How Aboriginal Australians Work

By: Ryan Johnson  | 
Aboriginal owners of Uluru-Kata-Tjuta
Traditional Aboriginal owners of Uluru-Kata-Tjuta, the Anangu, gather in front of the Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, after a permanent ban on climbing it, at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia's Northern Territory on Oct. 26, 2019. SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

The Aboriginal people of Australia were the first people to set foot on the continent, somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago. The Aboriginal Australians' creation story describes their arrival in terms of the Dreamtime, the beginning of time, when the spirits created the world.

During Dreamtime, spirits rose from below the earth and transformed into all the natural elements you see in Australia today – rivers, lakes, mountains, hills and caves. The spirits literally make up the land. Aboriginal Australians see these spirits in much the same way as Christians view God or Muslims view Allah. However, they believe that these spirits are alive within the land of Australia. Because of this, Aboriginal Australians view the land as sacred and treat it as such.


The dreamings, or stories, of the Dreamtime are also considered sacred, and they're kept secret from the outside world. Elders draw these stories in a series, called a dreaming trail, using symbols. Young men then learn what the symbols mean and how to translate them so they can pass the history along to the next generation. Many Aboriginal Australians consider the dreamings to be the absolute truth – an unquestionable recording of history.

The scientific explanation for how Aboriginal people arrived in Australia is simple: They walked. Within the last decade, studies have proposed the possibility that all humans came from Africa within the last 200,000 years [sources: The Independent, Lewis]. A group of geneticists at the University of Cambridge in England built on that research by studying the DNA of Aboriginal Australians to determine when they arrived in Australia and from where.

According to Dr. Toomas Kisivild and his team, the Aboriginal people walked from Africa onto Eurasia. From there, they spread from India along the coastlines of Southeast Asia, where they then traveled over a land bridge connecting Australia to Asia [source: The New York Times]. Once the seas rose and covered the land that connected the continents, indigenous Australians were isolated for thousands of years.

What was life like for them, and how did that change with an influx of English settlers? How has the struggle for civil rights in Australia compare to what's happened in other countries? Read on to learn how much has changed in the last few centuries.

Early Aboriginal Culture

Aboriginal spear
Most Aboriginal weapons were made from stone or wood. This spear is made of stone and reminiscent of the weapons used in ancient times.
Ira Block/Getty Images

Early Aboriginal Australians were hunter-gatherers who practiced no farming techniques and kept no domestic animals. They had limited weapons, mostly made of wood and stone, to help them acquire their food. As in many other communities around the world, the men were the predominant hunters, killing large and small animals such as wallabies, emus and kangaroos. Women made an equal contribution by gathering vegetables, fruits, roots and small game like snakes.

In coastal areas, both men and women dove for shellfish. They also used fibers and ropes to make baskets to catch fish. Coastal indigenous people developed a type of boat that looked like a flattened canoe. Because they were made of brush and bark, these boats would become waterlogged after a period of time. After only a few miles, they would begin to disintegrate altogether.


As we discussed in the last section, the ancient Aboriginal people worshipped their land, and they did everything they could to protect it. In order to preserve the land and its resources, most tribes slept on the ground with no shelter. They hunted only what they needed to eat and gathered only the plants and roots they needed to sustain themselves. According to Aboriginal beliefs, the spirits assigned the land itself to the various tribes. Because of this, there were no territorial wars – if people were on land that didn't belong to their tribe, they would begin to feel the spirits' angry energy, and bad things would begin to happen.

For most of their existence, indigenous Australians didn't wear much clothing. They kept themselves warm by draping themselves in animal pelts that were sewn together. In other areas, they might use what they could find, like animal fat or a clay called ocher, to protect their skin. Women often made necklaces using materials like shells. Their bodies were often canvasses, with charcoal and ocher used as paint.

Man playing a dijeridoo.
An Aboriginal man plays a dijeridoo in Sydney, Australia.
Paul Souders/Getty Images

Music and dance were a large part of the culture, as was storytelling. Elders used all three to tell the stories of the dreamings, give thanks to the spirits and even ask favors like increased fertility or rain. They also created musical instruments, the most famous being the didgeridoo. The creation of a didgeridoo begins when termites hollow out the inside of a piece of wood, and Aboriginal Australians cut the size down to 5 feet. When played, the didgeridoo produces a low hum caused by vibrations. Various tribes use it in formal ceremonies and events. Aboriginal Australians kept up this peaceful way of life for more then 40,000 years. But that all changed once the Europeans colonized Australia.

