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Who Are Australian Aborigines?

By O. Wallace
Updated May 23, 2024
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Australian Aborigines are the indigenous population of the Australian continent, meaning that they are the first known dwellers on the continent, as well as the surrounding islands. The word Aboriginal means “first or earliest known”. The term Australian Aborigines refers to a large and diverse group of peoples with different languages, customs and environments. These Aborigines include the Koori, Murri, Noongar, Yamatji, Wangkai, Nunga, Anangu, Yapa, Yolngu, and Palawah groups, spread throughout the different regions of Australia.

The oldest human remains found in Australia are of the Mungo Man, found in 1974 in Lake Mungo. Most experts agree that he is approximately 40,000 years old. Although many different theories abound, it is widely accepted that the migration to Australia came through Southeast Asia via a land bridge about 40,000 to 50,000 years BP. The first Aborigines populated desert regions as well as coastal areas.

The Aborigines were a successful group of people. They were hunter-gatherers or fisherman, according to the area they inhabited. Evidence of spears, stone tools and eel farming, which survives today, reveals that they thrived in their environment.

The Australian Aborigines experienced an intensification of the hunter-gatherer period between 3000 and 1000 BCE. During this time, the Aborigines put their environment to use by farming eels and refining tools made from local stone. This led to a surge in the population, as well as further development of contact between separate groups, social structures and clan relationships.

Before the colonization of Australia by the British, it is thought the population of the Aborigines was close to 1 million. One of the primary impacts of the early British settlements was disease. The British brought chickenpox, influenza, measles and smallpox, all new diseases to the Aborigines’ immune systems. Venereal disease also took its toll on the population.

In addition to disease, the British impacted the Australian Aborigines by taking their precious land and resources. This was difficult not only because it affected the Aborigines' livelihood, but also because they had a strong spiritual connection with the land, and it was difficult for them to cope. Alcohol, tobacco and opium introduced new social and physical problems for the Aborigines — problems that a great portion of the population still face today.

Between the years of 1788 and 1900, it is estimated that approximately 90% of the Australian Aboriginal population was wiped out due to disease, massacres and starvation. There are numerous massacres on record. Much like the American Indians, Aborigines were relegated to unwanted lands and often forced to live on the fringes of settlements.

Beginning with the early settlement of Australia and continuing into the latter part of the 20th century, Aborigines suffered labor abuses and discrimination. One of the most infamous abuses was the forced removal of what some estimate as 100,000 Aboriginal children from their families to be raised by the state. This took place from 1900 to 1970 and involved children of mixed Aboriginal and European descent. The purpose was to assimilate these children so that they would “breed” with whites and not Aborigines. Although this has been disputed, the understood purpose was to reduce the Aboriginal population by genetic selection. The term “Stolen Generation” refers to this era, which was portrayed in the 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence.

By 1965, the last Australian state had given Aborigines the right to vote. Legislation followed that slowly gave legal rights to the population. Change often comes slowly, and the damage done to the indigenous population may be irreparable. Many of the cultures and tribes that once existed in Australia have been wiped out completely.

Out of 350 to 750 languages and dialects that were noted in the latter part of the 18th century, in the beginning of the 21st century, only 200 remain, of which 180 are endangered. Much rich cultural heritage has been lost forever due to assimilation and extermination. Problems related to health care, addiction, poverty, poor education, crime and unemployment run rampant in the community even today.

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Discussion Comments

By anon324847 — On Mar 12, 2013

@dbuckly212: From what I have read, maybe its the difference in the 'Constitution'? In how it was worded? In some articles I have read, the Aborigines mention needing to be added to the constitution, whereas here that is the ground they could already stand on. No mention of color or race? Also, as it currently stands, most Native Americans still live on the reservations; they have different laws and rules of what they can and can't do in comparison to what can be done not on a reservation. It's almost like a self governing, from what I understand. Either way, I wish we all were more integrated to truly be one nation.

By arod2b42 — On Dec 08, 2010


It seems that discrimination in Australia is still stronger than in the States. A white culture of racism is often more salient among the lower class, because they are more "blunt" and open about their ideas than those of the upper class, and because lower class whites are historically more localized and have been less exposed to the beauty of global diversity. It is unfortunate that the native populations of both places have been so oppressed for so long.

By dbuckley212 — On Dec 06, 2010

I wonder how the oppression of the Aborigines compares to that of the Native Americans. America was settled by a relative mix of societies and cultures, while Australia was originally mostly convicts of English and Irish descent, as well as rural settlers. Were the Aborigines treated worse than the Native Americans because of this? How do modern Aboriginal rights compare with the state of Native American rights in America?

By anon30966 — On Apr 27, 2009

This was very helpful, indeed. Also Australia was used as a reliever for overcrowded prisons. That was pretty important.

Anyway, great job!


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