Aborigines, original inhabitants of Australia and their descendants. The term Aboriginal does not include the Torres Strait Islanders, a much smaller indigenous population in Australia whose homelands are the islands off the tip of the Cape York Peninsula in far northeastern Australia.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for at least 50,000 years. They have inhabited every region of the island continent. Today they live in all states and mainland territories of Australia, with the highest population concentrations in the states of Queensland and New South Wales. In 2001 the Aboriginal population of Australia numbered approximately 427,000, or about 2.2 percent of the total population.

Aboriginal people traditionally lived as hunter-gatherers in small family groups, hunting, fishing, and collecting a variety of plant foods. Most groups were nomadic or seminomadic and built simple brush or bark shelters. Hundreds of culturally distinct Aboriginal groups were spread across the Australian continent. They occupied a wide range of environments, from the savanna woodlands of the north to the harsh desert outback and temperate woodlands of the south. Like indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world, they developed an intimate understanding of the environment in which they lived. This connection to the land, and to its animals and plants, permeated every aspect of Aboriginal culture.

Europeans began settling in Australia in 1788. Their impact on the indigenous population was devastating. Many Aboriginal people died from epidemics of European diseases or from fighting to retain control of their land. Only those inhabiting the most remote areas of the continent were able to continue their traditional way of life. By the early 1900s many Aboriginal people were reduced to an impoverished, sedentary life, either on their own lands at the fringe of urban areas or on government-established reserves. Many also grew dependent on European society, which had little sympathy for them. Government assimilation policies, which sought to absorb Aboriginal people into white society, further eroded their culture.

Until the 1960s Aboriginal people were denied basic political rights, including the right to vote. However, by the mid-1960s Aboriginal people had the right to vote in both state and federal elections. A 1967 referendum gave the federal government the power to pass legislation relating to all indigenous people in Australia. Since then the Australian government has tried to make up for past mistreatment by greatly increasing funding to improve Aboriginal people’s socioeconomic standing and by passing legislation to restore Aboriginal land rights. In addition, decisions by the High Court of Australia have given legal recognition to the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were the original landowners of the country. Issues of reconciliation between the white majority population and Aboriginal people figure prominently in Australian public life today. Nevertheless, compared to the Australian population as a whole, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today continue to suffer disproportionately from serious social problems such as poverty, unemployment, lack of education, substandard housing, and poor health.

The term aborigines can refer to the original inhabitants of any land and their direct descendants. When capitalized as Aborigines it refers to the indigenous people of mainland Australia and Tasmania. However, in Australia today the preferred term is Aboriginal people or, when referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people collectively, Indigenous Australians. Most urban Aboriginal people prefer to identify themselves by a regional term: Muri in Queensland, Koori in New South Wales and Victoria, Palawa in Tasmania, Nungah in South Australia, and Noongah in Western Australia. Aboriginal people in more remote regions may identify themselves by their language name. For example, a person may say, “I am Warlpiri,” meaning that he or she speaks the Warlpiri language of the Northern Territory desert.


Current archaeological evidence suggests that human occupation of Australia began around 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. The first settlers are believed to have migrated from Southeast Asia in gradual stages, by way of the islands of Indonesia. Around 50,000 years ago sea levels were as much as 120 m (390 ft) lower than they are today, and Australia was joined with New Guinea and Tasmania to form one giant landmass called Sahul, or Greater Australia. Scholars believe that the first migrants to Sahul came via a series of open-water crossings from island to island, and that the longest crossing required probably was no more than 80 km (50 mi). It is not known whether such journeys were intentional or what kinds of watercraft were used. Many anthropologists and archaeologists think that small boatloads of people continued to arrive from time to time on the Australian coast from what is now Indonesia, either intentionally or because they were blown off course.

A Adaptations to New Environments

The first arrivals to Sahul probably landed near what is now western New Guinea. They would have found the vegetation in the areas where they landed similar to that they had left. However, many of the land animal species—including marsupials such as kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, and koalas—would have been unfamiliar to them. As the descendants of the original migrants moved south toward the arid center of the continent, they would have had to make substantial adjustments, particularly to new plant foods. Further adaptations would have been required as they moved into the temperate woodlands of southern Australia.

By 35,000 years ago Aboriginal people had established themselves throughout the continent, although only sparsely in the inhospitable central desert. Over time, Aboriginal groups developed many regional differences in language, religion, social organization, art, economy, and material culture. These cultural differences emerged because of limited interaction between local groups, the desire of neighboring groups to differentiate themselves from one another, and the way each group adapted to the unique topography, climate, and resources of its environment. For example, whereas desert dwellers lived in temporary shelters and wore little or no clothing, Aboriginal people in the far southeastern region of Australia developed more solid housing structures and wore skin cloaks to cope with the cold, subalpine climate.

