Aboriginal Australians are the various indigenous peoples of the Australian mainland, Tasmania, and often the Tiwi people. This group contains many distinct peoples that have developed across Australia for over 50,000 years. These peoples have a broadly shared, though complex, genetic history, but it is only in the last two hundred years that they have been defined and started to self identify as a single group. The definition of the term “Aboriginal” has changed over time and place, with the importance of family lineage, self identification and community acceptance all being of varying importance. In the past, Aboriginal Australians lived over large sections of the continental shelf and were isolated on many of the smaller offshore islands when the land was inundated at the start of the inter-glacial. However, they are considered distinct from the Torres Strait Islander people, despite extensive cultural exchange.
Today Aboriginal Australians comprise 3.1% of Australia’s population. They also live throughout the world as part of the Australian diaspora. Before extensive European settlement, there were over 200 Aboriginal languages. However, today most Aboriginal people speak English, with Aboriginal phrases and words being added to create Australian Aboriginal English (which also has a tangible influence of Indigenous languages in the phonology and grammatical structure). They have a number of health and economic deprivations in comparison with the wider Australian community.
A new definition was proposed in the Constitutional Section of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs‘ Report on a Review of the Administration of the Working Definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Canberra, 1981):
An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives.
Membership of the Indigenous people depends on biological descent from the Indigenous people and on mutual recognition of a particular person’s membership by that person and by the elders or other persons enjoying traditional authority among those people.
The category “Aboriginal Australia” was coined by the British after they began colonizing Australia in 1788, to refer collectively to all people they found already inhabiting the continent, and later to the descendants of any of those people. Until the 1980s, the sole legal and administrative criterion for inclusion in this category was race, classified according to visible physical characteristics or known ancestors. As in the British slave colonies of North America and the Caribbean, where the principle of partus sequitur ventrem was adopted from 1662, children’s status was determined by that of their mothers: if born to Aboriginal mothers, children were considered Aboriginal, regardless of their paternity.
In the era of colonial and post-colonial government, access to basic human rights depended upon your race. If you were a “full-blooded Aboriginal native … [or] any person apparently having an admixture of Aboriginal blood”, a half-caste being the “offspring of an Aboriginal mother and other than Aboriginal father” (but not of an Aboriginal father and other than Aboriginal mother), a “quadroon“, or had a “strain” of Aboriginal blood you were forced to live on Reserves or Missions, work for rations, given minimal education, and needed governmental approval to marry, visit relatives or use electrical appliances.
The Constitution of Australia, in its original form as of 1901, referred to Aboriginals twice, but without definition. Section 51(xxvi) gave the Commonwealth parliament a power to legislate with respect to “the people of any race” throughout the Commonwealth, except for people of “the aboriginal race”. The purpose of this provision was to give the Commonwealth power to regulate non-white immigrant workers, who would follow work opportunities interstate. The only other reference, Section 127, provided that “aboriginal natives shall not be counted” in reckoning the size of the population of the Commonwealth or any part of it. The purpose of Section 127 was to prevent the inclusion of Aboriginal people in Section 24 determinations of the distribution of House of Representatives seats among the states and territories.
After these references were removed by the 1967 referendum, the Australian Constitution had no references to Aboriginals. Since that time, there have been a number of proposals to amend the constitution to specifically mention Indigenous Australians.
The change to Section 51(xxvi) enabled the Commonwealth parliament to enact laws specifically with respect to Aboriginal peoples as a “race”. In the Tasmanian Dam Case of 1983, the High Court of Australia was asked to determine whether Commonwealth legislation, whose application could relate to Aboriginal people—parts of the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983 (Cth) as well as related legislation—was supported by Section 51(xxvi) in its new form. The case concerned an application of legislation that would preserve the cultural heritage of Aboriginal Tasmanians. It was held that Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, together or separately, and any part of either, could be regarded as a “race” for this purpose. As to the criteria for identifying a person as a member of such a “race”, the definition by Justice Deane has become accepted as current law. Deane said:
It is unnecessary, for the purposes of the present case, to consider the meaning to be given to the phrase “people of any race” in s. 51(xxvi). Plainly, the words have a wide and non-technical meaning … . The phrase is, in my view, apposite to refer to all Australian Aboriginals collectively. Any doubt, which might otherwise exist in that regard, is removed by reference to the wording of par. (xxvi) in its original form. The phrase is also apposite to refer to any identifiable racial sub-group among Australian Aboriginals. By “Australian Aboriginal” I mean, in accordance with what I understand to be the conventional meaning of that term, a person of Aboriginal descent, albeit mixed, who identifies himself as such and who is recognized by the Aboriginal community as an Aboriginal.
