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Indigenous Australia



When the north-west of Australia, which was closest to Asia, was first occupied, the region consisted of open tropical forests and woodlands. After around 10,000 years of stable climatic conditions, by which time the Aboriginal people had settled the entire continent, temperatures began cooling and winds became stronger leading to the beginning of an ice-age. By the glacial maximum, 25,000 to 15,000 years ago, the sea level had dropped to around 140 metres below its present level.

Australia was connected to New Guinea and the Kimberley region of Western Australia was separated from Southeast Asia (Wallacea) by a strait approximately 90 km wide . Rainfall decreased by 40% to 50% depending on region while the lower CO2 levels (half pre-industrial levels) meant that vegetation required twice as much water to photosynthesize.

The Kimberley, including the adjacent exposed continental Sahul Shelf, was covered by vast grasslands dominated by flowering plants of the family poaceae with woodlands and semi-arid scrub covering the shelf joining New Guinea to Australia . South/east of the Kimberley, from the Gulf of Carpentaria to northern Tasmania the land, including the western and southern margins of the now exposed continental shelfs, was covered largely by extreme deserts and sand dunes. It is believed that no more than 15% of Australia supported trees of any kind during this period. While some tree cover remained in the south/east of Australia, the vegetation of the wetter coastal areas in this region was semi-arid savannah while some tropical rainforests survived in isolated coastal areas of Queensland.

Tasmania was covered primarily by cold steppe and alpine grasslands with snow pines at lower altitudes. There is evidence that there may have been a significant reduction in Australian Aboriginal populations during this time, and there would seem to have been scattered "refugia" in which the modern vegetation types and Aboriginal populations were able to survive. Corridors between these refugia seem to be routes by which people kept in contact, and they seem to have been the basis for what are now called "Songlines" today. With the end of the ice-age, strong rains returned until the wet season in the north collapsed around 5,500 years ago bringing with it a mega-drought which lasted 1,500 years. The return of reliable rains around 4,000 years BP gave Australia its current climate.

Following the Ice Age, Aboriginal people around the coast, from Arnhem Land, the Kimberley and the south west of Western Australia, all tell stories of former territories that were drowned beneath the sea with the rising coastlines after the Ice Age. It was this event that isolated the Tasmanian Aboriginal people on their island, and probably led to the extinction of Aboriginal cultures on the Bass Strait Islands and Kangaroo Island in South Australia. In the interior, the end of the Ice Age may have led to the recolonisation of the desert and semi-desert areas by Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. This may have been in part responsible for the spread of languages of the Pama–Nyungan language family, and secondarily responsible for the spread of male initiation rites involving circumcision.

Aboriginal Australians were limited to the range of foods occurring naturally in their area, but they knew exactly when, where and how to find everything edible. Anthropologists and nutrition experts who studied the tribal diet in Arnhem Land found it to be well-balanced, with most of the nutrients modern dietitians recommend. But food was not obtained without effort. In some areas both men and women had to spend from half to two-thirds of each day hunting or foraging for food.

Each day the women of the horde went into successive parts of one countryside, with wooden digging sticks and plaited dilly bags or wooden coolamons. They dug yams and edible roots and collected fruits, berries, seeds, vegetables and insects. They killed lizards, bandicoots and other small creatures with digging sticks. The men went hunting. Small game such as birds, possums, lizards and snakes were often taken by hand. Larger animals and birds such as kangaroos and emus were speared or disabled with a thrown club, boomerang, or stone. Many indigenous devices were used to get within striking distance of prey. The men were excellent trackers and stalkers and approached their prey running where there was cover, or 'freezing' and crawling in the open. They were careful to stay downwind, and sometimes covered themselves with mud to disguise their smell.

Frequently disguises were used. Mud also served as camouflage, or the hunter held a bush in front of him while stalking in the open. He glided through water with a bunch of rushes or a lily-leaf over his head until he was close enough to pull down a water-bird. He prepared 'hides' and, with bait or bird calls, lured birds to within grabbing distance. He attracted emus, which are inquisitive birds, by imitating their movements with a stick and a bunch of feathers or some other simple device. Likewise, it was common to use the pelts of animals as a disguise, and imitate them in order to get within striking range of their herd.

