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Indigenous Australians
(Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders)
Total population
649,171 (2016)
2.8% of Australia's population (2016)
Population distribution by state/territory
 New South Wales 208,476 (2.89%)
 Queensland 188,954 (4.22%)
 Western Australia 88,270 (3.75%)
 Northern Territory 68,850 (29.77%)
 Victoria 47,333 (0.85%)
 South Australia 37,408 (2.28%)
 Tasmania 24,165 (4.72%)
 Australian Capital Territory 6,160 (1.67%)
Several hundred Indigenous Australian languages (many extinct or nearly so), Australian English, Australian Aboriginal English, Torres Strait Creole, Kriol
Christianity 73%
Non-religious 24%
Traditional Aboriginal religion 1%
Related ethnic groups
see List of Australian Aboriginal group names

Indigenous Australians are the native people of Australia. Indigenous Australians used weapons like boomerangs to kill animals for food. They came to Australia around 50,000 years ago. Many of them suffered when Europeans from Britain arrived in Australia, because of disease and the loss of their hunting lands. Aboriginal Australians also have their own type of art.

History of Aboriginal Australia

Dowling Natives of Tasmania
Robert Hawker Dowling, Group of Natives of Tasmania, 1859

The first people of Australia were nomadic people who came to Australia from southeast Asia. Scientists do not know exactly when they arrived but it is at least 50,000 years ago. They travelled through the bush, hunting with spears and boomerangs (throwing sticks) and searching for food such as plants, grubs, and insects, and hunting for animals. They had few possessions and made everything they needed. This way of life does not change or harm the fragile environment of Australia. The well-being of the land, and its plants and animals are vital and sacred to the Aboriginal people. Aborigines have a unique way of telling thier history. They use songs and stories that are passed from generation to generation.

1981 Arnhemland Aboriginal Performance on Open Air Theatre
Aboriginal man playing a didgeridoo

When the British came to Australia in 1788, they called these native people “aboriginals”, meaning people who had lived there since the earliest times. The British took land and many Aboriginal Australians died. They were either killed or died from diseases.

Today there are about 517,000 Aboriginal people in Australia. Most live in cities, but a few thousand still try to follow a traditional way of life.

Torres Strait Islanders

The Torres Strait Islander people possess a heritage and cultural history distinct from Aboriginal traditions. The eastern Torres Strait Islanders in particular are related to the Papuan peoples of New Guinea, and speak a Papuan language. Accordingly, they are not generally included under the designation "Aboriginal Australians". This has been another factor in the promotion of the more inclusive term "Indigenous Australians". Six percent of Indigenous Australians identify themselves fully as Torres Strait Islanders. A further 4% of Indigenous Australians identify themselves as having both Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal heritage.

The Torres Strait Islands comprise over 100 islands which were annexed by Queensland in 1879. Many Indigenous organisations incorporate the phrase "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander" to highlight the distinctiveness and importance of Torres Strait Islanders in Australia's Indigenous population.

Eddie Mabo was from "Mer" or Murray Island in the Torres Strait, which the famous Mabo decision of 1992 involved.

Before European contact

Aboriginal people

Ridpath's Universal history - an account of the origin, primitive condition and ethnic development of the great races of mankind, and of the principal events in the evolution and progress of the (14583949599)
Aboriginal Australians, from Ridpath's Universal History

Aboriginal people in some regions lived as foragers and hunter-gatherers, hunting and foraging for food from the land. Although Aboriginal society was generally mobile, or semi-nomadic, moving according to the changing food availability found across different areas as seasons changed, the mode of life and material cultures varied greatly from region to region, and there were permanent settlements and agriculture in some areas. The greatest population density was to be found in the southern and eastern regions of the continent, the River Murray valley in particular. Canoes were made out of bark for use on the Murray.

Australian Aborigine canoe scar tree
The scar on this tree is where Aboriginal people have removed the bark to make a canoe, for use on the Murray River. It was identified near Mildura, Victoria and is now in the Mildura Visitor Centre.

There is some evidence that, before outside contact, some groups of Aboriginal Australians had a complex subsistence system with elements of agriculture, that was only recorded by the very first of European explorers. One early settler took notes on the life styles of the Wathaurung people whom he lived near in Victoria. He saw women harvesting Murnong tubers, a native yam that is now almost extinct. However, the area that they were harvesting from was already cleared of other plants, making it easier to harvest Murnong (also known as yam daisy) exclusively.

