Aboriginal people

There are about 500 different Aboriginal peoples in Australia, each with their own language and territory and usually made up of a large number of separate clans.

An Aboriginal child is being painted for a dance festival in Northern Queensland, Australia.
An Aboriginal child is being painted for a dance festival in Northern Queensland, Australia.
© John Miles/Survival

Archaeologists believe that the Aboriginals first came to the Australian continent around 45,000 years ago.

Aboriginals themselves, however, trace their creation back to the Dreamtime, an era long past when the earth was first formed. One Aboriginal man explained it thus:

‘By Dreaming we mean the belief that long ago these creatures started human society, they made all natural things and put them in a special place.

’These Dreaming creatures were connected to special places and special roads or tracks or paths. In many places the great creatures changed themselves into sites where their spirits stayed.

’Aboriginals have a special connection with everything that is natural. Aboriginals see themselves as part of nature … All things on earth we see as part human. It is true that people who belong to a particular area are really part of that area and if that area is destroyed they are also destroyed.’

Aboriginals’ land was invaded from the end of the 18th century onwards, with catastrophic consequences for them.

How do they live?

Before the invasion, Aboriginal people lived throughout Australia, although the highest population density was along the coast. Here, people seem to have moved seasonally between permanent settlements near the sea and others at the headwaters of the coast rivers.

Aboriginal boy, Australia.
Aboriginal boy, Australia.
© Helen Ross/Survival

Evidence suggests that these communities managed their environment carefully to ensure a steady supply of food, bringing wild yams into gardens which they irrigated, for example, or building artificial dykes to extend the range of eels.

Those Aboriginal tribes who lived inland in the bush and the desert lived by hunting and gathering, burning the undergrowth to encourage the growth of plants favoured by the game they hunted. They were experts in seeking out water.

Today more than half of all Aboriginals live in towns, often on the outskirts in terrible conditions. Many others work as labourers on cattle ranches that have taken over their land.

Many, particularly in the northern half of the continent, have managed to cling on to their land and still hunt and gather ‘bush tucker’.

What problems do they face?

Ever since the British first invaded, Aboriginal peoples have had their land stolen from them or destroyed. Until 1992, when it was finally overturned, the legal principle governing British and then Australian law regarding Aboriginal land was that of ‘terra nullius’ – that the land was empty before the British arrived, belonged to no-one, and could legitimately be taken over.

Most has still to be returned today, and the loss of their land has had a devastating social and physical impact on Aboriginal peoples.

The initial invasions also sparked huge waves of disease that killed thousands – many others were massacred. In just over one hundred years from the first invasion of their land, their numbers were reduced from up to an estimated one million to only 60,000.

Aboriginal cave art, Australia.
Aboriginal cave art, Australia.
© John Miles/Survival

During much of the 20th century, outright killings were replaced with a policy of removing Aboriginal children from their parents and giving them to white families or placing them in mission schools, to eradicate traces of Aboriginal culture and language.

Today they still face racist attitudes, and there are periodic incidents of violence towards them, particularly affecting those in police custody. Their generally poor living conditions mean that Aboriginal people have a far higher infant mortality rate and suicide rate and a lower life expectancy than the rest of the population, and they make up a disproportionate section of the prison population.

Although a landmark judgment in 1992 finally threw out the racist ‘terra nullius’ principle, the government has since done everything it can to obstruct Aboriginals reclaiming title over their lands.

Despite the many hurdles placed in their way, however, some Aboriginal groups such as the Martu of western Australia are finally securing ownership titles to their land.

How can I help?

How does Survival help?

Survival has provided funds for some ‘homeland’ projects, whereby Aboriginal people return from towns to their ancestral land.

We support Aboriginal efforts to win recognition of ‘Native Title’ to land in the courts and in parliament.

Survival also supported the campaign of the Mirarr people in the Northern Territory against a proposed uranium mine on their sacred land. This campaign succeeded in persuading the mining company not to go ahead.