Australian Aborigines

Citation metadata

Date: 2017
From: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life(Vol. 3: Asia & Oceania, A-K. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Culture overview
Length: 4,504 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1270L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 72

Australian Aborigines

PRONUNCIATION: aw-STRAYL-yuhn ab-bor-RIDGE-in-eez

ALTERNATE NAMES: Aboriginal Australians, Australian Aboriginals

LOCATION: Australia, Tasmania

POPULATION: 631,747 (2011 estimate)

LANGUAGE: English, Wati (Western Desert language), Warlpiri, Tiwi, various Creole and Pidgin tongues (Kriol)

RELIGION: Christianity (primarily Catholic and Anglican), traditional Aboriginal religions

RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Anglo Australians; Asian Australians; Chinese Australians; Indian Australians. Vol. 4: Torres Strait Islanders


Australian Aborigines, the original inhabitants of the continent of Australia, took up residence there at least forty thousand years before Europeans landed at Botany Bay in 1770. They are believed to be the oldest continuous living culture in the world, with origins dating as far back as forty-eight thousand to eighty thousand years ago. Anthropologists suggest that the first Australian Aborigines may have been part of the first human migrations from Africa. The initial residents of Australia arrived by crossing a land bridge that connected Australia to Southeast Asia; beginning about twelve thousand years ago, this land bridge became covered by water, leaving the Australian Aborigines largely isolated except for some interactions with the native peoples of Papua New Guinea.

Australian Aborigines

When the Australian Aborigines first made contact with Europeans in 1770, they had colonized the whole of Australia and Tasmania, becoming a diverse people with broad cultural traditions in the process. By the time the British began their colonization of the Australian continent in 1788, these indigenous people numbered between 750,000 and 1 million. By 1996, however, they had become a minority struggling to claim rights to their traditional lands and financial compensation for lost lands and resources. The history between European colonists and Australian Aborigines resembles, in many ways, the difficult interactions between settlers and indigenous residents around the world. As in many other places, new settlers, upon their arrival, came into conflict with Australian Aborigines, displacing them from their native homelands and often repressing their traditional cultures.

As a result, relations between Aboriginal and nonAboriginal inhabitants of Australia have often been strained throughout much of their shared history, and many Aboriginal people hold a great deal of resentment for the treatment their ancestors received first from European colonists and later from the Australian government. In February 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologized to Aboriginal peoples for their mistreatment by the Australian government in the past. Prime Minister Rudd singled out the “Stolen Generations,” a collection of more than one hundred thousand children who were forcibly removed from their families to attend government-run boarding schools between the late nineteenth century and 1970—a system of forced assimilation based upon allegations of familial neglect. Once placed in these schools, children were punished for speaking their native languages and following their ancestral traditions. While the Australian government has made overtures to its indigenous populations, including instituting social programs intended to preserve Aboriginal cultures and improve their standards of life, Australian Aborigines nonetheless continue to face higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and health issues than the general Australian population.

In 2011 approximately 3 percent of the Australian population was defined as belonging to either of Australia's two distinct indigenous populations, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (see the article titled Torres Strait Islanders ).


Australian Aborigines traditionally lived throughout Australia and Tasmania. Australia and Tasmania are situated south of the equator, so their seasons are the reverse of those in North America. The varied climatic zones gave rise to local cultural adaptations among populations. In the Central and Western Desert regions, for instance, Aboriginal groups were nomadic hunters and gatherers. They had no permanent place of residence, although they did have territories and ate whatever they could catch, kill, or dig out of the ground. The Australian desert is an extremely harsh environment with hot days and cool nights and very few permanent water sources. In the southern parts of the Australian continent, however, winter is cold, and Aboriginal populations had to shelter themselves from the cold, Page 73  |  Top of Articlewind, and driving rain. Although many Aboriginal people move frequently within Australia's borders, very few emigrate permanently. Approximately 28.4 percent of the total population of the Northern Territory was Aboriginal according to the 2011 Australian Census of Population and Housing. This is by far the highest percentage of any Australian state/territory.


Approximately 200 to 300 Aboriginal languages were spoken in 1788 when Captain James Cook claimed the island continent for England. By the start of the twenty-first century, only about 145 Aboriginal languages were still spoken in Australia. Only about eighteen of these, such as Warlpiri, which is used in and around Alice Springs in the center of the continent, are still actively spoken and passed along by a stable population size. Warlpiri is taught in schools, and a growing body of written literature is regularly produced in the language. However, languages such as Dyirbal, which had fewer than ten speakers as of 2005, are dying out. Of the 145 extant Aboriginal languages, 110 are severely or critically endangered. Many languages in this category are spoken only by small groups of people, mostly over the age of forty-nine.

Aboriginal Australian languages differ in structure from Indo-European languages such as English. Linguists believe that almost all of the languages of the Australian continent are linguistically related to one another; however, there is some disagreement about the exact relationship of the language of the Tasmanians, which is now extinct, to other Aboriginal languages. The largest language in terms of number of speakers is a closely related family of dialects cumulatively called Wati (or the Western Desert language), which is spoken by several thousand Aboriginal people in the Western Desert region of the continent.

Most Aboriginal people speak English as their first or second language. In parts of Australia, distinctive kinds of English have developed within Aboriginal communities. In the Northern Territory Aboriginal people speak a kind of English creole language called Kriol.


Australian Aborigines have a large body of folklore and oral history that is often referred to as “the Dreaming” (or “the Dream Time”). This body of verbal art relates humans to the natural and mystical landscape in which they find themselves. The Dreaming is the time when everything came into being, and the rules of social relations and behavior were instituted by ancestral beings. It is the means by which Aboriginal people identify themselves with their territory and their heritage. The Dreaming is also the mechanism by which Aboriginal people claim traditional ownership of land through an intimate display of knowledge of the terrain and its inhabitants. Myths of the Dreaming often have cultural heroes as central characters. These cultural heroes, like those of most cultures of the world, have greatly exaggerated powers.


Traditional Aboriginal religion revolves around the Dreaming, or the Dream Time. Totems are an important part of Aboriginal religious identity. Totems are symbols from the natural world that serve to identify people and their relationships with one another in the social world. These totems defined both social groups, such as clans and lineages, and individuals. The conceptual landscape was inhabited by ghosts of the dead and a variety of spirits who controlled certain aspects of the natural world, such as the Rainbow Serpent, who brought rain. Rituals were performed to placate these spirits and to increase the fertility of certain species of animals that were important.

Since the colonization of Australia, many Aboriginal people have converted to Christianity either by choice or through the influence of educators in mission schools. In 2011, 73 percent of Aborigines listed Christianity as their primary religion; within this group, about one third identified as Catholic, one third as Anglican, and one third as part of another Christian denomination. About 1 percent of Aborigines still followed a traditional Aboriginal religion, with concentrations of traditional practitioners higher in very rural areas. One aspect of the conversion of Aboriginal people to Christianity is that very few traditional elements of Aboriginal spirituality have been incorporated into Aboriginal Christianity, although some Aboriginal Christians use Dream Time practices as part of their Christian rites.


As part of the larger Australian society, Australian Aborigines participate in major holidays. Australia Day, January 26, is the equivalent of Independence Day in the United States, although this holiday often invokes public protests from Aboriginal people. Many Aboriginals participated in major protests on the event of the bicentennial in 1988. Traditional Aboriginal society, however, had no special holidays.

As part of the its process of making reparations for separating families and creating the resulting “Stolen Generations,” beginning in 1998 the Australian government established “Sorry Day” in memory of these events. The event was renamed the National Day of Healing in 2005 and serves to provide a forum for national reconciliation. Special events, such as speeches and marches, are held to commemorate Australia's past dealings with its Aboriginal population.