Along the northern coast of Australia, parsnip yams were harvested by leaving the bottom part of the yam still stuck in the ground so that it would grow again in the same spot. Similar to many other farmers in the world, Aboriginal peoples used slash and burn techniques to enrich the nutrients of their soil. However, sheep and cattle later brought over by Europeans would ruin this soil by trampling on it. To add on the complexity of Aboriginal farming techniques, natives deliberately exchanged seeds to begin growing plants where they did not naturally occur. In fact there were so many examples of Aboriginal Australians managing farm land in a complex manor that Australian Anthropologist, Dr. Norman Tindale was able to draw an Aboriginal grain belt, detailing the specific areas where crops were once produced.

In terms of aquaculture, explorer Thomas Mitchell noted large stone fish traps on the Darling River at Brewarrina. Each trap covers a pool, herding fish through a small entrance that would later be shut. Traps were created at different heights to accommodate different water levels during floods and droughts.

Technology used by Indigenous Australian societies before European contact included weapons, tools, shelters, watercraft, and the message stick. Weapons included boomerangs, spears (sometimes thrown with a woomera) with stone or fishbone tips, clubs, and (less commonly) axes. The stone age tools available included knives with ground edges, grinding devices, and eating containers. Fibrecraft was well-developed, and fibre nets, baskets, and bags were used for fishing, hunting, and carrying liquids. Trade networks spanned the continent, and transportation included canoes. Shelters varied regionally, and included wiltjas in the Atherton Tablelands, paperbark and stringybark sheets and raised platforms in Arnhem Land, whalebone huts in what is now South Australia, stone shelters in what is now western Victoria, and a multi-room pole and bark structure found in Corranderrk. A bark tent or lean-to is known as a humpy, gunyah, or wurley. Clothing included the possum-skin cloak in the southeast and riji (pearl shells) in the northeast.

There is evidence that some Aboriginal populations in northern Australia regularly traded with Makassan fishermen from Indonesia before the arrival of Europeans.

At the time of first European contact, it is generally estimated that the pre-1788 population was 314,000, while recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 500,000 to 750,000 could have been sustained, with some ecologists estimating that a population of up to a million or even two million people was possible.

The population was split into 250 individual nations, many of which were in alliance with one another, and within each nation there existed separate, often related clans, from as few as 5 or 6 to as many as 30 or 40. Each nation had its own language, and a few had several.

There is some evidence to suggest that the section of the Australian continent now occupied by Queensland was the single most densely populated area of pre-contact Australia. There are also signs that the population density of Aboriginal Australia was comparatively higher in the north-eastern sections of New South Wales, and along the northern coast from the Gulf of Carpentaria and westward including certain sections of Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Torres Strait Island people

The Torres Strait peoples' fishing economy relied on boats, which they built themselves. There is also evidence of the construction of large, complex buildings on stilts and domed structures using bamboo, with thatched roofs, which catered for extended family members living together.

British colonisation

Dates by area

Batman signs treaty artist impression
Wurundjeri people at the signing of Batman's Treaty, 1835

British colonisation of Australia began with the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay, New South Wales, in 1788. Settlements were subsequently established in Tasmania (1803), Victoria (1803), Queensland (1824), Western Australia (1826), and the Colony of South Australia (1836).

The first settlement in the Northern Territory was built after Captain Gordon Bremer took possession of the Tiwi Islands of Bathurst and Melville, claiming them for the colony of New South Wales, although that settlement failed after a few years, along with a couple of later attempts; permanent settlement was only finally achieved at Darwin in 1869.

Australia was the exception to British imperial colonisation practices, in that no treaty was drawn up setting out terms of agreement between the settlers and native proprietors, as was the case in North America, and New Zealand. Many of the men on the First Fleet had had military experience among Native American tribes in North America, and tended to attribute to the Aboriginal people alien and misleading systems or concepts like chieftainship and tribe with which they had become acquainted in the northern hemisphere.

British administrative control began in the Torres Strait Islands in 1862, with the appointment of John Jardine, police magistrate at Rockhampton, as Government Resident in the Torres Straits. He originally established a small settlement on Albany Island, but on 1 August 1864 he went to Somerset Island. English missionaries arrived on Erub (Darnley Island) on 1 July 1871. In 1872 the boundary of Queensland was extended to include Thursday Island and some other islands in Torres Strait within 60 miles (97 km) of the Queensland coast, and in 1879 Queensland annexed the other islands, which became part of the British colony of Queensland.