B Effects of Climate Changes

The changes in the global climatic conditions over the past 50,000 years substantially affected human settlement patterns in Australia. The earliest Aboriginal groups experienced climate conditions only slightly different from those of today. Cooler and wetter conditions then prevailed for a time, peaking between 32,000 and 24,000 years ago. These conditions created a relatively lush environment in many areas, with large lakes and waterways that provided abundant amounts of fish and shellfish far inland. Then the climate turned colder and more arid, with sea levels falling to 150 m (490 ft) below present levels and desert-like conditions emerging across much of Australia’s interior. By 15,000 years ago the climate started becoming warmer and wetter, and by 5,000 years ago temperature and rainfall levels reached modern conditions. Clearly all of these climate changes would have influenced Aboriginal population density and distribution, in particular affecting how hospitable the desert regions were. In most cases the climate changes would have been gradual and largely unnoticed, rather than dramatic changes requiring rapid migration by large groups of people.

Rising sea levels led to the separation of Australia from New Guinea about 12,000 years ago, creating the many islands of the Torres Strait. The peoples of these islands regularly traveled by sea to trade and visit with people on both sides of the strait. In southern Australia the rising sea cut off Tasmania from the mainland, isolating the Aboriginal population of Tasmania for 12,000 years until the arrival of Europeans.


Until Europeans began to settle in Australia in 1788, the Aboriginal way of life was supported by hunting, gathering, and fishing. Like other hunting and gathering peoples, Aboriginal people had an extremely detailed knowledge of their environment, especially plant ecology and animal behavior. The deep connection between Aboriginal people and the natural world influenced every part of their culture, including their food gathering, tools, trade, religion, art, music, language, and social organization.

Knowledge of Aboriginal ways of life before European contact comes primarily from observations made after European arrival. Although traditional practices observed during the post-contact period were probably similar to those of many thousands of years ago, it is also clear that climate, environment, fauna, material culture, and social and cultural practices changed during the intervening period. This section primarily describes how Aboriginal people were living in the early 18th century, in the period just prior to European settlement of Australia. Many of these descriptions are based on anthropologists’ studies of Aboriginal people whose traditional ways survived intact into the 20th century and who had little if any regular contact with Europeans. These included Aboriginal groups in parts of the central desert, Arnhem Land (in the Northern Territory), the northern Kimberley region (in Western Australia), and the western Cape York Peninsula (in Queensland).

A Food and Subsistence

Aboriginal people generally enjoyed a mixed and abundant diet of plant and animal foods that varied according to time of year and local environmental conditions. Their intimate understanding of regional ecology and natural resources enabled some of them to survive in environments that European settlers of Australia still find extremely harsh and uninhabitable.

For the many Aboriginal groups that lived on the coast, fish were an important part of the diet. Some coastal groups built large and complex systems of stone-walled traps that caught fish as the tide dropped. Others used nets of plant fibers to catch fish and, in some areas, eels. In some coastal regions, massive ancient middens (trash heaps) of discarded shells up to 5 m (16 ft) high have been discovered, indicating that certain Aboriginal groups made extensive use of shellfish. Besides eating seafood, coastal dwellers also ate a variety of plant foods and hunted land animals.

For as yet unknown reasons, the inhabitants of Tasmania stopped eating fish about 3,500 years ago, long after the region became separated from the mainland. Some scientists believe the change was related to cultural or religious factors, a decrease in the amounts of fish in waters surrounding the island, or a switch to hunting fat-rich sea mammals and birds. This change may have coincided with an independent development of watercraft by the Tasmanians, who evidently did not have that technology when they became separated from the mainland.

Aboriginal groups in the most arid desert regions relied on a wide variety of lizards for meat and a great variety of seeds, fruits, and tubers. Larger animals such as kangaroos and emus, although prized, were not particularly common in the driest areas. Common plant foods included many kinds of acacia seeds, solanums (a type of wild tomato), an indigenous variety of sweet potato, and the seeds of common grasses.

Many species of large marsupials, birds, and reptiles—or megafauna, the scientific term for these large animals—populated the Sahul landmass when Aboriginal people first arrived there. These included wombat-like creatures the size of rhinoceroses, kangaroos up to 3 m (10 ft) high, huge emu-like birds, giant snakes and lizards, and other large animals. Most of these species became extinct by 20,000 years ago. Given that Aboriginal people arrived in Australia at least 50,000 years ago, Australian megafauna and Aboriginal humans probably coexisted for thousands of years. No evidence has yet been found to show that Aboriginal people ever hunted megafauna, although they apparently scavenged the carcasses of some species. Even so, most archaeologists believe that a combination of human activity and climate changes led to the extinction of megafauna.

About 3,000 years ago, Aboriginal people began to more intensively use a grinding process for a variety of seeds, including wild millet, to make a heavy kind of bread. Among many interior groups, harvesting grain from wild plants became an established practice. However, Aboriginal people never practiced full-fledged horticulture, which involves the deliberate planting of seeds and plants, fertilization, and irrigation. The reasons for this absence of horticulture are unclear. Certainly in the drier regions, where the millets grew, the huge variation in annual rainfall would have ruled it out. In the tropical north, where Aboriginal people at the tip of Cape York were in contact with Torres Strait Islanders who made gardens, the lack of horticulture indicates that people there probably had adequate food resources and low population densities.