While Deane’s three-part definition reaches beyond the biological criterion to an individual’s self-identification, it has been criticized as continuing to accept the biological criterion as primary. It has been found difficult to apply, both in each of its parts and as to the relations among the parts; biological “descent” has been a fall-back criterion.
Eve Fesl, a Gabi-Gabi woman, wrote in the Aboriginal Law Bulletin describing how she and possibly other Aboriginal people preferred to be identified:
The word ‘aborigine’ refers to an indigenous person of any country. If it is to be used to refer to us as a specific group of people, it should be spelt with a capital ‘A’, i.e., ‘Aborigine’.
While the term ‘indigenous’ is being more commonly used by Australian Government and non-Government organisations to describe Aboriginal Australians, Lowitja O’Donoghue, commenting on the prospect of possible amendments to Australia’s constitution, said:
I really can’t tell you of a time when ‘indigenous’ became current, but I personally have an objection to it, and so do many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. … This has just really crept up on us … like thieves in the night. … We are very happy with our involvement with indigenous people around the world, on the international forum … because they’re our brothers and sisters. But we do object to it being used here in Australia.
O’Donoghue said that the term indigenous robbed the traditional owners of Australia of an identity because some non-Aboriginal people now wanted to refer to themselves as indigenous because they were born there.
Dean of Indigenous Research and Education at Charles Darwin University, Professor MaryAnn Bin-Sallik, has lectured on the ways Aboriginal Australians have been categorized and labelled over time. Her lecture offered a new perspective on the terms urban, traditional and of Indigenous descent as used to define and categories Aboriginal Australians:
Not only are these categories inappropriate, they serve to divide us. … Government’s insistence on categorizing us with modern words like ‘urban’, ‘traditional’ and ‘of Aboriginal descent’ are really only replacing old terms ‘half-caste’ and ‘full-blood’ – based on our coloring.
She called for a replacement of this terminology by that of “Aborigine” or “Torres Strait Islander” – “irrespective of hue”. It could be argued that the indigenous tribes of Papua New Guinea and Western New Guinea (Indonesia) are more closely related to the Aboriginal Australians than to any tribes found in Indonesia, however due to ongoing conflict in the regions of West Papua, these tribes are being marginalised from their closest relations.
Scholars have disagreed whether the closest kin of Aboriginal Australians outside Australia were certain South Asian groups or African groups. The latter would imply a migration pattern in which their ancestors passed through South Asia to Australia without intermingling genetically with other populations along the way.
In a 2011 genetic study by Ramussen et al., researchers took a DNA sample from an early 20th century lock of an Aboriginal person’s hair with low European admixture. They found that the ancestors of the Aboriginal population split off from the Eurasian population between 62,000 and 75,000 BP, whereas the European and Asian populations split only 25,000 to 38,000 years BP, indicating an extended period of Aboriginal genetic isolation. These Aboriginal ancestors migrated into South Asia and then into Australia, where they stayed, with the result that, outside of Africa, the Aboriginal peoples have occupied the same territory continuously longer than any other human populations. These findings suggest that modern Aboriginal peoples are the direct descendants of migrants who left Africa up to 75,000 years ago. This finding is compatible with earlier archaeological finds of human remains near Lake Mungo that date to approximately 40,000 years ago.
The same genetic study of 2011 found evidence that Aboriginal peoples carry some of the genes associated with the Denisovan (a species of human related to but distinct from Neanderthals) peoples of Asia; the study suggests that there is an increase in allele sharing between the Denisovans and the Aboriginal Australians genome compared to other Eurasians and Africans. Examining DNA from a finger bone excavated in Siberia, researchers concluded that the Denisovans migrated from Siberia to tropical parts of Asia and that they interbred with modern humans in South-East Asia 44,000 years ago, before Australia separated from Papua New Guinea approximately 11,700 years BP. They contributed DNA to Aboriginal Australians along with present-day New Guineans and an indigenous tribe in the Philippines known as Mamanwa. This study makes Aboriginal Australians one of the oldest living populations in the world and possibly the oldest outside of Africa, confirming they may also have the oldest continuous culture on the planet. The Papuans have more sharing alleles than Aboriginal peoples. The data suggest that modern and archaic humans interbred in Asia before the migration to Australia.
One 2017 paper in Nature evaluated artifacts in Kakadu and concluded “Human occupation began around 65,000 years ago”.
