Australian Aborigines

PRONUNCIATION: aw-STRAY-lee-uhn ab-or-RIDGE-in-eez

LOCATION: Australia; Tasmania

POPULATION: Approximately 265,000

LANGUAGE: Western Desert language; English; Walpiri and other Aboriginal languages

RELIGION: traditional Aboriginal religion; Christianity


The original inhabitants of the continent of Australia took up residence there at least 40,000 years before Europeans landed at Botany Bay in 1788. In 1788, the Aborigines were clearly the majority, numbering around 300,000. In the late 1990s, they were a minority struggling to claim rights to their traditional lands. They also seek money for lost lands and resources. Relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia have not been very good. There is a great deal of resentment on the part of many Aboriginal people for the treatment their ancestors received from the European colonists. Australian Aborigines face many of the same problems that Native Americans face in the United States.


Australian Aborigines traditionally lived throughout Australia and on the island of Tasmania. In the Central and Western Desert regions of Australia, Aboriginal groups were nomadic hunters and gatherers. They had no permanent place of residence, although they did have territories and ate whatever they could either catch, kill, or dig out of the ground. In the southern parts of the island continent, winter is cold and Aboriginal populations had to shelter themselves from the cold wind and driving rain.


There were approximately three hundred different Aboriginal languages spoken in 1788. Now, there are only about seventy-five remaining. Some of these, like Walpiri, spoken in and around Alice Springs in the center of the continent, are well established and in no danger of being lost. Walpiri is taught in schools, and a growing body of written literature is produced daily in the language. Other languages such as Dyribal are nearly extinct.

The largest language in terms of number of speakers is called the Western Desert language, 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 there is a kind of English called Kriol that is spoken by Aboriginal people.


Over their long history, a complex and rich Aboriginal mythology has evolved. It has been passed down from generation to generation. This mythology is known as the Dreamtime (Alchera) Legends. The Dream-time is the mystical time during which the Aborigines' ancestors established their world. These myths from ancient times are accepted as a record of absolute truth. They dominate the cultural life of the people.

There are many myths of the Dreamtime. One tells how the sun was made:

Long ago in Dreamtime there was no sun, and the people had to search for food in the dim light of the moon. One day, an emu and a crane started quarreling. In a rage, the crane ran to the emu's nest and snatched one of its huge eggs. She flung the egg high into the sky, where it shattered and the yolk burst into flames. This caused such a huge fire that its light revealed for the first time the beauty of the world below.

When the spirits up in the sky saw this great beauty, they decided that the inhabitants should have this light each day. So, every night, the sky-people collected a pile of dry wood, ready to be set afire as soon as the morning star appeared. But a problem arose. If the day was cloudy, the star could not be seen and no one lit the fire. So the sky people asked the Kookaburra, who had a loud, braying laugh, to call them every morning. When the bird's laugh was first heard, the fire in the sky was lit but threw out little heat or light. By noon, when all the wood was burning, the heat was more intense. Later, the fire slowly died down until the sun had set.

It is a strict rule of the Aboriginal tribes that nobody may imitate the Kookaburra's call, because that could offend the bird and it could remain silent. Then darkness would again descend upon the earth and its inhabitants.


Traditional Aboriginal religion revolves around the Dreamtime. Totems are also 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. For instance, a family or clan may be associated with a certain bird. That bird's nature, whether it is ferocious or peaceful, a bird of prey or a songbird, is associated with the family or clan that uses it as its totem.

The religious world of the Aboriginal Australians is inhabited by ghosts of the dead, as well as a variety of spirits who control certain aspects of the natural world, such as the Rainbow Serpent, who brings rain. Rituals are performed to placate these spirits and also to increase the fertility of certain species of animals that are important to the Aborigines.

Since the colonization of Australia, many Aboriginal people have converted to Christianity, either by choice or through the influence of education in mission schools. For generations, European colonists would remove children from Aboriginal families and send them to Christian schools. This practice was thought to be in the best interests of the Aborigines. Resentment over these kidnappings is still strong.