B Housing and Shelter

Aboriginal people built a wide variety of shelters that varied with the seasons. In clear weather, Aboriginal shelters were often simple leafy structures to provide protection from the sun during the day and low windbreaks to provide protection from breezes at night. These windbreaks were the main form of shelter across the desert regions, although when the weather turned wet, desert peoples sometimes built temporary domed huts with grass roofs.

During the wet season in Arnhem Land and in some other parts of northern Australia, the principal structure was the roofed platform house. This open-sided shelter consisted of a wooden platform raised 1.2 to 1.8 m (4 to 6 ft) above the ground by sapling poles. The platform was covered by a roof of curved sheets of eucalyptus bark, with enough room for people to sit up without their heads touching the roof. The raised floor, reached by climbing up a sloping pole, was used as a living and sleeping area during the rain and protected those inside from the boggy ground. Sometimes a smoky fire was built underneath the platform to repel mosquitoes.

At times of year when there were large numbers of mosquitoes, some Arnhem Land Aboriginal groups built domed shelters similar in form to igloos. These huts were made of a frame of saplings covered by paperbark from melaleuca trees. Aboriginal people in southern Australia built much more robust domed houses, made of a sturdier wooden frame with a turf covering, to keep out the wet and the cold.

C Clothing and Ornamentation

Although Aboriginal people in most regions went naked, they wore various kinds of personal ornaments, including armbands, headbands, pendants, necklaces, and bracelets. Depending on available resources, they made these decorative objects from shell, bone, animal teeth and claws, woven and coiled fibers, or tufts of feather and fur. In the colder climate of southeastern Australia, people wore cloaks of sewn possum skin; in southwestern Australia the cloaks were of kangaroo skin. In Tasmania, where the climate was often cold and damp, people covered themselves in red ochre and animal fat to help keep warm, as well as with kangaroo skins.

Hair was styled and decorated in a variety of ways. Women in desert regions often wove colorful seeds into their hair. In parts of Arnhem Land, men plucked their facial hair to create a goatee-style beard. In Tasmania, hair was coated with red ochre. Throughout Australia, the bodies of both men and women were enhanced with scarification (cutting the skin to produce decorative scars), mainly on the chest, arms, and back. On ceremonial occasions, men and women painted their faces and bodies with elaborate geometrical designs of spiritual significance.

D Tools, Weapons, and Crafts

Aboriginal people manufactured many kinds of tools, weapons, and crafts. Stone implements included axes, knives, chisels, gougers, borers, and scrapers. From wood, they fashioned spears, spear throwers, throwing sticks, clubs, shields, digging sticks, dishes, musical instruments, and a variety of ceremonial objects. Along much of the northern coast people manufactured dugout canoes. Aboriginal people also developed the well-known boomerang, a curved or angular piece of wood used as a throwing weapon and for sport. Boomerangs could be of two types, return or nonreturn; a properly released return boomerang, if it fails to hit anything, will glide back to the thrower. Many tools served multiple purposes. For example, a boomerang could also function as a digging stick, a club, or, most commonly, when used in pairs, as clap sticks for rhythmic accompaniment to singing. Desert spear throwers had a stone blade attached to the handle to serve as a chisel, and their concave form meant they could also serve as a small dish.

Aboriginal people also made string spun from vegetable fiber, animal fur, and human hair to manufacture rope, string, nets, and net bags. In addition, they used tree bark, reeds, palm leaves, and grasses to make baskets and fish traps. Along the eastern coast of Australia, Aboriginal people made fishhooks from shells. In cooler regions, Aboriginal people stitched animal skins together using bone needles to make cloaks and rugs, which were often scored on the inside to create complex patterns.

E Trade and Exchange

In order to gain access to natural resources and manufactured items from distant regions, Aboriginal people entered into exchange relationships with their neighbors. Extensive trade networks formed, and some items, such as pearl shell ornaments, passed from group to group across the entire continent. These networks linked people, indirectly, across Australia and thus helped maintain a degree of cultural similarity among all Aboriginal groups. In addition to material goods, people also exchanged songs and ceremonies. The Torres Strait Islanders were intermediaries between Australia and New Guinea in these exchange networks, introducing outrigger canoes, fishing equipment, ceremonies with elaborate headdresses, drums, and other items to Cape York. In exchange, they received spears, spear throwers, dugong (sea cow) harpoons, and natural ochre pigments.