A 2013 study by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology found that there was a migration of genes from India to Australia around 2000 BCE. The researchers had two theories for this: either some Indians had contact with people in Indonesia who eventually transferred those genes from India to Aboriginal Australians, or that a group of Indians migrated all the way from India to Australia and intermingled with the locals directly.
In a 2001 study, blood samples were collected from some Warlpiri members of the Northern Territory to study the genetic makeup of the Warlpiri Tribe of Aboriginal Australians, who are not representative of all Aboriginal Tribes in Australia. The study concluded that the Warlpiri are descended from ancient Asians whose DNA is still somewhat present in Southeastern Asian groups, although greatly diminished. The Warlpiri DNA also lacks certain information found in modern Asian genomes, and carries information not found in other genomes, reinforcing the idea of ancient Aboriginal isolation.
Aboriginal Australians are genetically most similar to the indigenous populations of Papua New Guinea, and more distantly related to groups from East Indonesia. They are quite distinct from the indigenous populations of Borneo and Malaysia, sharing relatively little genomic information as compared to the groups from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. This indicates that Australia was isolated for a long time from the rest of Southeast Asia, and remained untouched by migrations and population expansions into that area.
Aboriginal Australians possess inherited abilities to stand a wide range of environmental temperatures. Aboriginal people were observed to sleep naked on the ground in below-freezing conditions where the temperatures easily rose to above 40 degrees Celsius during the day. Aboriginal people of Tasmania would sleep in snow drifts wearing only an animal skin. According to National Geographic magazine, it is believed that this ability is due to a beneficial mutation in the genes which regulate hormones that control body temperature.
An much more extensive history of the Aboriginal people of Australia is found elsewhere.
Aboriginal Australians have disproportionately high rates of severe physical disability, as much as three times that of non-Aboriginal Australians, possibly due to higher rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes and kidney disease.
In a study comparing Aboriginal Australians to non-Aboriginal Australians, obesity and smoking rates were higher among Aboriginals, which are contributing factors or causes of serious health issues. The study also showed that Aboriginal Australians were more likely to self-report their health as “excellent/very good” in spite of extant severe physical limitations.
In January 2017, The Lancet described the suicide rate among Aboriginal Australians as a “catastrophic crisis”:
In 2015, more than 150 Indigenous people died by suicide, the highest figure ever recorded nationally and double the rate of non-Indigenous people, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Additionally, Indigenous children make up one in three child suicides despite making up a minuscule percentage of the population. Moreover, in parts of the country such as Kimberley, WA, suicide rates among Indigenous people are among the highest in the world.
The report advocates Aboriginal-led national response to the crisis, asserting that suicide prevention programs have failed this segment of the population. The ex-prisoner population of Australian Aboriginals is particularly at risk of committing suicide; organisations such as Ngalla Maya have been set up to offer assistance.
Another study examining the psycho-social functioning of high-risk-exposed and low-risk-exposed Aboriginal Australians aged 12–17 found that in high-risk youths, personal well-being was protected by a sense of solidarity and common low socioeconomic status. However, in low-risk youths, perceptions of racism caused poor psycho-social functioning. The researchers suggested that factors such as racism, discrimination and alienation contributed to physiological health risks in ethnic minority families. The study also mentioned the effect of poverty on Aboriginal populations: higher morbidity and mortality rates.
One study reports that Aboriginal Australians are significantly affected by infectious diseases, particularly in rural areas. These diseases include strongyloidiasis, hookworm caused by Ancylostoma duodenale, scabies, and streptococcal infections.
Because poverty is also prevalent in Aboriginal populations, the need for medical assistance is even greater in many Aboriginal Australian communities. The researchers suggested the use of mass drug administration (MDA) as a method of combating the diseases found commonly among Aboriginal peoples, while also highlighting the importance of “sanitation, access to clean water, good food, integrated vector control and management, childhood immunizations, and personal and family hygiene”.
Aboriginal Australians suffer from high rates of heart disease. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide and among Aboriginal Australians. Aboriginal people develop atrial fibrillation, a condition that sharply increases the risk of stroke, much earlier than non-Aboriginal Australians on average. The life expectancy for Aboriginal Australians is 10 years lower than non-Aboriginal Australians. Technologies such as the Wireless ambulatory ECG are being developed to screen at-risk individuals, particularly rural Australians, for atrial fibrillation.