Some Aboriginal societies had both male and female initiation rituals that marked the passage of the child into adulthood. Male initiation still takes place among groups such as the Aranda in central Australia. Circumcision is an important part of male initiation among this group. Exclusion of young males is also an integral part of the initiation process; however, school schedules have to be taken into account in a modern context.

Death in Aboriginal Australian societies was accompanied by complex rituals. Among the Warlpiri of central Australia, a wife would have to isolate herself from the rest of the community upon the death of her husband. She would live in a “widows’ camp” for a period of one to two years. During that time she would communicate through an intricate system of sign language. She was not permitted to speak during this period of mourning and seclusion. If a woman chose not to follow these traditions, her husband's ghost could steal her soul, which would lead to her death.

An important traditional rite of passage for adolescent boys is the walkabout. In this coming-of-age ritual, boys between the ages of ten and sixteen are sent to live by themselves for up to six months to demonstrate their ability to survive independently in the harsh environment where many Aboriginal cultures make Page 74  |  Top of Articletheir home. Prior to this ritual, young men learn basic survival skills, including hunting, navigating, and finding water. During his walkabout, a young man relies on the spirits to guide his safe passage. Upon his return, he is considered to have passed into manhood.


Behavior and interpersonal relations among Australian Aboriginals are defined by family relations and ancestry. In many Aboriginal societies, certain kinfolk stand in avoidance relationships with one another. For instance, in some Aboriginal tribes a son-in-law must completely avoid either talking to or associating with his mother-in-law. Individuals will often change paths entirely and go out of their way to avoid a prohibited inlaw. In these complete avoidance relationships, the son-in-law must not have any contact with his wife's mother at all. In other types of relationships, a son-in-law can speak to his mother-inlaw only by way of a special language, called a “mother-in-law language.” The opposite of an avoidance relationship is a joking relationship. These are relationships between potential spouses that typically involve joking about sexual topics.

Aboriginal people comment that non-Aboriginal people say “thank you” all the time. Aboriginal social organization, on the other hand, is based on a set of reciprocal obligations between individuals who are related by blood or marriage. Such reciprocal obligations do not require any thanks. If a relative asks to share food, his or her relatives are obligated to do so without any expectation of gratitude. Anglo Australians may misconstrue this type of highly familial behavior as thankless and rude.


Health care is a central problem for most Aboriginal people. For rural groups, access to health care may be extremely limited. In the pre-contact era, they relied on traditional health practices to cure illness and limit disease. Through European influence, many rural societies have lost knowledge of traditional medicine and now must rely on Western medicine, which is often available only sporadically.

Aboriginal people receive a monthly allowance in restitution from the Australian government in the same way that Native Americans receive a monthly payment from the US government. Aboriginal people buy various kinds of goods with this money. Often in rural communities, the majority of the check goes to food in the form of tea, flour, and tinned meat. Some non-Aboriginals visit outstations after the checks are delivered to these communities. They then will set up a type of bank/general store from the back of a utility truck and sell products to the people at extremely inflated prices.

Housing varies between urban and rural Aboriginal people. The national, state, and local governments have encouraged nomadic groups to settle in houses in the European manner, and to this end, they have built houses for some groups that live in the desert regions of Central and Western Australia. Aboriginal people have adapted these structures to their own design, using them as a place to store things but generally regarding them as too small and too hot to actually eat, sleep, or entertain in.


Marriage in traditional Aboriginal societies is a complicated matter that has interested and perplexed anthropologists ever since they encountered the marriage prescriptions of Australian Aborigines. In many societies, first marriages were arranged. Husbands were often much older than their wives. Among the Tiwi of Melville and Bathurst Islands off the northern coast of Australia, female infants were betrothed at birth. Females in this society were always married. This practice was related to the Tiwi belief that females became impregnated by spirits; human males were not active participants in the process of human procreation. Tiwi society also required that every individual needed to have a “social father.” Since the biological father was a spirit and could not provide for the child and since procreation could occur at any time in a female's life, it was necessary to ensure that any child who might be produced would have a social father: the husband of the female.