From the early 1700s to 1907, Indonesian fishermen from Makassar (in what is now Sulawesi) arrived on the northern Australian coast in December with the coming of the wet season and stayed until March to gather sea cucumbers. They exported these marine animals to China, where they were a popular food. The fishermen gave Aboriginal people tobacco, iron, glass, and some technological know-how in exchange for turtle shell, labor, and other things they needed. Occasionally, young Aboriginal men would travel back to Makassar with the fishermen, returning to Australia with them in the following wet season. Today, Aboriginal groups in Arnhem Land still commemorate the visits from Indonesian fishermen in song, ceremony, and art, and many words from the Makassarese language remain in Arnhem Land dialects.

F Religion

The religion of Aboriginal people centered on stories of their origin and the creation of the world. They referred to the time of their origin by a wide variety of local terms, such as the Jukurrpa in parts of central Australia and the Wongar in parts of Arnhem Land. Today, in English, these creation stories are known individually or collectively as the Dreamtime or the Dreaming. In the Dreaming, ancestral spirits that could take many shapes or forms emerged from beneath the Earth onto a featureless landscape. (These spirits are known by a variety of regional names, such as Wondjina in the Kimberley and Wangarr in eastern Arnhem Land.) Taking human form, these ancestors molded all of the natural features of the land—such as lakes, rivers, mountains, stones, and forests—and created all of the animals, plants, and human Aboriginal people. Then the spirits sank back, exhausted, into the subterranean world.

In ceremonies, Aboriginal people assumed the character of the ancestral being responsible for creating their land and giving rise to their particular family or clan (a group connected by a common ancestor) and acted out the ancestor’s deeds and travels. The paths that these ancestral beings followed, and the specific places they visited, held great spiritual significance to Aboriginal people and formed the heart of ceremonial life. The paths also helped to mark the territory of each landowning group in most areas of the continent outside the desert. Young Aboriginal people learned stories of the Dreaming during initiation ceremonies and in other ceremonial gatherings. Older clan members sometimes encountered the clan’s ancestral spirits in their sleep and learned of long-forgotten songs, dances, and sacred designs that belonged to the clan.

Aboriginal people regarded most deaths not as the result of natural causes, but rather as a result of sorcery that people practiced against each other out of jealousy or ill will. Songs were often performed immediately following a death to help guide the soul of the deceased back to the subterranean world, and the living were purified through the use of water, red ochre, and smoke. The dead were disposed of in a number of ways. Across the northern half of the continent, most people practiced secondary disposal of the dead. That is, after placing the corpse in a tree or burying it in the ground, they recovered the bones months or years later and held a second ceremony to dispose of the bones. The final disposal would not take place until group members resolved all of the anger and disputes over who was responsible for killing the person by sorcery. In other areas, the dead were simply buried or cremated, the latter practice dating back at least 30,000 years.

G Art

Aboriginal people produced some of the earliest art in the world, and art continues to play a major role in Aboriginal life, particularly as it relates to ceremonial life. Art encompassed a wide range of forms, including earthworks (large designs of raised earth), wooden carvings, elaborate body decorations using pigments, and hats made of bird down and hair string. Shields, as well as some weapons and utensils, were decorated with designs that usually related to a person’s social and group identity. Each group had its own designs, usually related to the group’s ancestral Dreaming spirits. Four colors were used: red and yellow from natural ochre pigments, black from charcoal, and white from fine clay.

Aboriginal people are also well known for their long-standing rock art tradition. In different regions and at different times in the past, they painted and engraved rocks in a variety of styles, with diverse motifs and subject matter. The earliest known Aboriginal art is in the form of petroglyphs (rock engravings) and may date back more than 30,000 years. The petroglyphs usually depict stylized shapes and symbols, as well as human faces and bodies. Their meaning remains mostly unknown.

Aboriginal rock paintings are found across northern Australia. The paintings typically depict hunting scenes, human and spirit figures, and many kinds of animals, including kangaroos, wallabies, emus, and fish. Some paintings show hunters running or jumping with bundles of spears, spears traveling through the air, and wounded prey. Others show people using boomerangs and nets to capture prey, groups of hunters driving their quarry toward traps, or hunters stalking prey while disguised in animal hides. Outstanding examples of Aboriginal rock painting include the mouthless Wondjina (ancestral spirit) figures of the Kimberley region, the solid red stick-like figures of Bradshaw paintings in the Victoria River district (named for Australian farmer Joseph Bradshaw, who first wrote of them in the 1890s), the “x-ray” art of western Arnhem Land (so called because it depicts the inner organs of animals and humans), and the varied figurative art of the Laura region of Cape York.

In northern Australia, some Aboriginal groups developed the technique of making colorful stencils by spraying pigment from their mouths, an artistic tradition that continues today. The most common technique was to blow pigment over the hand, forming a negative image of the hand, but there were also stencils of feet, boomerangs, and axes.

Dot painting, a well-known technique of modern Aboriginal art, probably originated in the deserts of central Australia as a form of ceremonial art. The technique involves creating a pattern or picture using numerous dots of paint applied with a stick or brush.

See also Aboriginal Art.

