How Aborigines Work

An Aboriginal man walks through the Australian outback. Aborigines are the world's oldest continuous culture and have lived in Australia for 40,000 to 60,000 years. See more pictures of Aborigines.
David McLain/Getty Images

The Aborigines of Australia were the first people to set foot on the continent, somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago. The Aborigines' 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. The Aborigines see these spirits in much the same way as Christians view God or Muslims view Allah. However, the Aborigines believe that these spirits are alive within the land of Australia. Because of this, Aborigines 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 Aborigines consider the dreamings to be the absolute truth -- an unquestionable recording of history.

The scientific explanation for how Aborigines 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 [source: The Independent]. A group of geneticists at the University of Cambridge in England built on that research by studying the DNA of Aborigines to determine when they arrived in Australia and from where.

According to Dr. Toomas Kisivild and his team, the Aborigines walked from Africa onto Eurasia [source: National Geographic]. 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, the Aborigines were isolated for thousands of years.

What was life like for early Aborigines, 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

Most Aboriginal weapons were made from stone or wood. This spear is made of stone and reminiscent of the weapons used in ancient times.
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 Australian Aborigines 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 aborigines 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 Aborigines 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, Aborigines also wore no clothes, which is amazing considering how cold parts of the continent can get in the winter. In the colder regions, men and women might keep 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.

Pete Turner/Getty Images The features of this Aboriginal man are typical of the race.
Pete Turner/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 Aborigines cut the size down to five feet. When played, the didgeridoo produces a low hum caused by vibrations. Various tribes use it in formal ceremonies and events.

An Aboriginal man plays a didgeridoo in Sydney, Australia.
Paul Souders/Getty Images


The Aborigi­nes kept it up this peaceful way of life for more then 40,000 years. But that all changed once the Europeans colonized Australia.

Colonizing Australia

English settlers surrounded by a group of Aborigines. This is believed to be the earliest photograph taken in Australia. The Aborigines have already adopted the English style of dress.
English settlers surrounded by a group of Aborigines. This is believed to be the earliest photograph taken in Australia. The Aborigines 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 Aborigines.

As with the American Indians, the English forced the Aborigines 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 -- the Aborigines 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 number of Aborigines was in the hundreds of thousands and possibly into the millions. With the death that followed the arrival of the English, the numbers of Aborigines dwindled drastically until there was almost no one left.

Aborigines offer a group of English visitors a ride in their boat, circa 1870. Not all relations between the two groups were this friendly.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Unfortunately, over the next centuries things got worse before they got better. Besides losing hundreds of thousands of lives, the Aborigines 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, Aborigines spoke an estimated 250-300 different languages [source: Contemporary Review]. More than half of these have disappeared altogether.

Then, in the early part of the 20th century, non-Indigenous Australians (anyone not an Aborigine) decided the only way to save the Aborigines was to assimilate them to the white-Australian way of life.

Aborigines in the 20th Century

Keystone/Getty Images Aboriginal children were taken from their families and put in institutions for over half of the 20th century. Photo circa 1975.
Keystone/Getty Images 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 [sources: Parliament of Australia, The Independent].

In 1967, following the example of the Civil Rights Movement in America, the Aborigines 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 Aborigines the right to vote. The passing of the referendum also meant that Aborigines could be included in future censuses, officially recognizing them as citizens of Australia.

Aborigines are still fighting for equality in Australia today, and racism is still prevalent throughout the continent. The life expectancy of a typical Aborigine lags almost 20 years behind that of a typical white Australian [source: The Independent]. Aborigines still don't own most of the land that was taken from them during the colonial period.

Justice for Aborigines

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

  • 1976 - The Aboriginal Land Rights Act was passed, allowing the Aborigines to begin staking claims on land. This turned out to be a double-edged sword, however. In order to win rights to the land, Aborigines 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, Aborigines consider these stories sacred and secret. Aborigines 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 Aborigines. 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 regret what happened to the Stolen Generation.
  • 2006 - An Australian court granted the Aborigines land rights to almost 2,300 square miles of the major city Perth.
  • 2008 - The Australian government announced its plan to formally apologize to the Stolen Generation of children in order to bridge the gap between Aborigines and non-indigenous Australians [source: BBC News].

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

Aborigines Today

A case of old meeting new: An Aboriginal man stands in traditional dress with a cell phone clipped to his loincloth.
A case of old meeting new: An Aboriginal man stands in traditional dress with a cell phone clipped to his loincloth.
National Geographic/Getty Images

As of 2001, the Aboriginal population had grown to more than 400,000, and it was expected to rise to 470,000 by 2006 [sources: The New York Times, Australian Bureau of Statistics]. But that's still only 2 percent of the population of all of Australia. And although things are improving, there are still glaring inequalities between the races.

For the Aborigines who live in the major cities of Australia, alcoholism and violence are a way of life. Most Aborigines are very poor and have a very low standard of living. Aboriginal Elders are attempting to change violent tendencies in young men by taking them to one of many sacred sites and teaching them the ancient ways of their people. The educational system, which was once segregated, is now open to Aboriginal children, who are encouraged to attend. However, many Aboriginal children drop out at a young age.

The Aborigines who continue to live in the rural areas of Australia -- or the outback -- have tried to keep as much of their tradition and history alive as they can. Australians have attempted to build houses and other types of shelter for them. But for the most part, Aborigines use these structures only for storage.

An Aborgine in a modern train station in Sydney, Australia. Many Aborigines live in modern, large cities.
Paul Souders/Getty Images

Many of these traditional Aborigines are also trying to spread their history to the members of their race 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.

Aborigines create many works of art and sell them around the world.
Penny Tweedle/Getty Images

And of course, there's Aboriginal art. Their art is world famous, and many Aborigines 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 many media: paintings, beadwork, woodwork, bark paintings and baskets. Aborigines 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 the Aborigines 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 Aborigines, for the time being, are keeping it a secret.

For more information on Aborigines, Australia and related topics, see the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


  • Agence France-Presse. "Australian Court Rule That the City of Perth Belongs to Aborigines." 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 Aborigines."
  • Bond, John. "Return to Cootamundra: Healing? For Me That's Impossible, Val Linow Told John Bond." For a Change. December 2005.
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  • Jacobs, Christine. "I Don't Want Your Pity, Just Listen." For a Change. August-September 2005.
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  • Marks, Kathy. "Cries of Racism Over Plan to Cut Child Abuse in Aborigines." The Independent. June 29, 2007.
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  • Oppenheimer, Stephen. " Out of Africa." The Independent. July 9, 2003.
  • Parliament of Australia. "The Stolen Generation."
  • Ravilious, Kate. "Aborigines, 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.
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