Aborigines (Aboriginals) - The First Australians The First People to Come to Australia

Who are the Aborigines?

The aboriginal people are the native inhabitants of Australia. They are a dark-skinned people belonging to the Australoid group more closely related to Africans than to Asians and Europeans. They are believed to be descendants of the first group of humans to migrate out of Africa about 60,000 years ago.

Being the first humans to arrive in Australia about 50,000 years ago; the Aborigines discovered Australia. They were the first human inhabitants of Australia.

Aboriginal Australians were nomadic hunter-gathers. They roamed from place to place hunting animals and gathering fruits, nuts, yams and insects which they ate.

The Aborigines never engaged in farming or built cities and towns. It has been suggested that the reason for this may be due to the fact that Australia did not have plants suitable for farming such as grain (wheat, oats, rice). They also did not have animals suitable for domestication (such as cattle, horses, goats).

It is estimated that there were approximately 320,000 aborigines in about 250 tribal groups at the time the first European settlers arrived in Australia in 1778. Each group had its own territory, traditions, beliefs and language.

The Aborigines have one of the oldest civilizations in the world. The D r e a m t i m e is the centerpiece of aboriginal culture. It is the way they understand the world, how it was created, the relationship of all things and the rules that govern their lives. In some ways it is similar to Greek and Hindu mythology and the Bible stories; but unlike these stories, dreaming is a continuing story. That is to say, the dreaming still continues today.

What are Native Australians called?

The word Aborigines was a name given to the native Australians by Europeans. They are also referred to as Aboriginal Australians and Indigenous Australians.

The Meaning of the word Aborigine and Aboriginal

The word "aborigines" is usually used to refer to the original native people of an area before the arrival of invading or colonising people from elsewhere. It is derived from the Latin word aborīginēs which was used by the Romans to refer to the people who lived in Italy before they took over the area. It is derived from the Latin stem words ab+origine meaning 'from the beginning'. This word was borrowed into the English language and by the 1800s the words Aborigines and Aboriginals were firmly established as descriptions for the original native people of Australia.

Meaning of Indigenous

Most dictionaries define indigenous as "originating or occurring naturally in a particular place". In more recent times the phrase Indigenous Australians has been used to refer to these early Australian people. This may be due to the fact that some people believe the word 'indigenous' is less racist than aborigine and aboriginal.

Correct Word to Describe Native Australians

There is no correct answer to this question. Today the most politically correct usage is "Indigenous Australian", followed by "Native Australian", then "Aboriginals", and finally "Aborigines"

Related Article: Meaning of the words Aborigine, Aboriginal & Indigenous Australian

What Do Aborigines Call Themselves?

The Aboriginal people themselves do not seem to have a preferred name by which they call themselves. They most commonly refer to each other as Aboriginals, Aborigines or just simply black-fellas (from the words black + fellow).

Historically they called themselves by the name of their tribe or language group. This may have been a result of the fact that they were hunter-gathers and usually moved from place to place. For example, they may have said "I am a Wiradjuri man". Some groups, however, called themselves by place names. For example, people living in what is now New South Wales and Victoria may refer to themselves as "Koori".While those in Queensland may call themselves "Murri" in Western Australia it may be "Noongar".

Why the Ancestors of the Aborigines Left Africa

Home Sapiens (humans that look like us today) were firmly established in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

By about 60,000 years ago the last Ice Age was beginning to reached its coldest period. This cooling of the earth which had started millions of years earlier had catastrophic effects on the climate. Areas such as Europe and North America were covered in ice. More importantly areas of Africa where humans had lived for so many years started to dry out. The lush forests and savannah they had lived in were slowly replaced with desert and scrub-land with very little food and shelter. Humans like many other animals were facing starvation and near extinction. As a result some humans started to move out of Africa in search of better opportunities.

The first wave of humans, sometimes referred to as Proto-Australoid people, are believed to have left Africa about 60,000 years ago. These were the ancestors of the Aborigines. (A second wave left Africa about 10,000 years later. These were the ancestors of present-day Europeans and Asians).

How the Aborigines Came to Australia

The first human migration out of Africa generally followed the coastlines of Africa, India and Asia on their journey eastward. It was easy to walk along a beach and usually there was an adequate supply of shellfish such as clams and mussels for them to eat.

