Aboriginal History

The Dreamtime 40,000 Years of History

They say we have been here for 40 000 years, but it is much longer.

We have been here since time began.
We have come directly out of the Dreamtime of our creative ancestors.

We have kept the earth as it was on the first day.
Our culture is focused on recording the origins of life.

We refer to forces and powers that created the world as creative ancestors.

Our beautiful world has been created only in accordance with the power, wisdom and intentions of our ancestral beings.

Who Are We?

Indigenous Australians are the first known human inhabitants of the Australian continent and its nearby islands. The term includes both the Torres Strait Islanders and the Aboriginal People, who together make up about 2.5% of Australia's population.

The latter term is usually used to refer to those who live in mainland Australia, Tasmania, and some of the other adjacent islands. The Torres Strait Islanders are indigenous Australians who live in the Torres Strait Islands between Australia and New Guinea. Indigenous Australians are recognised by scientists to have arrived between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago, but Aboriginal history says that "we have been here since time began".

Regions with significant populations

Flag of New South Wales New South Wales



Flag of Queensland Queensland



Flag of Western Australia Western Australia



Flag of the Northern Territory Northern Territory



Flag of Victoria (Australia) Victoria



Flag of South Australia South Australia



Flag of Tasmania Tasmania



Flag of the Australian Capital Territory Australian Capital Territory



Other regions




The term Indigenous Australians encompasses many diverse communities and societies, and these are further divided into local communities with unique cultures. Fewer than 200 of the languages of these groups remain in use — all but 20 are highly endangered. It is estimated that prior to the arrival of British settlers the population of Indigenous Australians was up to 1 million.

Aboriginal Australians Definition

The word aboriginal, appearing in English since at least the 17th century and meaning "first or earliest known, indigenous," (Latin Aborigines, from ab: from, and origo: origin, beginning), 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 the latter is often also employed to stand as a noun. Note that the use of "Aborigine(s)" or "Aboriginal(s)" in this sense, i.e. as a noun, has acquired negative, even derogatory connotations among some sectors of the community, who regard it as insensitive, and even offensive. The more acceptable and correct expression is "Aboriginal Australians" or "Aboriginal people", though even this is sometimes regarded as an expression to be avoided because of its historical associations with colonialism. "Indigenous Australians" has found increasing acceptance, particularly since the 1980s]

Aboriginal Australia Languages

The indigenous languages of mainland Australia and Tasmania have not been shown to be related to any languages outside Australia. 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, fewer than 200 Indigenous Australian languages remain in use and all but about 20 of these are highly endangered. Linguists classify mainland Australian languages into two distinct groups, the Pama-Nyungan languages and the non-Pama Nyungan.

The Pama-Nyungan languages comprise the majority, covering most of Australia, and is a family of related languages. In the north, stretching from the Western Kimberley to the Gulf of Carpentaria, are found a number of groups of languages which have not been shown to be related to the Pama-Nyungan family or to each other: these are known as the non-Pama-Nyungan languages. While it has sometimes proven difficult to work out familial relationships within the Pama-Nyungan language family many Australianist linguists feel there has been substantial success.

The position of Tasmanian languages is unknown, and it is also unknown whether they comprised one or more than one specific language family, as only a few poor-quality word-lists have survived the impact of colonisation and social dislocation.

A 19th century engraving of an Indigenous Australian encampment, showing the indigenous mode of life in the cooler parts of Australia at the time of European settlement.  
   Southern "cooler" State Central "hot" Desert

These 19th century images of an Indigenous Australian encampments , show the indigenous the different mode of life in the cooler and hot parts of Australia at the time of European settlement.

Brief Aboriginal Australia History

The general consensus among scholars for the arrival of humans in Australia is placed at 40,000 to 50,000 years ago with a possible range of up to 70,000 years ago though not as widely supported. At the time of first European contact, it is estimated that a minimum of 315,000 and as many as 1 million people lived in Australia.

The Impact of British Colonisation

The mode of life and material cultures varied greatly from region to region before British colonisation of Australia began in Sydney in 1788.

The most immediate consequence of British settlement - within weeks of the first colonists' arrival - was a wave of Old World epidemic diseases. Smallpox alone had killed more than 50% of the Aboriginal population.The second consequence of British settlement was appropriation of land and water resources.

The combination of disease, loss of land and direct violence reduced the Aboriginal population by an estimated 90% between 1788 and 1900.

A wave of massacres and resistance followed the frontier of British settlement. By the 1870s all the fertile areas of Australia had been appropriated, and indigenous communities reduced to impoverished remnants living either on the fringes of Australian communities or on lands considered unsuitable for settlement. Many indigenous people adapted to European culture, working as stock hands or labourers. With the exception of a few in the remote interior, all surviving indigenous communities gradually became dependent on the settler population for their livelihood.

By the early 20th century the indigenous population had declined to between 50,000 and 90,000. Commonwealth legislation in 1962 specifically gave Aborigines the right to vote in Commonwealth elections.

The 1967 referendum allowed the Commonwealth to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people, and for Aboriginal people to be included when the country does a count to determine electoral representation.


In the 1971 controversial Gove land rights case, Justice Blackburn ruled that Australia had been terra nullius before British settlement, and that no concept of native title existed in Australian law.


In 1972, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra.

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.

In 2004, the Australian Government abolished The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which had been Australia's peak indigenous organisation.

Related Topics: