Contrary to the assertion of most Australian school textbooks published before 1980, Australia was not discovered by Europeans, and certainly not by the intrepid Captain Cook. Australia's first settlers were the Aborigines, who arrived from Asia at least 40,000 years ago, and possibly as early as 100,000 years ago. At that time the sea levels were very much lower than they are today, and the Australian landmass was connected to Papua New Guinea in the north and Tasmania in the south. Nevertheless, the water distance separating what was then Asia from the mainland Australian continent was 100 km at its very shortest. The sea journey necessary to reach and colonize Australia was a remarkable achievement, especially when you consider that early Europeans had not yet reached some Mediterranean islands where the distances involved were a lot shorter. Aborigines had arrived and populated the entire continent millennia before the great expansionary movements of either the Europeans or the Polynesians.

At least 1,800 generations of Aborigines have lived in Australia with a simple but appropriate technology - a stark ordeal to the eight or nine generations of Europeans with their highly inappropriate mechanical and agricultural technologies.

Early Aboriginal Society

Much of the archaeological evidence revealing Aboriginal history comes from places like Lake Mongo, an ongoing living excavation in south-west New South Wales. Sites like this are natural measures because their remoteness and aridity has left the fossil record undisturbed. Lake Mungo used to lie on the edge of a vast inland sea, even at the time of the earliest Aboriginal relics, and huge piles of discarded bones and seashells (known as "middens" found there provide a fairly detailed peek into the daily life of the Aborigines.

Aborigines dwelt in hunter-gatherer societies, following the kangaroos, wallabies, goannas, and fish and collecting "bush food" like witchery grubs, roots, seeds, honey, nuts, and berries. Conditions in Australia seem to have been so favorable and the bounties of nature so prolific that Aborigines never developed permanent agriculture settlements as their cousins in Papua New Guinea did. Their main tools were spears, three types of boomerang, sharpened stones for digging and shaping wood, and a spear-thrower called a woomera. They fished with nets, traps, and hooks. Controlled fires were started to flush game and, it has been suggested, as a land-management practice, since some forests have adapted to periodic bushfires. The remnants of elaborate stone weirs designed to trap fish can be seen in parts of Victoria and New South Wales. In northern Australia's wetlands bamboo-and-cord nets trapped end-of-wet-season fish, while woven nets were employed to snag wallabies and 'roos gallivanting the Queensland tablelands.


Aborigines were telling stories about the land and animals around them long before the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids. Cave paintings of animals and spirits in Australia are at least as old as the earliest example in Europe. The paintings and stories tell how the great spirits made the land, animals, and plants, and how they taught the people to find food, perform ceremonies, dance, sing, paint, and keep the laws.

The spiritual interconnectedness of all living things is very powerful for Aborigines. For example, among some central Australian tribes the Kadaitja, an elder sorcerer who wears boots of emu feathers that leave no tracks, enforces the decisions of the community. He has only to take a certain bone and point it at a miscreant to punish him. "Pointing the bone" will cause an offender to withdraw from the tribe, find a way, and eventually die. In other examples, certain painted images are invested with such power that their misuse can result in the deaths of those to whom the paintings are sacred. Disputes have arisen as recently as 1989, when some sacrosanct tribal designs were incorporated in the decor of the new Parliament in Canberra.

Dreamtime, not merely the ancient period of creation but an ongoing relationship between the land, aborigines, and all living creatures is essential to aboriginal spirituality.

In the Dreamtime, animals spirits exist in human form, an eventually turn into the various animals that we know as kangaroo, snake, and so forth, while the spirits of their human kin remain related to them totemically. To the Aborigines, the Dreamtime is to be acknowledged, honoured, and fortified with ritual.

Family group or individual Aborigines have their own dreaming, which can be a particular plant, animal, place or natural force. Significant laces where dreamtime spirits live or play out their destiny are marked by physical formations such as rocks, water holes, trees, or the shape of the land. These are sacred sited, and recently some of these places have been protected from mining or other developments by legislation.

One Aboriginal leader, describes the Dreaming his way:

 (Indent) Our dreaming in this country travel thousands of kilometers. it comes from the sea in the north to Uluru in the centre, and it spreads out in all directions, east, north, south and west. We relate to other people through the dreaming tracts which form paths among the sacred places, and there is not just one dreaming line, there are many.

The complexity of the dreamtime for most non-Aborigines is not simple but it is obscure. Many aspects of the culture are accessible only by initiation, and taboos forbid some ceremonial and spiritual practices to be discussed. Men and women often had separate and exclusive ceremonies. Non-Aborigines often can only guess at the real significance and experience that underlies the Dreamtime stories. here is a world where giant marsupials carved up the hills, the hills themselves are age-old marsupials frozen in moments of significance, the rivers are the tracts of the rainbow serpent, and the milky way is the river of the sky where, after the rainbow serpent has swallowed the sun, people fish for stingrays and turtle, and the stars are their campfires.

The Southern Cross is an especially significant constellation for all Australians. One Dreamtime myths gives this account of its creation; a father had four daughters. When he was old, he told his daughters that they had no-one else to protect them and that when he died they might have to marry men they did not like. They agreed to meet him in the sky after he was dead. With the aid of a sorcerer, he spun a silver rope from the strand of his hair, and when he died, his four daughters climbed the rope to take up their positions as the four bright points of the Southern Cross. Their father is the brightest of the nearby pointers, Alpha Centauri, still watching over them.   

Aborigines were split up into clans - a practice that still occurs today. Clan members were considered to be descendants of a common ancestor, bound by ritual, tradition, law, and - most importantly - to designated spiritual sites. Their religious belief decrees that, after death, clan members' spirits will return to these sites. Consequently, clan rituals to horror their Dreamtime creation and ancestral spirits happy by protecting the sacred sites (hardly an easy task with white settlers and, later, tourists trampling upon them) or else risk traditional punishments and/or the wrath of the ancestral ones - disasters, sicknesses, and droughts are often signs that the spirits are mighty annoyed. Parts of the Outback contain the harshest and most inhospitable environments on the planet, yet the Aborigines developed an affinity with the land that is a testament to their knowledge and sill. As recently as the mid-1980s, an Aboriginal family arrived at a remote Outback station, never before having had contact with whites. Their only possessions were two stone knives, to rubbing sticks to make fire, a container of dried worms, a boomerang, a spear, a woomera, and a dingo. In contrast, automobile clubs today advise travelers in the same terrain to carry the following equipment in the 4WQD vehicles, long range fuel tanks, water tanks, food for twice the expected stay, to spare wheels and tires, spare battery, tools, medicine, cooking gear, mosquito nets, blankets, maps, compass, and a radio!

Long before Captain cook sailed into Botany Bay and formally "took possession" of their land on behalf of the British Crown, there were 700 Aboriginal tribal groups using some 300 different language. Their population then is estimated at anywhere up to a million people, distributed in subgroups of up to 40. By that time theirs was an ancient, complex culture, rich and finely tuned to the environment. Like their American Indian counterparts, the Aborigines lived in a spiritual communion with the land. Concepts of land ownership (like that icon of European social order - the fence) implicit in Captain Cook's first act of possession, are alien to Aborigines. "We don't own the land," says Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo. "The land owns us."

European Contact

Like white Americans, European Australians have historically accorded the native culture and heritage little or no value. This attitude was encapsulated in the earliest recorded commentary on the Aborigines by a European, the gentleman pirate William Dampier, when he wrote in 1688: "The inhabitants of the country are the Miserablest People In the World ... they are long visaged and of very unpleasing Aspect, having no one graceful Feature in their Faces." The balance and harmony that Aborigines had developed and refined in their world was doomed to destruction with the first contact with land-owning Europeans who quickly "pioneered" beyond their first few coastal settlements. They brought in sheep and cattle, subsequently annihilating the waterholes that the millennia had supported many plants and animals - staples of the Aboriginal diet. Those sheep and cattle started looking mighty tempting to Aborigines, empty bellies growing with hunger. Thus the spears went a-flying, the cow piles hit the fan, and savage retaliation by the settlers left many Aborigines dead. The dispossession of the Aborigines came with brutal suddenness and more from epidemics of introduced diseases to which they had no immunity than from gunfire and violence. Aborigines died by the thousands from smallpox, sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, measles, and influenza, all of which spread rapidly though the nonresistant native community. In addition there was a policy of "dispersal," in which Aborigines were cynically cleared like any other pest from areas valuable to the pastoralists - a sickening practice tantamount to massacre. Aborigines were even hunted "for sport" - an unofficial sport, of course - as recently as the 1950s in isolated parts of Australia.