Fish were sometimes taken by hand by stirring up the muddy bottom of a pool until they rose to the surface, or by placing the crushed leaves of poisonous plants in the water to stupefy them. Fish spears, nets, wicker or stone traps were also used in different areas. Lines with hooks made from bone, shell, wood or spines were used along the north and east coasts. Dugong, turtle and large fish were harpooned, the harpooner launching himself bodily from the canoe to give added weight to the thrust.

Hunting was frequently organised on co-operative lines. Groups of men combined to drive animals into a line of spearsmen, a brush-fence, or large nets. Sometimes a U-shaped area was fenced and the trapped animals killed. Animals were also trapped in snares, pits, and partly enclosed water-holes. there was a fairly clear division of labour between the sexes in food-collecting, but this was not rigidly maintained. The main concern was to get food. Hunting was arduous, and the men often had to walk, run, or crawl long distances. In poor country the men often returned empty-handed but the women invariably collected something - perhaps only a few roots and tiny lizards - but sufficient to tide the family over. Inland, the quest for water was a life and death matter. They knew all the water holes and soaks in their area. They drained dew, and obtained water from certain trees and roots. They even dug up and squeezed out frogs which store water in their bodies.

European Settlement: In 1770, Lieutenant James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia in the name of Great Britain and named it New South Wales. British colonisation of Australia began in Sydney in 1788. The most immediate consequence of British invasion – within weeks of the first colonists' arrival – was a wave of European epidemic diseases such as chickenpox, smallpox, influenza and measles, which spread in advance of the frontier of settlement. The worst-hit communities were the ones with the greatest population densities, where disease could spread more readily. In the arid centre of the continent, where small communities were spread over a vast area, the population decline was less marked.

The second consequence of British invasion was appropriation of land and water resources. The settlers took the view that Aboriginal Australians were nomads with no concept of land ownership, who could be driven off land wanted for farming or grazing and who would be just as happy somewhere else. In fact the loss of traditional lands, food sources and water resources was often fatal, particularly to communities already weakened by disease. Additionally, Aboriginal Australians groups had a deep spiritual and cultural connection to the land, so that in being forced to move away from traditional areas, cultural and spiritual practices necessary to the cohesion and well-being of the group could not be maintained. Proximity to settlers also brought venereal disease, to which Aboriginal Australians had no tolerance and which greatly reduced Aboriginal fertility and birthrates. Settlers also brought alcohol, opium and tobacco, and substance abuse has remained a chronic problem for Aboriginal communities ever since. The combination of disease, loss of land and direct violence reduced the Aboriginal population by an estimated 90% between 1788 and 1900. Entire communities in the moderately fertile southern part of the continent simply vanished without trace, often before European settlers arrived or recorded their existence.

The Palawah, or indigenous people of Tasmania, were particularly hard-hit. Nearly all of them, apparently numbering somewhere between 2 000 and 15 000 when white settlement began, were dead by the 1870s. It is widely claimed that this was the result of a genocidal policy, in the form of the "Black War". However, such claims are disputed by historian Keith Windschuttle, who claims that only 118 Aboriginal Tasmanians were killed in 1803–47 and that many of these were killed in self-defence. Another scholar, H. A. Willis, has subsequently disputed Windschuttle's figures and has documented 188 Palawah killed by settlers in 1803–34 alone, with possibly another 145 killed during the same period. Such counts do not consider undocumented violence and must be regarded as minimum estimates. It is also claimed, but untrue, that the last Aboriginal Tasmanian was Truganini, who died in 1876. This belief stems from a distinction between "full bloods" and "half castes" that is now generally regarded as racist. Palawah people survived, in missions set up on the islands of Bass Strait.