One immediate consequence was a series of epidemics of European diseases such as measles, smallpox and tuberculosis. In the 19th century, smallpox was the principal cause of Aboriginal deaths, and vaccinations of the "native inhabitants" had begun in earnest by the 1840s. This smallpox epidemic in 1789 is estimated to have killed up to 90% of the Darug people.

Another consequence of British colonisation was European seizure of land and water resources, with the decimation of kangaroo and other indigenous foodstuffs which continued throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries as rural lands were converted for sheep and cattle grazing. Despite this a number of Europeans, including convicts, formed favourable impressions of Aboriginal life through living with Aboriginal Groups.

In 1834 there occurred the first recorded use of Aboriginal trackers, who proved very adept at navigating their way through the Australian landscape and finding people.

Graph showing the destination of Indigenous wages in Queensland in the 19th and 20th centuries

Throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had their lives under the jurisdiction of various state-based protection laws. These Acts of Parliament appointed Protectors of Aborigines and Aboriginal Protection Boards, whose role was to ensure the safety of Indigenous Australians as well as controlling their lives in matters of employment and marriage. Wages were controlled by the Protectors, and Indigenous Australians received less income than their non-Indigenous counterparts in employment.

During this time, many Aboriginal people were victims of slavery by colonists alongside Pacific Islander peoples who were kidnapped from their homes, in a practice known as blackbirding. Between 1860 and 1970, under the guise of protectionist policies, people, including children as young as 12, were forced to work on properties where they worked under horrific conditions and most did not receive any wages. In the pearling industry, Aboriginal peoples were bought for about 5 pounds.

From 1810, Aboriginal peoples were moved onto mission stations, run by churches and the state. While they provided food and shelter, their purpose was to "civilise" Aboriginal communities by teaching western values. After this period of protectionist policies that aimed to segregate and control Aboriginal populations, in 1937 the Commonwealth government agreed to move towards assimilation policies. These policies aimed to integrate Aboriginal persons who were "not of full blood" into the white community in an effort to eliminate the "Aboriginal problem". As part of this, there was an increase in the number of children forcibly removed from their homes and placed with white people, either in institutions or foster homes.

1871–1969: Stolen Generations

The term Stolen Generations refers to those children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were forcibly removed from their families by the Australian Federal and State government agencies and church missions for the purpose of eradicating Aboriginal culture, under acts of their respective parliaments. The forcible removal of these children occurred in the period between approximately 1871 and 1969, although, in some places, children were still being taken in the 1970s.

Early 20th century

Didgeridoo (Imagicity 1070)
A didgeridoo player

By 1900, the recorded Indigenous population of Australia had declined to approximately 93,000. However, this was only a partial count as both Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders were poorly covered, with desert Aboriginal peoples not counted at all until the 1930s. During the first half of the twentieth century, many Indigenous Australians worked as stockmen on sheep stations and cattle stations for extremely low wages. The Indigenous population continued to decline, reaching a low of 74,000 in 1933 before numbers began to recover. By 1995, population numbers had reached pre-colonisation levels, and in 2010 there were around 563,000 Indigenous Australians.

Although, as British subjects, all Indigenous Australians were nominally entitled to vote, generally only those who merged into mainstream society did so.

Despite efforts to bar their enlistment, over 1,000 Indigenous Australians fought for Australia in the First World War.

Hundreds of Indigenous Australians served in the Australian armed forces during World War Two – including with the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion and The Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit, which were established to guard Australia's North against the threat of Japanese invasion. However, most were denied pension rights and military allotments, except in Victoria, where each case was judged individually, without a blanket denial of rights accruing from their service.

Late 20th century

Picture of Albert Namatjira at the Albert Namatjira Gallery, Alice Springs. Aboriginal art and artists became increasingly prominent in Australian cultural life during the second half of the 20th century.
Internationale tenniskampioenschappen bij Melkhuisje te Hilversum, Evonne Goolag, Bestanddeelnr 924-7659
Australian tennis player Evonne Goolagong

In 1962, Commonwealth legislation specifically gave Aboriginal people the right to vote in Commonwealth elections. A group of University of Sydney students organised a bus tour of western and coastal New South Wales towns in 1965 to raise awareness of the state of Aboriginal health and living conditions. This Freedom Ride also aimed to highlight the social discrimination faced by Aboriginal people and encourage Aboriginal people themselves to resist discrimination.

