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Indigenous Australians

The Aboriginal people are indigenous to Australia, meaning their ancestors were the first humans to settle and populate the continent. Aboriginal folklore claims that they were always in Australia. However, most anthropologists believe that they migrated from Southeast Asia at least 50,000 years ago, probably during a period when low sea levels permitted the simplest forms of land and water travel. A rise in sea level subsequently made Tasmania an island and caused some cultural separation between its peoples and those on the mainland.

These original Australians were essentially hunter-gatherers without domesticated animals, other than the dingo. They employed a type of “firestick farming” in which fire was used to clear areas so that fresh grazing grasses could grow, thereby attracting kangaroos and other game animals. Aboriginal people also may have harvested and dispersed selected seeds, perhaps creating extensive tracts of grassland in the process. There is evidence of careful damming and redirection of streams, and of swamp and lake outlets, possibly for fish farming.

Although the Aboriginal people were nomadic or seminomadic, their sense of place was exceptionally strong, and they had an intimate knowledge of the land. The most recent 3,000 years of Aboriginal history were characterized by accelerating changes based on the use of stone tools, the exploitation of new resources, the growth of the population, and the establishment of long-distance trading.

By the time of the first notable European settlement in 1788, Aboriginal people had developed cultural traits and ecological knowledge that showed an impressive adaptation to Australia’s challenging environments. They also had developed many complex variations between regional and even local communities. Estimates for the total Aboriginal population in 1788 vary. Current estimates based on archaeological research range between 500,000 and 1 million. About 250 distinct languages existed at the beginning of the 19th century. Bilingualism and multilingualism were common characteristics in several hundred Aboriginal groups. These groups—sometimes called tribes—were linguistically defined and territorially based.

During the first century of white settlement, there were dramatic declines in the Aboriginal population throughout Australia. The declines resulted from the introduction of diseases for which the Aboriginal people had little or no acquired immunity; social and cultural disruptions; brutal mistreatment; and reprisals for acts of organized resistance. By 1901 the Aboriginal population had declined to roughly 93,000. It then increased more than fourfold during the second half of the 20th century, partly in response to the wide acceptance of more relaxed interpretations of Aboriginal descent.

Until the 1960s the Aboriginal population was mainly rural. Over the next two decades Aboriginal people began moving in greater numbers to urban areas. In many small, rural towns, Aboriginal families were viewed negatively as fringe dwellers. In the larger cities, small, but highly volatile, ghetto-like concentrations of Aboriginal people led to demands for greater political rights.

In fact, the social and political status of Aboriginal Australians was so low that they were omitted from the official national censuses until 1971, following the overwhelming passage of a 1967 referendum that granted the government power to legislate for them and to include them in the census count. At the 2001 census, 366,429 Australian residents were counted as Aboriginal people, 26,046 as Torres Strait Islander people, and 17,528 as belonging to both groups. The largest concentrations of Indigenous Australians were in New South Wales (with 29.2 percent of the national total), Queensland (27.5 percent), Western Australia (14.3 percent), and the Northern Territory (12.4 percent).

More than 70 percent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in urban areas. Traditional ways of life are still maintained in small enclaves in the more remote locations, especially in the northern and central areas of the continent. Every region of the country is represented by its own Aboriginal land council, and most regions run cultural centers and festivals. A shared desire to reassert their claim to land rights has united the widely separated communities, and indigenous culture is now widely expressed in art, literature, and popular culture.

In terms of social and economic disadvantage—unemployment, family income levels, welfare dependence, infant mortality rates, and average life expectancy—the Aboriginal population still fares badly in comparison with the Australian population as a whole. Its recent renaissance has brought victories in many spheres, however, and the confirmation of Aboriginal ownership and control of extensive areas of northern and central Australia has introduced a new dimension into the economic, political, and social life of the nation.

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