Aborigines, pronounced ab uh RIHJ uh neez,
are Australians whose ancestors were the first people to live in Australia. The word comes
from the Latin phrase ab origine, meaning from the beginning. When spelled with a small
"a," the word aborigines refers to any people whose ancestors were the first to
live in a country.
Most Aborigines have dark brown hair that may be straight, wavy, or curly. Their skin
color ranges from tan to dark brown and almost black. Most Aborigines are of medium height
and have slender limbs.
Most scientists believe the ancestors of today's Aborigines first arrived in Australia as
early as 50,000 years ago. They came from Southeast Asia. About 750,000 Aborigines lived
on the island continent when European settlers first reached Australia in 1788. There were
about 500 tribes, each with its own language. Most early European settlers considered the
Aborigines a primitive people, treated them badly, and occupied their land. Some
Aborigines were killed. Large numbers of Aborigines died of diseases introduced by the
Today, Australia has only about 257,000 Aborigines, which is about 1 percent of the
country's population. Many Aborigines have mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry. But
some are direct descendants of the original inhabitants. They are called full bloods. Few
Aborigines follow traditional ways. But some have begun to leave settlements and towns and
return to traditional homelands in northern and central Australia.
Traditional culture. Aborigines lived in harmony with their natural environment. They
obtained food by hunting animals and gathering plants. The size of a tribe depended partly
on the amount of food and water in its territory. A tribe had no political chief or formal
government. However, respected men expert in tribal law and customs generally made the
main tribal decisions and directed the ceremonies. Each tribe consisted of various
subgroups. One such group was the band or horde, in which members cooperated in hunting
and food collecting. Aborigines also belonged by birth, either through their mothers or
fathers, to local descent groups and to clans. Based on their ties to a common ancestor,
these family groups owned certain lands and conducted ceremonial rituals.
Aborigines wore ornaments and waistbands, but little clothing. In cold areas, some wore
cloaks of kangaroo or possum fur. Aborigines had no permanent housing because they
constantly moved to find food. For shelter, they found protection under rocks or built
huts out of branches, grasses, or other materials they found.
Family relationships were extremely important. All members of a tribe were related.
Marriage united two families, not just two people. Most men had one wife, though custom
allowed a man to have more than one wife at a time. Men directed local groups and tribal
affairs. But women often worked together and took part in special secret activities apart
Men and women cooperated in hunting and food collecting. Men hunted large sea and land
animals, using spears, harpoons, nets, traps, clubs, knives, and boomerangs. Women
gathered vegetables, fruits, turtle and bird eggs, and small animals such as insects,
lizards, rodents, and shellfish. Men made such stone tools as axes, chisels, hammers,
saws, and spearpoints.
Aboriginal arts and crafts showed imagination and skill. The Aborigines painted on bark
and stone and engraved designs on rock surfaces. Their cave paintings and other drawings
are world famous. The Aborigines also carved figures from wood and stone and painted them.
Some wove beautiful bags, baskets, and mats of twine and cord made from bark, root fibers,
fur, and human hair. Aborigines also expressed themselves artistically through music,
song, and spoken literature.
Religion linked the Aborigines to the land and nature through ancestral beings who,
according to Aboriginal beliefs, created the world in a time long ago called the Dreaming,
or Dreamtime. These beings never died, but merged with nature to live in sacred beliefs
Aborigines today are Australian citizens. But most of them still face unofficial
discrimination and prejudice and are underprivileged economically, socially, and
politically. Since the 1930's, the Australian federal, state, and territorial governments
have worked to absorb the Aborigines more closely into the country's economic, social, and
political life. But many Aborigines wish to keep what remains of their traditional
culture. Thus, the government has developed a policy called integration. This policy
offers the Aborigines programs to help them function in a modern society and, at the same
time, encourages them to follow their traditions.
Many Aborigines are striving to regain ownership of their traditional lands. Some groups
have regained title to large areas in the Northern Territory and in the state of South
Australia. In 1980, the federal government formed the Aboriginal Development Commission.
This commission, made up of Aborigines, manages lands regained by the Aborigines and makes
low-interest loans to Aboriginal business people and to Aborigines who need money to buy
Contributor: Robert Edwards, LL.D., Chief Executive and Director, Art Exhibitions