Australian Aborigines were among the few groups of people in the world to not wear any type of clothing. Both men and women went naked. In the modern era, Aborigines largely follow contemporary styles. Urban Aborigines wear modern clothes appropriate to their age group. Rural Aborigine groups dress like their Anglo Australian neighbors in styles akin to American Western wear. Aborigines from the southeastern coast may wear large blankets made from kangaroo hide to protect them from the cold, wind, and rains that characterize winter in that region.


Since many Aboriginal groups were nomadic hunters and gatherers, they did little in the area of food preparation. Meals were simple. Almost all Aboriginal groups made a conceptual distinction between meat and non-meat foodstuffs. This is reflected in the terminology of the various languages. In Warlpiri, the term kuyu refers to meat or any game animal or bird that is killed for meat. In contrast, the term miyi refers to vegetables or fruit.


Most urban Aboriginal children attend public school. However, they have often encountered discrimination in the classroom, particularly during the colonial era when their languages and traditional rituals were deliberately suppressed. Some communities have subsequently developed their own educational programs to help Aboriginal children achieve better results in the Western-oriented educational system. At Yuendumu in the Northern Territory of Australia, the Warlpiri have a very welldeveloped method of teaching that combines European-style education with traditional language and culture. As is the case for all Australians, school is mandatory through the tenth grade; the eleventh and twelfth grades are optional depending on the state. Some attempts have been made to develop institutions of higher education targeted toward Aboriginal people, mostly in rural areas of the country where their population densities are higher.

Page 75  |  Top of Article

Australian Aborigine dancers perform at Tjapukai Culture Park in Kuranda, Queensland, Australia. Australian Aborigine dancers perform at Tjapukai Culture Park in Kuranda, Queensland, Australia. © EVANTRAVELS/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM. © EVANTRAVELS/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM.


Traditional Aboriginal societies possessed little in the way of material objects due to their nomadic lifestyles. As a result, Aboriginal groups did not have many musical instruments. The most well-known Aboriginal musical instrument is the didgeridoo, a long, hollow tube made from a piece of wood that had been hollowed out by termites. These instruments were traditionally found only among groups in the Top End region of the continent, in the areas around Arnhem Land, Cape York Peninsula, and the Kimberley region. These long instruments produce a characteristic drone that accompanies ritual dancing. Didgeridoos have become popular instruments in the production of modern world music. A few Aboriginal people teach didgeridoo playing to non-Aboriginal people who want to learn.

In many Aboriginal societies men used a “bullroarer” to frighten women and uninitiated males at ceremonial events. The bullroarer is a decorated and shaped piece of flat wood that is attached to a line and swung around and around above a person's head to produce a whirring sound. The sound is usually said to be the voice of important spirits of the land. As opposed to their Oceanic neighbors, Australian Aborigines did not use drums.

Dance is an extremely important part of Aboriginal ceremonial life. Many Aboriginal dances mimic the movements and behaviors of animal species such as the brolga crane of the northern wetlands. Typically, men and women had separate rituals and, as a result, separate dances and dance performances. Several Aboriginal performance troupes in Australia travel to urban centers to perform traditional dances and newly created pieces.


In traditional Aboriginal societies labor was divided according to age and sex. Women and children were responsible for gathering vegetables, fruit, and small game such as goannas (a type of large monitor lizard). Men were responsible for obtaining meat by hunting both large and small game. Men in Aranda society hunted with a variety of implements including spears, spear throwers, and non-returning boomerangs.