The Tasmanian example illustrates the deliberate policy of genocide instigated by the invading Europeans. Aborigines wee either killed or simply rounded up and shipped to small island colonies "for their protection," where they died of disease, malnutrition, and mistreatment. Tasmania's Aboriginal population declined from an estimated 4,000 to fewer than 500 between 1800 and 1830. By 1847 only 40 remained. Truganni, the last Tasmanian, died in 1876. Her body was presented and displayed in a museum. Hers was not the only body to receive such ignominious treatment. Scientists in the learned universities of Europe were excited by the search for a "missing link" to demonstrate Darwin's novel theories of evolution, and thought that the Tasmanian Aborigines might prove to be that link. Bodies were purloined from burial sites to enhance the anthropological collectors of facilities from Dublin to Leipzig. In 1803, the governor of New South Wales presented the preserved head of the Aboriginal warrior Pemulwoy to botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who wrote that the head "caused some comical consequences when opened at the Customs House but when brought home was very acceptable to our anthropological collections." Today, the remains of some 3,000 Aborigines, together with objects of immense cultural value, lie moldering in British museums; Aboriginal groups have been negotiating for some time, with little success, to retrieve the bodies for proper burial. (It is most pleasing to say that these particular remains have now been returned 2007).

Not everybody contributed to this genocide. There were well-meaning efforts to help. Reservations were created, rations issued, and religious missions established, many of which are still the focus of Aboriginal settlements today. However, by the beginning f the 20th century, most Aborigines were beggars in their own country, dependent on handouts of food and clothing (without the letter they were not allowed in the white men's towns), or they worked for white bosses without pay. (Not too long ago, I saw a newspaper photo of several Aboriginal entertainers on tour in America. Posing in costume, i.e., nearly naked, they were being presented with brand new suitcases.) While society, if it thought at all about Aborigines, took a paternalistic approach, which resulted in legislation aimed at the "benevolent" protection of an inferior race for tits own good Aborigines were under the control of official gardens in the bureaucracy until very recent times. Children were sometimes taken from their families to be raised within the "civilizing" influence of urban, Christian folk. a form of segregation, with limits to movement, properly restrictions, separate employment conditions, and regulated marriage, has existed in different forms from state to state until the last few decades. In fact, the infamous South African apartheid laws grew in part from the observations of a delegation, early this century, to Queensland, where the treatment of Aborigines was at its worst.

Up until 1939, official policy was still predicated upon the inhuman thesis that the Aborigines were a self-inhuman thesis that the Aborigines were a self-solving -problem, meaning they would eventually die out. It was not until 1967 that Aborigines were granted the vote and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was created by the government to legislate their needs. Australians are traditionally suspicious of attempts to alter the Constitution by referendum, and most referenda fail. So it is to Australia's credit that one of the very few to succeed was this landmark 1967 vote to grant Aborigines the same status as the rest of the community. Too bad it had to take so long. The full humor of the dispossession of the Aborigines is difficult for many Australians to grasp, and there is still an enormous guilt that separates the lives of white Australians from the ugly realities that Aborigines are laboring under even today. 


Lake Mungo, a World Heritage site in the Willandra Lakes region of southwestern New South Wales, is the undisputed badass of Aboriginal archaeological discoveries. Though the lake has been dried up by about 20,000 years, the site itself is an active excavation. Muddy, sandy embankments have eroded with time and weather, unearthing a treasure trove of human and animal remains that date back about 38,000 years. Other relics, such as fireplaces, tools and leftover food (!) provide a good glimpse into the Aboriginal daily life. Once extraordinary find was the 25,000-year-old cremated remains of a young woman - the world's first recorded cremation. Northern Victoria's Kow Swamp has yielded a bounty of 10,000-12,000-year-old remains, while Kelor (near Melbourne and the international airport) has uncovered evidence of human occupation 40,000 years back. a relative baby (maybe 7,000 years old) was dredged up around Lake Nitchie in western New South Wales.