H Music and Dance

Like art, music and dance were interwoven with social and religious life. Much traditional music was secular, but sacred songs were chanted at ceremonial times. Protracted song and dance cycles, often associated with special events such as initiations and funerary rites, were traded from group to group, eventually being performed far from their place of origin.

Nocturnal performances of song and dance took place whenever several groups were camped together. Usually men danced while women formed a chorus to one side, but women also had dances of their own. Singing was usually in unison, but people in some areas, such as Arnhem Land, practiced harmony. Participants kept rhythm by beating together resonating clap-sticks, tapping boomerangs together, or by hitting their thighs or buttocks with cupped hands.

The traditional wind instrument of the Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land is the didjeridu, a hollow piece of wood or bamboo about 1 to 1.5 m (3.25 to 5 ft) long and from 3.8 to 5 cm (1.5 to 2 in) in inside diameter. Its range of notes is limited, but it can produce intricate patterns of tone and rhythm.

I Language

Before European settlers arrived in Australia, Aboriginal people spoke between 200 and 250 distinct languages, the majority of which had several dialects. Because Aboriginal people separated from other human groups tens of thousands of years ago, linguists have been unable to reconstruct the links between Aboriginal languages and any others outside of Australia.

Aboriginal languages belong to the Australian language family. The largest language group within this family is called Pama-nyungan, taking its name from the words for “man” in two languages representing the extreme geographical ends of its distribution. Pama-nyungan languages are spoken across most of the continent. In the past, neighboring Aboriginal groups could generally communicate well with each other, and many individuals knew more than one language. In some cases, groups living across a vast range of territory all spoke dialects of a single language. Although two groups at each end of such a range might find little apparent similarity between their languages, each pair of neighboring groups could readily understand each other. Thus, cultural changes and innovations could spread even among groups who would not have been able to understand each other.

J Social Organization

Before the arrival of Europeans, Aboriginal societies were organized in a variety of ways, differing, for example, in the way they classified relatives, and in rules governing the choice of marriage partners. However, all Aboriginal societies also had certain characteristics in common. They were essentially egalitarian—that is, no one had significantly higher status than anyone else. There was, of course, some variation in people’s status and influence according to their age, gender, knowledge, skills, and personality. In addition, all Aboriginal people maintained exchange relationships with other groups to whom they had ties by blood or marriage. These relationships involved visits, the exchange of gifts, and participation in each other’s ceremonial life.

In popular writing, the word tribe is often used in reference to Aboriginal groups. This usage is misleading, however, as there were no tribes in the sense in which the term is used elsewhere in the world. Unlike tribes elsewhere, those in Australia had no overarching political or social organization, nor was the tribe a landowning group until after European contact. In Australia the term tribe usually refers to a group of Aboriginal people who speak a common language.

Aboriginal people spent most of their time living in small bands consisting of three to six families. Band size varied depending on climate and available resources. Recent studies suggest that bands averaged 40 to 50 people in the tropical woodlands of the north, 10 to 20 people in the central desert regions, and 40 to 80 people in the temperate woodlands of the south.

The basic social unit beyond the family was the clan, a group whose members were descended from a common ancestor. Clan membership was usually inherited from the father. Each clan had primary ownership of an area of land, called an estate by anthropologists, that served as the clan members’ home base, although not all clan members lived on their own estate. For example, young men liked to travel widely, and when they first married they usually had to live with their wife’s band and hunt for her parents. An important natural feature, such as a watering hole or a grove of trees, often marked the focal point of the clan’s estate. This feature was usually the spot where the ancestral Dreaming spirit that founded the clan was believed to have emerged to create the land and the clan’s human ancestors. Residents of neighboring clans formed social bonds through marriage and participation in ceremonies. When people faced hardships, such as a lack of food resources, these bonds guaranteed them access to other clan estates and support by others.

Traditional Aboriginal societies had no well-defined positions of leadership. Usually the senior male of a clan would be the final authority on matters to do with the clan’s estate and ceremonies. However, the extent to which adults could exercise authority over one another day to day was very limited, because individuals were free to move from one band to another. Both men and women gained in authority as they aged, but when there was a clash of views men usually had the final say.

A Early European Exploration and Colonization

Dutch, Spanish, French, and British ships first sailed into Australian waters in the 16th and 17th centuries. These expeditions were sent to chart the unknown Australian coast and assess the potential for trade. The British continued to survey Australian territories into the 18th century. From 1768 to 1771 British explorer Captain James Cook surveyed many regions of Australia, and claimed for Britain the entire eastern portion of the continent. The legal doctrine on which Britain claimed this area was terra nullius (land belonging to no one), which denied that Aboriginal people had any rights to or ownership of the land. In the eyes of the British, this doctrine was justified because Aboriginal people did not build permanent houses, practice agriculture, or have a clearly defined hierarchical leadership structure with which the British could negotiate. The first British settlement, which served as a penal colony and consisted primarily of convicts and soldiers, was founded in 1788 at Sydney in the newly claimed territory.

Estimates of the number of Aboriginal people on the Australian mainland in 1788 vary. In 1930 British anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe-Brown suggested that the population was about 300,000 when Europeans arrived, but more recent estimates place the figure closer to 500,000.

British settlers arrived on the island of Tasmania, then called Van Diemen’s Land, in 1803. At that time, Tasmania had a population of around 5,000 Aboriginal people. By 1820 the settlers had eliminated almost all of the Aboriginal inhabitants of that island.

B Conflicts and Resistance on the Frontier

Unlike earlier visitors, the British settlers immediately disrupted Aboriginal life, taking over good sources of water, productive land, and fisheries. The countryside was taken up by towns, farms, and mining operations. Aboriginal people responded in a variety of ways to the presence of Europeans. Some welcomed the newcomers, in some cases because they thought whites were the spirits of the dead. Others reacted with hostility. Guns gave the British a significant advantage in skirmishes, and many Aboriginal people living near settlements were killed.

More devastating than the conflicts with settlers was the impact of European diseases, to which Aboriginal people had no immunity. Smallpox, venereal disease, syphilis, tuberculosis, measles, and influenza, all introduced into Australia by the settlers, drastically reduced Aboriginal numbers. The British also introduced new animals to Australia, including wild rabbits, cats, and foxes, as well as domesticated sheep and cattle. By preying on native animals or depleting food resources, these animals altered the environment and caused the disappearance of some smaller marsupial species that had been important sources of food for Aboriginal people.

The British colonists intended to remain in Australia, so they began to alter the landscape by clearing trees and building fences. Over several decades, the British established colonies across the continent. The governments of these colonies granted settlers pastoral leases that formally recognized their right to occupy, farm, and graze livestock on the land.

As the frontier of white settlement expanded, Aboriginal people increasingly offered violent resistance to the taking of their land, and many died in fighting with British settlers. In some areas, white farmers took matters into their own hands and formed vigilante groups, often responding to the killing of sheep and cattle by murdering Aboriginal women and children. Colonial settlers also organized groups of Aboriginal people into cadres of Native Police. Led by white officers, Aboriginal soldiers would be taken to areas where they had no relatives and instructed to exact revenge on behalf of the settlers for thefts and killings.

Those Aboriginal people who survived the British onslaught generally remained near their homeland. Others began to live within or on the fringes of colonial settlements.


C Relations with Settlers in the 19th Century

In the remote, sparsely populated outback, pastoralists, or ranchers, needed Aboriginal labor to work their sheep and cattle stations (farms). They encouraged the surviving local Aboriginal populations to settle on their stations to work as stockmen and domestic workers, providing them with rations and access to sugar and tobacco in exchange. Many Aboriginal people accepted this way of life because they were keen to stay in the vicinity of their own land. In addition, the ranchers mostly tolerated Aboriginal cultural and social practices as long as they did not disrupt the working of the station. Indeed, in many places, sheep and cattle herding were only possible because of the cheap labor that Aboriginal people provided.

Mission stations, some of which were established in the mid-1800s, attracted dispossessed Aboriginal people by providing housing, food, tobacco, and supplies. Missionaries were less tolerant of Aboriginal ways than ranchers because their primary goal was to convert Aboriginal people to Christianity. However, missions varied considerably in their approach depending on their religious denomination. Many missions sought to teach Aboriginal people how to live like non-Aboriginal people by setting up English-only schools that emphasized Bible study and disparaged traditional Aboriginal culture. These missions often banned Aboriginal languages and ceremonies and required that residents wear European clothing. Other missions permitted traditional practices and provided religious instruction in Aboriginal languages.

New economic opportunities for white settlers motivated more conflicts with Aboriginal people. A gold rush began in Australia in the 1850s. Prospectors damaged Aboriginal sacred sites and pushed people from desirable camping places, provoking defiance against miners that often led to massacres of Aboriginal people. On the southern coastline of Australia, whites working as seal hunters stole Aboriginal women and killed men and children. In the north, pearl divers abducted young Aboriginal boys and forced them into dangerous labor, making them dive for long periods in deep and treacherous waters. White men also coerced many Aboriginal women into providing sexual services, although some Aboriginal women also used their sexuality as a way to obtain European goods.


D “Protection” Acts and Child-Removal Policy

It was only after the 1880s, once most Aboriginal opposition had been crushed in eastern Australia, that Australian colonies began passing oppressive legislation to control Aboriginal people in the name of protection. Between 1886 and 1911 the colonies (and, after 1901, the states) introduced laws that restricted the movement of Aboriginal people to government reserves and controlled most aspects of their lives, including where they could work and whom they could marry (see Aboriginal Protection Acts). These reserves were, for the most part, small, circumscribed areas where residents could not lead independent self-sufficient lives. Reserve residents lived in makeshift housing and worked on cattle and sheep stations, or, if there was no work, lived on government rations. White officials oversaw the reserves, sometimes living in a nearby town rather than directly on the reserve. In the remote central and northern parts of the continent, reserves were more institutionalized, with schools, health clinics, and a general work regime overseen by missionaries.