Colonizing Australia

settlers surrounded by Aborigines
English settlers surrounded by a group of Aboriginal Australians. This is believed to be the earliest photograph taken in Australia. The Aboriginal Australians have already adopted the English style of dress.
Henry Guttman/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

The colonization in the history of Australia was very similar to the colonization of the Americas. In addition to settlers who traveled to America voluntarily, governments used the colonies as prisons. Once the American Revolution began in 1776, the English government needed a new place to send its prisoners, since the American colonies would no longer take them. So in 1788, England sent a crew to Australia, then known as New South Wales, and began building prisons. This would mark the beginning of the fall of the Aboriginal population.

As with the American Indians, the English forced the Aboriginal people off their land. Many were beaten and killed. Others contracted diseases that were foreign to them. Their immune systems couldn't fight these illnesses off, and many people died. Starvation became a major problem – Aboriginal Australians could no longer roam the land where they found their food, and many tribes died out completely.


The English forced many of those who weren't killed into slavery. Women and children did everything from gathering food to cleaning. Many women were also kept as sex slaves.

When the English arrived in 1788, the Aboriginal population was in the hundreds of thousands and possibly into the millions. With the deaths that followed the arrival of the English, the numbers of Aboriginal people dwindled drastically until there was almost no one left.

Unfortunately, over the next centuries things got worse. Besides losing hundreds of thousands of lives, the Aboriginal people also lost much of their culture. They could no longer tell their stories and traditions, and in some cases, there was no one to hear them. History was lost. At the time of colonization, Aboriginal people spoke an estimated 250-300 different languages [source: Suter]. More than half of these have disappeared altogether.

Then, in the early part of the 20th century, white Australians decided the only way to save the Aboriginal people was to assimilate them to their way of life.

Aboriginal Australians in the 20th Century

Aboriginal children.
Aboriginal children were taken from their families and put in institutions for over half of the 20th century. Photo circa 1975.
Keystone/Getty Images

The practice of slavery in Australia didn't end at the same time it did in the United States. There was no war, and there was no proclamation decreeing that all slaves must go free. In fact, slavery didn't end in Australia until the 1970s. However, it did take a different form than it did in the United States.

Beginning in 1910, non-indigenous Australians began to take Aboriginal children from their homes and families. These children, known as the Stolen Generation, were either given to white families – to be raised as white children – or to institutions and orphanages where they were forced to assimilate to white society. Between 1910 and 1970, when the practice stopped, over 100,000 children had been separated from their families and culture [source: Parliament of Australia]


In 1967, following the example of the Civil Rights Movement in America, Aboriginal Australians began to fight for equal rights. The white Australians – the only ones with the power to vote – passed a referendum to the Australian constitution that gave indigenous Australians the right to vote. The passing of the referendum also meant that Aboriginal people could be included in future censuses, officially recognizing them as citizens of Australia.

Aboriginal people are still fighting for equality in Australia today, and racism is still prevalent throughout the continent. The life expectancy of a typical indigenous Australian lags about eight years behind that of a typical white Australian [source: Creative Spirits]. Aboriginal people still don't own most of the land that was taken from them during the colonial period.

Justice for Aboriginal Australians

Over the last two decades, Aboriginal Australians have tried to reclaim what was once theirs. Some of the major turning points were:

  • 1976 - The Aboriginal Land Rights Act was passed, allowing Aboriginal Australians to begin staking claims on land. This turned out to be a double-edged sword, however. In order to win rights to the land, they had to prove that they were the first ones on it. To do this, they had to tell of their history. But as we saw with the Dreamtime, they consider these stories sacred and secret. So, they had to make a choice between betraying their ancestors and taking back their land.
  • 1995 - The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission launched the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, which resulted in recommendations for reparations and equal rights for Aboriginal people. At the time, the Australian government rejected all recommendations and refused to pay compensation [source: Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission].
  • 1999 - The Australian Parliament released a statement stating that they regretted what happened to the Stolen Generation.
  • 2006 - An Australian court granted Aboriginal Australians land rights to almost 2,300 square miles of the major city Perth.
  • 2008 - The Australian government formally apologized to the Stolen Generation of children in order to bridge the gap between Aboriginal Australians and non-indigenous Australians. However, no compensation fund was set up [source: BBC News].

While all of these events helped to usher in equality for Aboriginal people, they by no means left a perfect system in place. In the next section, we'll look at how Aboriginal Australians live today.


Aboriginal Australians Today

Aboriginal man at the train station.
A Aborgine in a modern train station in Sydney, Australia. Many Aborigines live in modern, large cities.
Paul Souders/Getty Images

The 2016 census in Australia showed that the 649,171 people identified themselves as being "of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin," up 18.4 percent from 2011. This represented 3.3 percent of the Australian population, up from 3 percent in 2011. The rapid increase may be due to the fact that Aboriginal Australians have slightly larger families than non-Aboriginal Australians and also that more people may be identifying in this group, particularly those from mixed unions [source: Biddle and Markham].