By 50,000 years ago they had reached as far as Borneo, Papua New Guinea and Timor. Australia was still separated from all these lands by 90 kilometres of open sea.

So how did the Aborigines get across the sea to Australia?

These first humans did not arrive in Australia by boat. At the time the first Aborigines came to Australia 50,000 years ago, humans were still in the Stone Age. They did not have the technology to build seagoing vessels of any kind. Since Australia was always separated from other countries by an ocean; humans could not have travelled to Australia on any sort of sea-going vessel such as rafts, canoes or boats. The final crossing to Australia was probably made by accident.

It is most likely that the initial arrivals got to Australia unintentionally. These people were probably carried across the ocean on drifting debris as a result of a major flood or even a tsunami in a land somewhere further to the north. Some say, that given the genetic homogeneity of the aboriginal population, this could have even been just one pregnant female.

Early Encounters between Aborigines & Foreign People

There is some evidence that the Aborigines on the western and northern coastlines of Australia had some contact with fishermen and traders from Indonesia and other islands close by for thousands of years. But this contact was sporadic and inconsequential to the Aboriginal way of life.

The Dingo, the native dog of Australia, first arrived about 5,000 years ago. It may have been brought to Australia by some of these early seafarers. It is the first non-native animal introduced in Australia by humans.

First Encounter between Aborigines and White Settlers (Europeans)

The aborigine people had never seen white European people until Captain James Cook landed in Botany Bay in 1770. They were shocked to see these white people in their strange clothes.

When the aborigines first saw the ships of the "First Fleet" enter Botany Bay in 1778 with so many white skinned people they thought they were the spirits of their dead ancestors (after all they were so white). In actual fact these were the first European settlers led by Captain Arthur Phillip.

At first the Aborigines were friendly towards the visitors but were very confused at the way foreigners behaved:

  1. - Why did the foreigners walk on aborigine sacred sites and dig up aborigine graves?
  2. - Why did they boss each other around and beat and hang people?
  3. - Why did they chop down trees and take food without asking?
  4. - Why were they mean and selfish towards each other and not sharing?

First Misunderstanding between Aboriginals and White Settlers

While exploring around the new settlement Captain Arthur Phillip befriended an old aborigine man. When he returned to camp he met the old man again and gave him some beads and a hatchet. Later that night Captain Phillip discovered the old man taking one of his shovels and slapped the man on his shoulder and pushed him away while pointing to the spade. The old man was very upset and could not understand why his friend was acting this way.

Aborigines share what they have with their relatives and friends and have very little concept of personal property.

Captain Phillip was very careful not to offend the aborigines but Aborigine and the settlers cultures were so different! They didn't understand each other. This was one of the first examples of the clash of cultures between the natives and the white foreigners.

Massacre of the Aborigines by White Settlers

When the aborigines finally realised that the white men were not the spirits of their dead ancestors and that the settlers were taking more and more of their land and destroying the trees and wild life they began to fight back. Led by a man named Pemulwuy, the aborigines killed a number of the settlers and even wounded Captain Phillip in an attack.

The settlers reacted by slaughtering and poisoning the aborigines and systematically destroying the land and wild animals they lived on. The aborigines were pushed out of their ancestral lands and forced to retreat into more inhospitable areas of the country where the settlers didn't want to go.

Aboriginal Deaths Caused by Disease

White settlers brought diseases the aborigines had never had before (diseases which were quite common in Europe at the time). While the Europeans had developed resistance to these illnesses over thousands of years, they were totally new to the Aboriginal population.

The Aborigines had no resistance or immunity to these new diseases. They caught measles, smallpox and even the common cold and died in huge numbers. Within two years smallpox had killed almost half the aborigine population around Sydney.

The "white man's diseases" were the major reason for the huge decline in the Aboriginal population since the arrival of European settlers. This terrible fate that befell the Aboriginals is sometimes referred to as "The White Man's Curse".

The Last Aboriginal In Tasmania

The last full-blooded Tasmanian Aboriginal, a female named Truganni, died on a desolate island off the coast of Tasmanian on 8th May 1876. She had pleaded the colonial authorities for a respectful funeral and for he ashes to be scattered in the sea. Despite her wishes here body was buried then exhumed two years later and her skeleton placed on public display in the Tasmanian Museum until 1947. It was only in 1976 that her wishes were finally carried out.