Tools and other artifacts, 20,000-40,000 years old, have been plucked from rock shelters at Mriwun on the Kimberley's Ord River. Mt. Newman in the Pilbara, and Maiangargen in Arnhem land. Significant sites in southwester Australia are the Swan Valley, where the oldest implements have been found, and Devil's Lair, near Cape Leeuwin in the very south-westernmost corner (near good surfing and vineyards). Some of the other petro glyphs (Ice Age rock engravings) are located on the Nullarbor in south Australia's Koonside Cave. Other petroglyph-viewing spots include the Lightning Brothers locale (Delamere, Northern Territory), Early Man shelter (Laura, Queensland), Mootwingee National Park (for western New South Wales), and Bump Peninsula (Dampier, Western Australia). 


Of over 18 million people who live in Australia today, fewer than two per cent are Aborigines. The largest population of Aborigines (about 40,000) is in the Northern Territory where the first land-rights legislation returned some lands to their original owners. Altogether there are some 300 Aboriginal reserves totalling about 286,000 square kilometers. Most Australians seldom ever see an Aborigine, but political pressure from Aboriginal groups means that they are no longer psychologically invisible. Issues like land rights, unlawful discrimination, and Aboriginal deaths in custody are much more likely to gain media attention today than just 10 years ago. Hand in hand with increased political struggle is a renaissance of Aboriginal identity through art, dance, and music. The 1988 Bicentennial celebrations, which marked two hundred years since the establishment of the first penal colony, saw protests and demonstrations from highly visible and vocal Aboriginal groups who tied to point out that the country was a bit older than that. Still, there's a long struggle ahead.

In most states Aborigines make up 25-40% of prison populations, infant mortality among Aborigines is twice the national average; Aboriginal children are affected by serious diseases like trachoma and hepatitis B at rates well above the national average. Aborigines are still more vulnerable to sexually transmittal disease. Aborigines have a life expectancy 20 years below the national average; unemployment among Aborigines is four times the national average, access to education and health services in remote areas, where most Aborigines live, is minimal; racial discrimination, while outlawed theoretically, is a constant reality for many Aborigines. Under these demoralizing conditions many (especially young and middle-aged men) are vulnerable to alcohol abuse, or worse, petrol-sniffing. Not surprisingly, domestic violence follows in the heavy footsteps of substance abuse.

Burt thanks largely to Aboriginal women who have been victimized, many communities now ban booze, and rehab programs have been implemented. Inroads have also been made by the Royal commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which, in its report tot he federal Parliament acknowledged the need for big changes in police practice and the justice system as they pertain to Aborigines. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission (ATSC) created in 1990, authorizes elected aboriginal representatives to give input and exercise some control over a number of federally funded employment and social-works programs.

Land Rights

Advances on the land-rights issue are slow but have gained momentum since the '80s when he Yolngu people of Yimkala in northwestern Arnhem Land had the audacity to present a petition (on a sheet of bark, no less) to the federal government, demanding recognition of their original ownership. As you might imagine, that action was dismissed quickly. but the Yoingu people - a tough-nut bunch - fought the matter all the way to court where (surprise) it was quashed in the Yirrkala Land Case of 1971, wherein the courts upheld the Australian government's credo of terra nullius, i.e., no one had lived in the island-continent before 1788. This outrageously racist stance eventually pressured the government into passing the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976.  Three Aboriginal land Councils were established to reclaim Aboriginal lands, however, the act applied only to the dregs of the Territory, deserts or semi-deserts, nothing within town boundaries or owned or leased by anyone else. Even Kakadu and Uluru-declared exceptions, albeit big exceptions, because the land fell within boundaries already designated as conservation reserves. Thus the lands were handed over with the provision that they were to be leased back to the Australian nature conservation Agency. The Aborigines do, however, constitute a majority of the management board and hold 99-year leases that are renegotiated in five-year increments. The co-managers, intrinsically knowledgeable about the delicate ecology and precious conservation of their formerly sacred sites, are snappy in their ranger uniforms as they give directions to ogling tourists.

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