On the mainland, prolonged conflict followed the frontier of European settlement. In 1834, John Dunmore Lang wrote: "There is black blood at this moment on the hands of individuals of good repute in the colony of New South Wales of which all the waters of New Holland would be insufficient to wash out the indelible stains." In 1838, twenty eight Aboriginal people were killed at the Myall Creek massacre; the hanging of the white convict settlers responsible was the first time whites had been executed for the murder of Aboriginal people. Many Aboriginal communities resisted the settlers, such as the Noongar of south-western Australia, led by Yagan, who was killed in 1833. The Kalkadoon of Queensland also resisted the settlers, and there was a massacre of over 200 people on their land at Battle Mountain in 1884. There was a massacre at Coniston in the Northern Territory in 1928. Poisoning of food and water has been recorded on several different occasions. The number of violent deaths at the hands of white people is still the subject of debate, with a figure of around 10 000 - 20 000 deaths being advanced by historians such as Henry Reynolds. However the methodology behind figures such as this one has been criticized due to the fact that only white deaths were documented in frontier conflicts, forcing historians to estimate a country-wide white-black death ratio in violent confrontations and infer from this the number of Aboriginal deaths. Nevertheless, deadly infectious diseases like smallpox, influenza and tuberculosis were always major causes of Aboriginal deaths. Smallpox alone killed more than 50% of the Aboriginal population. Reynolds, and other historians, estimate that up to 3 000 white people were killed by Aboriginal Australians in the frontier violence. By the 1870s all the fertile areas of Australia had been appropriated, and Aboriginal communities reduced to impoverished remnants living either on the fringes of European communities or on lands considered unsuitable for settlement.

Some initial contact between Aboriginal people and Europeans was peaceful, starting with the Guugu Yimithirr people who met James Cook near Cooktown in 1770. Bennelong served as interlocutor between the Eora people of Sydney and the British colony, and was the first Aboriginal Australian to travel to England, staying there between 1792 and 1795. Aboriginal people were known to help European explorers, such as John King, who lived with a tribe for two and a half months after the ill fated Burke and Wills expedition of 1861. Also living with Indigenous people was William Buckley, an escaped convict, who was with the Wautharong people near Melbourne for thirty-two years, before being found in 1835. Many Indigenous people adapted to European culture, working as stock hands or labourers. The first Australian cricket team, which toured England in 1868, was principally made up of Indigenous players.

As the European pastoral industries developed, several economic changes came about. The appropriation of prime land and the spread of European livestock over vast areas made a traditional Indigenous lifestyle less viable, but also provided a ready alternative supply of fresh meat for those prepared to incur the settlers' anger by hunting livestock. The impact of disease and the settlers' industries had a profound impact on the Indigenous Australians' way of life. With the exception of a few in the remote interior, all surviving Indigenous communities gradually became dependent on the settler population for their livelihood. In south-eastern Australia, during the 1850s, large numbers of white pastoral workers deserted employment on stations for the Australian goldrushes. Indigenous women, men and children became a significant source of labour. Most Indigenous labour was unpaid, instead Indigenous workers received rations in the form of food, clothing and other basic necessities. In the later 19th century, settlers made their way north and into the interior, appropriating small but vital parts of the land for their own exclusive use (waterholes and soaks in particular), and introducing sheep, rabbits and cattle, all three of which ate out previously fertile areas and degraded the ability of the land to carry the native animals that were vital to Indigenous economies. Indigenous hunters would often spear sheep and cattle, incurring the wrath of graziers, after they replaced the native animals as a food source. As large sheep and cattle stations came to dominate northern Australia, Indigenous workers were quickly recruited. Several other outback industries, notably pearling, also employed Aboriginal workers.

In many areas Christian missions provided food and clothing for Indigenous communities and also opened schools and orphanages for Indigenous children. In some places colonial governments provided some resources.

In spite of the impact of disease, violence and the spread of foreign settlement and custom, some Indigenous communities in remote desert and tropical rainforest areas survived according to traditional means until well into the 20th century. In 1914 around 800 Aboriginal people answered the call to arms, despite restrictions on Indigenous Australians serving in the military. As the war continued, these restrictions were relaxed as more recruits were needed. Many enlisted by claiming they were Māori or Indian.

By the end of World War II, many Indigenous men had served in the military. They were among the few Indigenous Australians to have been granted citizenship; even those that had were obliged to carry papers, known in the vernacular as a "dog licence", with them to prove it. However, Aboriginal pastoral workers in northern Australia remained unfree labourers, paid only small amounts of cash, in addition to rations, and severely restricted in their movements by regulations and/or police action. On 1 May 1946, Aboriginal station workers in the Pilbara region of Western Australia initiated the 1946 Pilbara strike and never returned to work. Mass layoffs across northern Australia followed the Federal Pastoral Industry Award of 1968, which required the payment of a minimum wage to Aboriginal station workers, as they were not paid by the Pastoralist discretion, many however were not and those who were had their money held by the government. Many of the workers and their families became refugees or fringe dwellers, living in camps on the outskirts of towns and cities.