The incidence rate of cancer was lower in Aboriginal Australians than non-Aboriginal Australians in 2005–2009. However, some cancers, including lung cancer and liver cancer, were significantly more common in Aboriginal people. The overall mortality rate of Aboriginal Australians due to cancer was 1.3 times higher than non-Aboriginals in 2013. This may be because they are less likely to receive the necessary treatments in time, or because the cancers that they tend to develop are often more lethal than other cancers.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a large number of Aboriginal Australians use tobacco, perhaps 41% of people aged 15 and up. This number has declined in recent years, but remains relatively high. The smoking rate is roughly equal for men and women across all age groups, but the smoking rate is much higher in rural than in urban areas. The prevalence of smoking exacerbates existing health problems such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer. The Australian government has encouraged its citizens, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to stop smoking or to not start.
In the Northern Territory (which has the greatest proportion of Aboriginal Australians), per capita alcohol consumption for adults is 1.5 times the national average. Nearly half of Aboriginal adults in the Northern Territory reported alcohol usage. In addition to the inherent risks associated with alcohol use, its consumption also tends to increase domestic violence. Aboriginal people account for 60% of the facial fracture victims in the Northern Territory, though they only constitute approximately 30% of its population. Due to the complex nature of the alcohol and domestic violence issue in the Northern Territory, proposed solutions are contentious. However, there has recently been increased media attention to this problem.
Modern Aboriginal Australians living in rural areas tend to have nutritionally poor diets, where higher food costs drive people to consume cheaper, lower quality foods. The average diet is high in refined carbohydrates and salt, and low in fruit and vegetables. There are several challenges in improving diets for Aboriginal Australians, such as shorter shelf lives of fresh foods, resistance to changing existing consumption habits, and disagreements on how to implement changes. Some suggest the use of taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages to discourage their consumption, but this approach is questionable. Providing subsidies for healthy foods has proven effective in other countries, but has yet to be proven useful for Aboriginal Australians specifically.
Aboriginal Australian People Groups and Tribes:
Dispersing across the Australian continent over time, the ancient people expanded and differentiated into distinct groups, each with its own language and culture. More than 400 distinct Australian Aboriginal peoples have been identified, distinguished by names designating their ancestral languages, dialects, or distinctive speech patterns. Historically, these groups lived in three main cultural areas, the Northern, Southern, and Central cultural areas. The Northern and Southern areas, having richer natural marine and woodland resources, were more densely populated than the Central area.
A more detailed discussion of the different language and tribal groupings is found elsewhere.
Australian Aboriginal Flag:
The Australian Aboriginal Flag represents Aboriginal Australians. It is one of the official flags of Australia, and holds special legal and political status. It is often flown together with the national flag and with the Torres Strait Islander Flag, which is also an official flag of Australia.
The Australian Aboriginal Flag was designed in 1971 by Aboriginal artist Harold Thomas, who is descended from the Luritja people of Central Australia and holds intellectual property rights to the flag’s design. The flag was originally designed for the land rights movement, and it became a symbol of the Aboriginal people of Australia.
The flag’s width is 1.5 times its height. It is horizontally divided into a black region (above) and a red region (below). A yellow disc is superimposed over the centre of the flag.
In the 2008 proclamation, the flag “is recognised as the flag of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and a flag of significance to the Australian nation generally” and appointed “to be the flag of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and to be known as the Australian Aboriginal Flag”.
The symbolic meaning of the flag colors (as stated by Harold Thomas) is:
Black – represents the Aboriginal people of Australia
Yellow circle – represents the Sun, the giver of life and protector
Red – represents the red earth, the red ocher used in ceremonies and Aboriginal peoples’ spiritual relation to the land
The flag was first flown on National Aborigines Day in Victoria Square in Adelaide on 12 July 1971. It was also used in Canberra at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy from late 1972. In the early months of the embassy—which was established in February that year—other designs were used, including a black, green and red flag made by supporters of the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league club, and a flag with a red-black field containing a spear and four crescents in yellow.
Cathy Freeman caused controversy at the 1994 Commonwealth Games by carrying the Aboriginal flag as well as the Australian national flag during her victory lap of the arena, after winning the 200 meters sprint; only the national flag is meant to be displayed. Despite strong criticism from both Games officials and Australian team president Arthur Tunstall, Freeman carried both flags again after winning the 400 meters.
The decision in 1995 by Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags should be given the status of national flags was opposed by the Liberal Opposition at the time, Opposition Leader John Howard stating that “any attempt to give the flags official status under the Flags Act would rightly be seen by many in the community not as an act of reconciliation but as a divisive gesture”. Nonetheless, since Howard became Prime Minister in 1996 and under subsequent Labor governments, these flags have remained national flags. However, this decision was differently criticized by Thomas himself, who said that the Aboriginal flag “doesn’t need any more recognition”.