Also, the number of people speaking an Australian indigenous language at home increased slightly, to 63,754 people from 60,550 in 2011. And the percentage attending high school increased to nearly 60 percent from 51 percent in 2011. Household income had also increased, although it was still only two-thirds of what a non-indigenous Australian would earn [source: Biddle and Markham]. So, although things are improving, there are still glaring inequalities between the races.


Rates of alcoholism are much higher among Aboriginal Australians than other Australians, even though they are less likely to drink alcohol. One study found that 14.8 percent of indigenous men in remote areas consumed alcohol at hazardous levels versus 10.4 percent in non-remote areas. About 30 percent of indigenous Australians live below the poverty line, according to the Australian government, versus 13.6 percent of the population generally. A startling 70 percent of young indigenous Australians (20-24 years) were engaged in neither work nor education.

Many traditional Australians are trying to spread their history to the members of their community who seem to have lost it. They've hired teachers to train students in the traditional Aboriginal languages. Even a few radio and TV stations feature only Aboriginal programming to educate the generations that have had no prior experience with their culture.

And of course, there's Aboriginal art. Their art is world-famous, and many Aboriginal Australians make a living off selling their pieces. Traditionally, they view art much like their dreamings: sacred and secret. Only a select few people, after reaching a proper level of knowledge of Aboriginal history, are permitted to see the artwork. In recent years, though, that's changed, so some artists can make money to support themselves and their families.

Aboriginal art comes in many media: paintings, beadwork, woodwork, bark paintings and baskets. Aboriginal Australians also make and sell the most famous item to come out of Australia: the boomerang. But some art can't be sold – it's on the walls of caves. A famous Australian landmark, Ayers Rock, is one such place. It's an Aboriginal sacred site named Uluru, located near the center of Australia. The rock covers a series of caves. Within those caves are walls and walls of paintings done by Aboriginal Australians to illustrate their dreamings. While people visit Ayers Rock and see the paintings, there's still no way to know what they mean. And the Aboriginal people, for the time being, are keeping it a secret. The rock was closed to tourists in 2019, because of its sacred nature to Aboriginal Australians.

Originally Published: Jan 21, 2008

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Agence France-Presse. "Australian Court Rule That the City of Perth Belongs to Aboriginal people." The New York Times. September 21, 2006.
  • Agence France-Presse. "Australia; $450,000 For 'Stolen' Aborigine." The New York Times. August 2, 2007.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population.
  • Australian Government - Culture and Recreation Portal. "Australian Indigenous Cultural Heritage."
  • Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The Report on the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torrest Strait Islander Children From their Families.
  • BBC News. "Australia Apology to Aboriginal people."
  • Biddle and Markham. "Census 2016: What's Changed for Indigenous Australians?" The Conversation. June 27,2017 (Jan. 17, 2020)
  • Bond, John. "Return to Cootamundra: Healing? For Me That's Impossible, Val Linow Told John Bond." For a Change. December 2005.
  • Dalmau, Tim. "Aboriginal Wisdom, Aboriginal Rights - Australian Aboriginal people." Whole Earth Review. Spring, 1992.
  • Jacobs, Christine. "I Don't Want Your Pity, Just Listen." For a Change. August-September 2005.
  • Jet Magazine. "Australian Parliament Expresses Regret for Injustice to Aboriginal people." Sept. 13, 1999.
  • Marks, Kathy. "Aboriginal people Mark the Day They Became 'Humans.'" The Independent. May 26, 2007.
  • Marks, Kathy. "Cries of Racism Over Plan to Cut Child Abuse in Aboriginal people." The Independent. June 29, 2007.
  • Marks, Kathy. "'Stolen Generation' Aborigine Wins Test Case." The Independent.
  • Oppenheimer, Stephen. " Out of Africa." The Independent. July 9, 2003.
  • Parliament of Australia. "The Stolen Generation."
  • Ravilious, Kate. "Aboriginal people, Europeans Share African Roots, DNA Suggests." National Geographic News. May 7, 2007.
  • Ross, Kate and Taylor, John. "Improving Life Expectancy and Health Status: A Comparison of Indigenous Australians and New Zealand Maori." Journal of Population Research. September 2002.
  • Suter, Keith. "Australia - One Land: Two Peoples." Contemporary Review. August, 2003.
  • Wade, Nicholas. "From DNA Analysis, Clues to a Single Australian Migration." The New York Times. May 8, 2007.
  • Zielinska, Edyta. "Walkabout." Natural History. Sept. 2006.