In the early 20th century the colonial governments began instituting policies of removing many Aboriginal children, especially those of mixed race and lighter skin color, from their families without parental consent. These children were placed in state institutions or adopted by white families, where they were raised as Christians and educated as white Australians were. Only “full-blooded” Aboriginal children were permitted to remain on the reserves. Child-removal policies grew out of the desire of white Australians to merge Aboriginal people into European culture, thereby extinguishing indigenous traditions and preventing the growth of the Aboriginal population. The practice was officially discontinued in the late 1960s.

Children who had been removed would later become known as the Stolen Generations. Their exact number remained unknown due to poor record keeping. In 1997 the national Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission concluded an inquiry into past child-removal policies. According to the commission’s report, Bringing Them Home, at least 100,000 indigenous children had been forcibly removed from their families and communities from 1910 to 1970.


E Dispossession and Assimilation


In 1901 the Australian colonies became states and territories of a federated nation called the Commonwealth of Australia. The new federal government left responsibility for Aboriginal relations with the states and territories, which sought to merge part-Aboriginal people into white society—and thus stop the Aboriginal population from increasing—by expelling them from the reserves. Two other factors forced more and more Aboriginal people from reserves. First, state governments closed some of the more fertile reserves to meet demands by white farmers for more land. Second, following World War I (1914-1918), the state governments subdivided many of the large ranches to provide land grants to returning soldiers. The smaller ranches, no longer able to support as many workers, dismissed many Aboriginal people from work. Denied government welfare support and with little hope of employment, ever greater numbers of Aboriginal people became impoverished fringe dwellers in camps around small rural towns, a situation that was further aggravated by economic depression in the 1920s and 1930s. Soon, townspeople began to object to the fringe dwellers as unwelcome threats to health and social well-being. In response, government policy changed again to one of segregation, and many Aboriginal people were resettled on small reserves on the edge of towns. In remote areas like the Northern Territory, large areas of land that had no value for ranchers were set aside as reserves for Aboriginal people. For example, the Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve, the largest in Australia, was established in 1931.

In 1937 a conference of federal and state Aboriginal authorities agreed to a formal assimilation policy, although it was not strongly implemented until after World War II (1939-1945). At first this policy applied mainly to “mixed blood” Aboriginal people, but in the 1950s it came to encompass all Aboriginal people. As stated at a 1961 Native Welfare Conference of Commonwealth and state authorities, the policy of assimilation “means that all Aborigines and part-Aborigines are expected eventually to attain the same manner of living as other Australians and to live as members of a single Australian community enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs, as other Australians.” In many ways this policy was a great advance; instead of excluding Aboriginal people it actively sought to include them in Australian society. But its cost—complete social and cultural conformity to European values and social practices—was completely unacceptable to many Aboriginal people.




In January 1938, as white Australians celebrated 150 years of British settlement in Australia, a group of Aboriginal people gathered in Sydney, New South Wales, to declare a “Day of Mourning” for the fate of their people. This action began an era of Aboriginal activism and a rights movement that continues today. The struggle for equal citizenship rights was basically achieved by the late 1960s.


A The Demise of the Assimilation Policy


Public sentiment for a change in national policy toward Aboriginal people grew in the postwar period, led by a number of small Christian and left-wing groups and a small but growing number of Aboriginal activists. In the 1960s the federal government began an effort to repeal discriminatory laws. A 1960 law made it possible for Aboriginal people to collect welfare benefits, and in 1962 Aboriginal people won the right to vote in federal elections. One of the greatest successes of the Aboriginal rights movement came in 1967, when a national referendum was held to determine whether Aboriginal people should be counted in the national census and whether the federal government should have the power to make laws covering Aboriginal people. The referendum was approved by more than 90 percent of the electorate, demonstrating that most white Australians supported the right of Aboriginal people to live as equal citizens.

The victory of the Australian Labor Party in the 1972 federal elections, after 23 years of conservative rule, led to a transformation in government relations with Aboriginal groups. With the new government came the end of the assimilation policy and, for the first time, recognition that Aboriginal people had the right to retain their own culture and to determine their own affairs. The government’s first step toward this goal of Aboriginal self-determination was to greatly increase the funding and programs aimed at improving the socioeconomic status of Aboriginal people. In 1973 the government established a separate Department of Aboriginal Affairs. This agency sponsored or promoted programs dealing with Aboriginal housing, education, health, land ownership, business, and legal and administrative reform. A national consultative committee of Aboriginal people was established to allow formal Aboriginal input into the policymaking process, and many more Aboriginal people were involved in the government bureaucracies administering Aboriginal affairs. In 1990 the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was replaced by an independent government body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, with a board of commissioners elected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

