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Aboriginal Australia

As the world’s most ancient living culture, Australia’s indigenous people have occupied the country for at least 50,000 years.

By the time the Europeans started to settle there 200 years ago, there were up to a million Aboriginal people hunting and gathering across the continent in around 300 clans, speaking 250 different  languages and 700 dialects. Each clan had a spiritual connection with the land of their region, but they did travel widely to trade, find water and food, and for ritual and totemic gatherings.

History of Aboriginal Australia

When Captain Cook first set foot on the shores of Australia, there were already around 318,000 to 750,000 Aborigines living there in small settlements, mostly around the Murray River in the South of Australia. Today there are around 228,000 Aborigines in Australia, in a growing overall population of 21 million.

When the Europeans first arrived, the indigenous populace was badly hit by foreign diseases they had no immunity for, from the common cold to smallpox, which wiped out around 50% of the Aboriginal population (and was sometimes deliberately spread by white settlers). Their land and water resources were also appropriated by British settlers and turned into grazing land for cattle.

A photograph showing Aboriginal people in the early years of European settlement.

A photograph showing Aboriginal people in the early years of European settlement.

Many regional Aboriginal people identify themselves with their own indigenous names such as the Koori (of New South Wales) and the Murri tribe (Queensland).

The Aborigines were mainly hunter-gatherers, having an ancient and unique knowledge of the land and its seasons developed over countless centuries. Most groups were mobile, moving to different areas as the seasons changed. The majority of Aboriginal people however, lived in the more fertile south or south east of Australia, along the River Murray in particular.

Indigenous Languages

The 250-plus Aboriginal languages are now in danger of becoming obsolete, with only around 15 still in use. Each tribe, or settlement, had their own local language for thousands of years, but many Aborigines now speak a common tongue known as Australian Aboriginal English: a form of English littered with Aboriginal phrases and words.

Aboriginal Rights

From 1869 right up until the 1970s the Australian Government operated a policy of forced assimilation, now known as as ‘The Stolen Generations’. The Federal and State Governments, along with many Church agencies, were responsible for systematically removing children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders families. It was official government policy to do so, the idea being that the children would be better off growing up as modern, white Australians.

Quite why they felt this was necessary is unclear. One unlikely theory is that the government was trying to save the younger generation from the smallpox epidemic that was expected to wipe out the Aboriginal population. Others say it was for child protection (presumably from a ‘savage’ life), and other theories point to ‘assimilation’ of the indigenous peoples into a ‘superior’ western lifestyle. Whatever the reasons, up to 100,000 children were forcibly taken from their families during that period and placed with white adoptive families.

After mounting pressure from the people of Australia, it was only in February 2008 that the Aboriginal people finally received a formal apology from then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Previous Prime Ministers had refused to apologise, and had even contested the usage of the term ‘stolen’. More detailed information can be found here about Australia’s stolen generations.

During the First World War, there were efforts to ban Aboriginal men from signing up for the army, but despite this around 500 young Aboriginal men joined up to fight for their country. Hundreds more joined up during the Second World War.

The 1960s really brought Aboriginal rights to the forefront when indigenous people were granted the right to vote in 1962. Then, in 1966, there was a strike of Aboriginal workers from the Wavehill Station, in protest about poor pay and working conditions that applied only to them.

In 1967 there was a landmark referendum when the Commonwealth was given the right to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people, and to ensure that their votes and opinions were counted in electoral representations.

Today, Australia takes pride in what’s left of its Aboriginal culture. Visitors to the country can choose from a range of ancient cultural experiences, from bushcraft and bush tucker to Aboriginal art and storytelling performances.

Aboriginal Culture and Beliefs

Aborigines performing at the Laura Dance Festival

Aborigines performing at the Laura Dance Festival

Aboriginal Australia is a living legacy of spiritual knowledge. It’s based on a long understanding of land, culture, people and the connectedness of all things shared through rituals, art, dance, music, secret stories and journeys into the mysteries known as Dreamtime.

Dreamtime refers to the creation; the ancient time when ancestral spirits came to Earth and created the landforms and all life.

The landscape today is a map of their spirits, their journeys and their stories, all created thousands of years ago to account for geographical features. Many of these legends have survived and you can still hear them today.

According to Aboriginal beliefs, the spirit ancestors of the land and its people descended from the sky, emerged from the earth or sprang from waterways. These ancestral spirits possessed supernatural powers, enabling them during the Dreamtime of the worlds creation to change into human, animal or other forms.

Ceremonial songs and dances commemorate legends of the Dreamtime creation era, celebrating in music and movement, the deeds and journeys of heroic spirit ancestors. Participants in traditional dance ceremonies are painted with the emblems and totems of their clans and their performances are designed to evoke the spiritual power of the spirit ancestor.

Find out more about Aboriginal Australia and how you can experience it firsthand!

The Legend of Namarrgon

Listen to the legend of Namarrgon, the Lightning Man, told at the ancient galleries of Nourlangie Rock, in Kakadu National Park in the Top End of Australia. Nourlangie Rock is a spectacular area featuring magnificent Aboriginal art sites along with walking tracks, billabongs and lookout areas. The area was formed when two Creation Ancestors in the form of short-eared rock wallabies travelled through from east to west. With lightening joining his head and feet, Lightening Man makes lightening by striking his Garramalg against the clouds and ground. You will also see Namondjok, a dangerous spirit in the Aboriginal belief system, who turned into Ginah the great saltwater crocodile.

Aboriginal Art

When you think of Aboriginal art, no doubt your mind instantly creates a picture of an ancient rock painting. This form of painting, using ochre and other earthly materials for colour, is thousands of years old. Many of the paintings and drawings were used to tell the stories from Dreamtime.

An ancient example of rock art.

An ancient example of rock art.

Methods of painting include dot painting, meticulously using dots to create intricate patterns or drawings. Body painting is also popular using hatching and dots to decorate the body for ceremonies or dances. Bark Painting is also common, using flat pieces of bark and decorating them with the symbols of their own clans. Rock engravings are also an ancient art form used by the Aborigines.

Did you know? Aboriginal Facts

  • The Indigenous cultures of Australia are the oldest living cultures in the world – they go back at least 50,000 years and some argue closer to 65,000 years.
  • One of the reasons Aboriginal cultures have survived for so long is their ability to adapt and change over time. It was this affinity with their surroundings that goes a long way to explaining how Aboriginal people survived for so many millennia.
  • Aboriginal Australia has developed as a network of separate, independent ‘nations’? distinguished by hundreds of languages and over 700 dialects. Aboriginal Australia, therefore, is one of the most linguistically diverse places on the planet.

If you want to find out more about Aboriginal history, there are numerous websites and publications dedicated to exploring the rich culture of these people.

Aboriginal History

Indigenous Australians

Aboriginal History TimeLine

Australian Dreaming – 40 000 Years of Aboriginal History


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