The landmark 1967 referendum called by Prime Minister Harold Holt allowed the Commonwealth to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people by modifying section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution, and for Aboriginal people to be included when the country does a count to determine electoral representation by repealing section 127. The referendum passed with 90.77% voter support.

Indigenous Australians began to serve in political office from the 1970s.

In sport Evonne Goolagong Cawley became the world number-one ranked tennis player in 1971 and won 14 Grand Slam titles during her career. In 1973 Arthur Beetson became the first Indigenous Australian to captain his country in any sport when he first led the Australian National Rugby League team, the Kangaroos. In 1982, Mark Ella became Captain of the Australian National Rugby Union Team, the Wallabies. In 2000, Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, and went on to win the 400 metres at the Games. In 2019, tennis player Ashleigh Barty was ranked world number one.

In 1984, a group of Pintupi people who were living a traditional hunter-gatherer desert-dwelling life were tracked down in the Gibson Desert in Western Australia and brought in to a settlement. They are believed to have been the last uncontacted tribe in Australia.


Reconciliation between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians became a significant issue in Australian politics in the late 20th century. In 1991, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was established by the federal government to facilitate reconciliation. In 1998, a Constitutional Convention which selected a Republican model for a referendum included just six Indigenous participants, leading Monarchist delegate Neville Bonner to end his contribution to the Convention with his Jagera tribal "Sorry Chant" in sadness at the low number of Indigenous representatives.

An inquiry into the Stolen Generations was launched in 1995 by the Keating government, and the final report delivered in 1997 – the Bringing Them Home report – estimated that around 10% to 33% of all Aboriginal children had been separated from their families for the duration of the policies. The succeeding Howard government largely ignored the recommendations provided by the report, one of which was a formal apology to Aboriginal Australians for the Stolen Generations.

The republican model, as well as a proposal for a new Constitutional preamble which would have included the "honouring" of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, was put to referendum but did not succeed. In 1999, the Australian Parliament passed a Motion of Reconciliation drafted by Prime Minister John Howard in consultation with Aboriginal Senator Aden Ridgeway naming mistreatment of Indigenous Australians as the most "blemished chapter in our national history", although Howard refused to offer any formal apology.

On 13 February 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology to Australia's Indigenous peoples, on behalf of the federal government of Australia, for the suffering caused by the Stolen Generations.


Aboriginal Australians believe that they have animal, plant, and human ancestors who created the world and everything in it. This process of creation is called Dreamtime. There are many songs and stories about Dreamtime, which generations of Aboriginal people have passed down to their children. Say someone dies they get a new life as a plant or another person.


Aboriginal rock art, Nourlangie Rock, Kakadu - panoramio
Aboriginal rock art, Nourlangie Rock, Kakadu

The art of the Indigenous Australians is mostly about dreamtime and is made as part of the ceremonies celebrating Dreamtime. Paintings of the people, spirits, and animals of Dreamtime cover sacred cliffs and rocks in tribal territories. Some of the pictures are made in red and yellow ochre and white clay, others have been carved into the rocks. Many are thousands of years old.

Urban life

Australia Cairns Boomerang

Most aboriginal Australian live in cities & towns. Some have benefitted from government education and aid programs and have careers as teachers, doctors and lawyers. Many, though, are poor and isolated from white society. They have lost touch with traditional Aboriginal tribal ways, and because they do not fit neatly into white Australian society, they cannot share its benefits.


As well as the curved returning boomerang, Aboriginal Australians use a straight, non-returning boomerang as a weapon for fighting and for hunting animals such as kangaroos.

Land claims

When British people came to live in Australia, they decided that the land was empty, that nobody "owned" the land, in the way Europeans defined that word. This was called "Terra nullius", Latin words for "empty land". Under British law, all land belongs to the king, who is then able to sell it to other people.

In 1976, the Australian government agreed that aboriginal people have rights to the land where their tribes were originally located and gained the right to use the land. On 3 June, 1992, the High Court of Australia said that the idea of "Terra nullius" was wrong, and the government brought in new laws, to set up Native Title. If aborigines can prove they have always used particular land, it has not been sold, or changed by government acts, then the land could be claimed as aboriginal land.

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