B Land Rights

The rights of Aboriginal people to their ancestral lands have dominated the politics of white-Aboriginal relations since the 1960s. Among the first Aboriginal groups to bring the issue of land rights to national attention were the Yolngu people from Yirrkala in northeastern Arnhem Land. In 1963, with the assistance of some members of the Methodist Church and a Labor Party parliamentarian, the Yolngu petitioned the federal Parliament against bauxite mining on their land. Their petitions, presented on traditional bark paintings, noted that they had never been consulted about the mining project and requested an inquiry. This led to the first legal case in Australia to test whether Australian law recognized Aboriginal land ownership, Milirrpum v. Nabalco. In 1971 a judge decided that while it was clear the Yolngu had lived at Yirrkala for thousands of years, Australian law, based on the principle of terra nullius, did not recognize prior Aboriginal ownership of the land.

In 1966, at the same time as the Yolngu were seeking control of their land, Gurindji workers at the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory went on strike for equal wages with white stockmen and better working conditions. Their strike quickly became a claim for land, as the Gurindji sought a pastoral lease on part of the station that covered their traditional lands. In 1975, after years of legal struggles, they were granted such a lease.

The passage in 1976 of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act marked a radical change in governmental attitudes toward Aboriginal land rights. As a result of this act, more than 40 percent of the total land area in the Northern Territory has reverted to Aboriginal ownership. In 1985 the government officially transferred Uluru, one of the world’s largest monoliths, to the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal peoples, who consider it sacred. They now lease the site back to the government as Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Australia.

Before 1992, land was returned to Aboriginal groups on the basis of laws passed by Parliament, rather than any judicial recognition that Aboriginal people were the original owners of the land. In a landmark 1992 case, Mabo v. Queensland, the Australian High Court overturned the concept of terra nullius, for the first time acknowledging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the original owners of the Australian continent. The court introduced the legal concept of native title, ruling that Indigenous Australians had title to land on the continent before European settlement in 1788. Indigenous people could claim native title if they could show a continuous relationship with their ancestral lands and if such title had not been extinguished by a valid act of government, such as a grant of the land to a private owner. In 1993 the government passed the Native Title Act, which aimed to harmonize the existing rights of nonindigenous people with the Mabo judgment. This act established the National Native Title Tribunal to hear land claims and mediate between indigenous and nonindigenous interests.

In 1996, in the case of Wik Peoples v. Queensland, the High Court partially clarified the question of whether native title was extinguished by pastoral leases, in which individuals rent land from the government for the purpose of ranching and farming. The court found that native title could coexist with pastoral leases, but that the rights of the leaseholder prevail in cases of conflict. The ruling greatly upset pastoral leaseholders, and in 1998 the federal Parliament passed amendments to the Native Title Act that made it somewhat harder for some groups to obtain recognition of their native title.

C Human Rights


Questions about human rights abuses against Aboriginal people came to national and international attention in the late 1980s, when the Australian government faced criticism over a disproportionately high death rate among Aboriginal people in police custody. In 1988 the United Nations published a report accusing Australia of violating international human rights standards in its treatment of Aboriginal people.

In 1991 a report by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody showed evidence of extensive racism in Australian police forces and prison systems. The report outlined more than 300 recommendations to improve the situation. Much of the report examined the underlying causes for the disproportionate number of Aboriginal people in custody and in prisons in particular. It concluded that the most significant factor in the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody was “the disadvantaged and unequal condition that Aboriginal people find themselves in…socially, economically, and culturally,” and it recommended greater empowerment of Aboriginal people and more adherence to policies of self-determination. Unfortunately, today Aboriginal people are still seriously overrepresented in Australian prisons in relation to their population size. Many advocates of Aboriginal causes believe that the history of mistreatment and domination of Aboriginal people, and particularly the legacy of child-removal policies, has contributed substantially to high rates of crime, alcohol abuse, and drug abuse among Aboriginal people, which in turn contribute to the high incarceration rates.

D Reconciliation

Most Australians and the state, territorial, and national governments today recognize that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have suffered extensive racial prejudice, mistreatment, and violence under more than two centuries of white rule. They have also acknowledged that present-day social ills among Aboriginal people, such as inadequate housing, poor health, high unemployment, low wages, lack of education, and high rates of imprisonment, reflect a long history of severe disadvantage.

The movement in Australia to atone for past wrongs and improve life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has grown. In 1991 the federal government established the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation to work toward achieving tangible goals of reconciliation between indigenous and other Australian peoples by 2001, the centennial of the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia. When the deadline arrived, it was clear that the process of reconciliation was far from over, and another independent organization, Reconciliation Australia, was established to continue the council’s work. Today, indigenous activists and government officials recognize that much work remains before Indigenous Australians can achieve social and economic equity with other Australians.

Reviewed By:
Nicolas Peterson
Article Categories:
Study Materials

Leave a Reply