Aboriginal people in urban areas are employed in a variety of jobs. However, unemployment rates for Australia's Aboriginal population have often been higher due to discrimination and limited job opportunities. In Australian society a large gap in employment rates exists between Australians and the indigenous Aboriginal population. In 2011 official Australian employment figures showed a 5.5 percent unemployment rate among the general Australian population, while Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders had an unemployment figure of 17.2 percent. A further 23.6 percent of the general labor force population was statistically defined as “not in the labour force” (a number that Page 76  |  Top of Articleincludes people who have elected not to look for work for various reasons); among Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders this rate was 44.1 percent.


Rugby, Australian rules football, and cricket are important spectator and participant sports in Australia, though basketball has been a fast-growing sport as well. Aboriginal people play for several professional rugby teams. Some famous Australian Aborigine athletes include Olympic gold medal–winning runner Cathy Freeman, fourteen-time Grand Slam–winning tennis player Evonne Goolagong, and two-time winner of the Brownlow Medal (the award given to the most valuable player in Australian Football League) Adam Goodes.


In some parts of Australia, Aboriginal people have established their own broadcasting stations for radio and television. These establishments have been most successful in the central region of Australia in and around Alice Springs. In these communities, elders have realized that if they do not provide alternative programming for their youth, they will turn away from the traditional ways of life under the influence of American and Australian television programs. Aboriginal bands produce music videos for these programs and for distribution to the larger society.


Australian Aboriginal art has become increasingly extremely popular on the world art market. The pointillist acrylic paintings of “dreamings” from the Central Desert region bring a high price, especially if the artist was a well-known Aboriginal artist such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Tommy Lowry Tjapaltjarri, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and Rover Thomas. In the Warlpiri community of Yuendumu, the elders decided to paint the doors of the classrooms of the school with various dreamings.

There are regional differences in the art of Aboriginal Australia. Arnhem Land in the northern part of the Northern Territory is renowned for bark painting (in which images are painted onto the interior portion of tree bark), weaving, rock art, and sculpture. The use of crosshatched patterns is also a distinctive characteristic of Aboriginal art from Arnhem Land. The art of some subregions within Arnhem Land may showcase distinct characteristics, thereby demonstrating the complexity and variation in traditional Aboriginal artistic expression even within a small area.


The need to preserve their traditional lifestyles is one of the biggest social problems facing Australian Aboriginals. To preserve traditional lifestyles, language and folklore must be maintained in the face of societal pressures to modernize and a majority culture that threatens to overwhelm traditional customs and rites. Many Aboriginal communities have hired linguist-teachers to help sustain their traditional languages for future generations; however, many critically endangered languages do not have teachers fluent enough in these tongues to secure their passage to a new generation.

Life in urban areas—where the standard of living can be very low and prospects for further education and meaningful employment may be minimal—has fostered higher incidences of domestic violence and alcoholism among Australian Aborigines. In an attempt to reverse these trends, some older males have “kidnapped” young men and taken them to traditional lands to participate, involuntarily, in rehabilitation programs that rely upon traditional practices. There have been mixed reactions to this kind of behavior, within both Aboriginal society and the larger Australian society as a whole.

Australian Aborigines lag behind the Australian population in many social indicators. In 2008 twice as many Aborigines were likely to report their health as only “fair” or “poor” when compared to the general Australian population. The indigenous residents of Australia had a life expectancy that was, on average, seventeen years below that of other Australians. Aborigines earned approximately 62 percent of the income of a typical Australian. Moreover, despite comprising just 3 percent of the Australian population, Aborigines represented 24 percent of the country's prison population. With the exception of the prison population statistics, these numbers reflected gains over previous studies of the welfare of Aboriginal Australians, but they nonetheless reveal heightened social problems when compared to the general Australian population.


Most Aboriginal societies recognize two genders: male and female. Some Aboriginal languages encode gender grammatically through a system of noun classes. While somewhat similar to the use of gender in many Indo-European languages, the Aboriginal systems are more complex and have provided interesting semantic relationships. For instance, in the Dyirbal language, which was once spoken in far northern Queensland, there were four noun classes. The first class included men and animate objects. The second class included women, water, fire, and violence, all of which were considered dangerous by the Dyirbal. The third class was composed of edible fruits and vegetables, and the fourth class included everything that was not incorporated into the first three classes.