Truganni's ancestors first arrived in Tasmania around 40,000 years ago. They did so via a land bridge that existed between the mainland of Australia and Tasmania until about 8,000 years ago. They then lived in total isolation until the first European white settlers arrived in Tasmania in 1803 just eight years before she was born. At the time of the first white arrival there were approximately 10,000 aborigines.

Soon after the arrival of whites, the local aboriginal population plummeted drastically. The reasons given are the introduction of western diseases to which aborigines had no resistance, and to a lesser extent murder and extermination by the whites. By the time Truganni was just 17 years old, she had witnessed terrible violence rape, abductions and murder inflicted on her people by white settlers, sailors, sealers, soldiers and wood cutters. She herself lost her mother, sister, uncle and fiancée. In less than seventy years, at the time of Truganni's death, there were no more full-blooded aborigines in Tasmania.

Today there are still people of aboriginal decent living in Tasmania. These are the descendants of interbreeding between whites and Aboriginals.

Depravation - The Exploitation of Aborigines

The British colonists declared that before their arrival all of the continent was terra nullius (not inhabited by humans). They used this as justification for taking whatever they wanted.

As more and more white settlers moved in and occupied the fertile lands the aborigines were pushed further and further away from their traditional lands and into the harsh arid interior. Their families were broken up, their children taken away from them and sent to be "civilised", their sacred sites destroyed and their wild animals hunted. Many died of starvation.

The killing and exploitation of aborigines by whites continued well into the twentieth century. The aboriginal population declined from the original 300,000 when the first white settlers arrived to only about 60,000 people (less than the number of people that can be seated at a large football stadium!).

Aborigines were second-class citizens in their own land. They only got the right to vote in 1967.

This is a shameful part of Australian history.

Reconciliation - Attempt to Make Amends

Much progress has been made over recent years to try to right the wrongs of the past. Where possible the government has been returning land to their traditional owners and encouraging Aborigines to rebuild their culture and lives.

On the 13th February 2008 the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, made a formal apology to the Indigenous Australians for their past mistreatments.

They are the single most disadvantaged group of people in Australia. There is still a long way to go!

Aboriginal Land Rights - Mabo Ruling

When the white settlers arrived in Australia they conveniently adopted a policy of "terra nullis" (uninhabited by humans) - That is to say that the land didn't belong to anybody. Therefore they claimed that they were free to occupy all of Australia as they pleased and totally ignore any rights of the aborigines who had lived there before.

The High Court of Australia (Supreme Court) handed down its famous Mabo Ruling in 1992 stating that the policy of terra nullius was invalid. The court ruled that the aborigines were the first human occupants of Australia. This meant for the first time that Aboriginals could lay claim to their ancestral land which white settlers had stolen.

Eddie Mabo is the aboriginal man who took his fight to the High Court and won. The High Court decision is named after him.

Interesting Aboriginal Facts

How Old is the Aboriginal Culture?

The culture of the Australian Aboriginals is unique in that it is one of the oldest continuous uninterrupted cultures in to world. It is at least as old as their initial migration to Australia about 50,000 years ago. Most cultures of the world have been significantly influenced by the cultures of other people. The Aborigines, because of their isolation from foreigners, remained unimpacted by the cultures of other people until the arrival of European settlers in 1778.

How Long have the Aboriginals lived in Australia?

The general consensus is that the Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for at least 50,000 years. Some have suggested that it may be as early as 65,000 years ago.

What is the Aboriginal Population of Australia today?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics census estimate of the Aboriginal population of Australia as of 30 June 2011 was 669,900. This constitutes about 3% of the total Australian population. The Aboriginal population is increasing at the rate of 2.2 per year (compared the overall average of 1.4%). It is estimated that the Aboriginal population in 2014 was about 713,600 people.

Where do the Aborigines live in Australia?

Prior the arrival of European settlers in 1770s, most of the Aboriginal population of Australia lived along the coastal regions of Australia. But with colonisation they were progressively displaced by the white settlers to more remote parts of Australia. Most of them today live in towns and settlements. New South Wales has the largest population with 210,000 people. Next is Queensland with 200,000. Then followed by Western Australia (90,000), Northern Territory (70,000), Victoria (50,000), South Australia (38,000), Tasmania (25,000) and the Australian Capital Territory (6,300). Aboriginals make up 30% of the population of the Northern Territory, the highest proportion of the population by state.

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