In 1984, a group of Pintupi people who were living a traditional hunter-gatherer desert-dwelling life were tracked down in the Gibson Desert in Western Australia and brought into a settlement. They are believed to have been the last uncontacted tribe in Australia.

In 1949, the right to vote in federal elections was extended to Indigenous Australians who had served in the armed forces, or were enrolled to vote in state elections. At that time, those Indigenous Australians who lived in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory were still ineligible to vote in state elections, consequently they did not have the right to vote in federal elections.

All Indigenous Australians were given the right to vote in Commonwealth elections in Australia by the Menzies government in 1962. The first federal election in which all Aboriginal Australians could vote was held in November 1963. The right to vote in state elections was granted in Western Australia in 1962 and Queensland was the last state to do so in 1965.

The 1967 referendum, passed with a 90% majority, allowed the Commonwealth to make laws which discriminated Aboriginal people and those of other races, and for Aboriginal people to be included in counts to determine electoral representation. This has been the largest affirmative vote in the history of Australia's referendums.

In 1971, Yolngu people at Yirrkala sought an injunction against Nabalco to cease mining on their traditional land. In the resulting historic and controversial Gove land rights case, Justice Blackburn ruled that Australia had been terra nullius before European settlement, and that no concept of Native title existed in Australian law. Although the Yolngu people were defeated in this action, the effect was to highlight the absurdity of the law, which led first to the Woodward Commission, and then to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

In 1972, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra, in response to the sentiment among Indigenous Australians that they were "strangers in their own country". A Tent Embassy still exists on the same site.

In 1975, the Whitlam government drafted the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which aimed to restore traditional lands to indigenous people. After the dismissal of the Whitlam government by the Governor-General, a reduced-scope version of the Act (known as the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976) was introduced by the coalition government led by Malcolm Fraser. While its application was limited to the Northern Territory, it did grant "inalienable" freehold title to some traditional lands.

A 1987 federal government report described the history of the "Aboriginal Homelands Movement" or "Return to Country movement" as "a concerted attempt by Aboriginal people in the 'remote' areas of Australia to leave government settlements, reserves, missions and non-Aboriginal townships and to re-occupy their traditional country."[43]

In 1992, the Australian High Court handed down its decision in the Mabo Case, declaring the previous legal concept of terra nullius to be invalid. This decision legally recognised certain land claims of Indigenous Australians in Australia prior to British Settlement. Legislation was subsequently enacted and later amended to recognise Native Title claims over land in Australia.

In 1998, as the result of an inquiry into the forced removal of Indigenous children (see Stolen generation) from their families, a National Sorry Day was instituted, to acknowledge the wrong that had been done to Indigenous families. Many politicians, from both sides of the house, participated, with the notable exception of the Prime Minister, John Howard.

In 1999 a referendum was held to change the Australian Constitution to include a preamble that, amongst other topics, recognised the occupation of Australia by Indigenous Australians prior to British Settlement. This referendum was defeated, though the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the preamble was not a major issue in the referendum discussion, and the preamble question attracted minor attention compared to the question of becoming a republic.

In 2004, the Australian Government abolished The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which had been Australia's top Indigenous organisation. The Commonwealth cited corruption and, in particular, made allegations concerning the misuse of public funds by ATSIC's chairman, Geoff Clark, as the principal reason. Indigenous specific programmes have been mainstreamed, that is, reintegrated and transferred to departments and agencies serving the general population. The Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination was established within the then Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, and now with the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs to coordinate a "whole of government" effort.

In June 2005, Richard Frankland, founder of the 'Your Voice' political party, in an open letter to Prime Minister John Howard, advocated that the eighteenth-century conflicts between Aboriginal and colonial Australians "be recognised as wars and be given the same attention as the other wars receive within the Australian War Memorial". In its editorial on 20 June 2005, Melbourne newspaper, The Age, said that "Frankland has raised an important question," and asked whether moving "work commemorating Aborigines who lost their lives defending their land ... to the War Memorial [would] change the way we regard Aboriginal history."

In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology to the Aboriginal people.