In traditional Aboriginal ritual and social life, males and females were sharply demarcated and differentiated along gender lines. Any ritual that was considered sacred and secret to one gender was kept secret from the other. There were strict punishments for any females who violated these traditions. While the punishments were less extreme for men, they would nonetheless typically avoid going near female rituals out of respect for tradition.

In social life, gender and kinship also dictated behavior and decorum. There are precise rules that govern the interactions of men and women who are related to each other either by blood or marriage. To avoid contravening these rules, men and women tend to gather together in gender-exclusive groups when in public places.

For groups like the Martu of Western Australia, the strong egalitarian nature of the society means that men and women feel equally able to make decisions and express opinions on most matters important to the well-being of the group. However, this does not mean that women and men have equal rights. For instance, women are not free to divorce their husbands, to have more than one husband at a time, or to engage in “husband-lending.” Martu men, on the other hand, are free to divorce their wives, have more than one wife at a time, and engage in “wife-lending.” Older male relatives often make major decisions Page 77  |  Top of Articlethat will affect the lives of women, the most influential being infant betrothal. Infant betrothal is a social practice in which an older male relative establishes an arranged marriage for female children when they are babies, although the formal marriage does not take place until the girl attains puberty. The practice typically results in young girls’ marriage to much older men.


“Aboriginal People.” Survival International. (accessed July 6, 2016).

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.” Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Government. (accessed July 6, 2016).

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Labour Force Outcomes.” Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Government, November 2013. (accessed July 6, 2016).

“Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples.” Australian Government. (accessed August 7, 2016).

“Australia.” The World Factbook. US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (accessed July 6, 2016).

“Australian Indigenous Cultural Heritage.” Australian Government. (accessed July 6, 2016).

“A Brief Aboriginal History.” Aboriginal Heritage Office. (accessed July 6, 2016).

Broome, Richard. Aboriginal Australians: A History since 1788, 4th ed. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010.

“Cultural Heritage.” Australian Museum, October 30, 2015. (accessed July 6, 2016).

Faulkner, Joanne. “‘Our Own Hurricane Katrina’: Aboriginal Disadvantage and Australian National Identity.” National Identities 17, no. 2 (2015): 117–135. doi: 10.1080/14608944.2015.1019205

Finkel, Michael. “Australia's Aboriginals: First Australians.” National Geographic, June 2013. (accessed July 6, 2016).

Gammage, Bill. The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2013.

Horton, David R. “AIATSIS Map of Aboriginal Australia.” Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). (accessed July 6, 2016).

Japingka Gallery. “Facts about Aboriginal Art.” Japingka Gallery, 2014. (accessed July 6, 2016).

Maynard, John. “Contested Space—The Australian Aboriginal Sporting Arena.” Sport in Society 15, no. 7 (2012): 987–996. doi: 10.1080/17430437.2012.723368

McKenna, Mark. “Transplanted to Savage Shores: Indigenous Australians and British Birthright in the Mid NineteenthCentury Australian Colonies.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 13, no. 1 (2012): 987–996. doi: 10.1353 /cch.2012.0009

O'Faircheallaigh, Ciaran. “Social Justice, Aboriginal Leadership, and Mineral Development in Australia.” In A Twenty-first Century Approach to Teaching Social Justice: Educating for Both Advocacy and Action, edited by Richard Greggory Johnson III, 207–230. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009.

“Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage.” Productivity Commission, Australian Government, 2014. (accessed July 6, 2016).

“Sorry Day and the Stolen Generations.” Australian Stories, Australian Government, May 20, 2015. (accessed July 6, 2016).

“A Statistical Overview of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Australia: Social Justice Report 2008.” Australian Human Rights Commission. (accessed July 6, 2016).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3648200255