As part of the larger Australian society, Australian Aborigines can participate in major holidays. Australia Day, January 26, is the equivalent of Independence Day in the United States. This holiday is often the occasion of public protests on the part of Aboriginal people. Many Aboriginal people participated in major protests during the Australian Bicentennial in 1988. Traditional Aboriginal society, however, has no such holidays.


In some Aboriginal societies, there were both male and female rituals that marked the passage from childhood to adulthood.

Death in Aboriginal Australian societies was accompanied by complex rituals. Among the Walpiri 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 a system of sign language. She was not permitted to speak during this period. If a woman chose not to follow these traditions, her husband's ghost could steal her soul, which would lead to her death.


Behavior and interpersonal relations among Australian Aboriginals are defined by family roles. In many Aboriginal societies, certain kinfolk stand in what are called "avoidance relationships" with each other. For instance, in some groups a son-in-law must avoid his mother-in-law completely. Individuals will often change course entirely and go out of their way to avoid meeting a prohibited in-law. In other types of relationships, a son-in-law can only speak to his mother-in-law by way of a special language, called "mother-in-law language." The opposite of avoidance relationships are "joking relationships." These are relationships between potential spouses that typically involve joking about sexual topics.

Aboriginal people find it odd that non-Aboriginal people say "thank you" all the time. Aboriginal social organization is based on a set of obligations between individuals who are related by blood or marriage. Such obligations do not require any thanks. For example, if a family asks to share a relative's food, the relative is obligated to share without any expectation of gratitude in response. Australians often see this Aboriginal behavior as rude.


Health care is a major problem for most Aboriginal people. For rural groups, access to health care may be extremely limited. In precolonial times, they would have relied on traditional health practices to cure illness and limit disease. However, through European influence, many rural societies have lost knowledge of traditional medicine and have come to rely on Western medicine, which is not always available to them.

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. 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. They use them for storage, but usually regard them as too small and too hot for eating, sleeping, or entertaining.


Marriage in traditional Aboriginal societies is complicated. Its customs have interested and puzzled anthropologists for centuries. In many societies, first marriages were arranged. Husbands were often much older than their wives.

Among the Tiwi of the Melville and Bathurst islands off the northern coast of Australia, females 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 understood to be a part of reproduction. However, Tiwi society also required that every individual have a "social father." Social fathers were husbands of children's mothers. They were necessary because the spirits that impregnated the women could not help raise the children.


Australian Aborigines were one of the only groups of people in the world not to wear any type of clothing. Both men and women went naked. Today, of course, things have changed considerably and Aboriginals dress the same as Australians.

12 • FOOD

Since many Aboriginal groups were nomadic hunters and gatherers, they did little in the area of food preparation. Meals were simple, as was their preparation.


Most urban Aboriginal children have the opportunity to attend public school. They often encounter discrimination in the classroom, however. Some communities have developed their own programs to help Aboriginal children succeed in the educational system.

At Yuendumu in central Australia, the Walpiri have a very well developed educational system. It provides both European-style education and education in the areas of traditional language and culture. As is the case for Australians, school is mandatory through the tenth grade. Grades eleven and twelve are optional.


Traditional Aboriginal societies were nomadic. Because of this, they did not value material objects. They also did not develop many musical instruments.

One that is well-known is the dijeridoo, a long tube made from a piece of wood that has been hollowed out by termites. These long trumpets produce a drone that accompanies ritual dancing. Dijeridoos have become popular instruments in modern world music. A few Aboriginal people teach dijeridoo to non-Aboriginal people who want to learn to play it.

In many Aboriginal societies men used a "bullroarer" to frighten women and uninitiated males at ceremonial events. The bull-roarer is a decorated and shaped piece of flat wood. It is attached to a line and swung 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. Unlike their Oceanic neighbors, Australian Aborigines did not use drums.

Dance is an extremely important part of Aboriginal ceremonial life. Many dances mimic the movements and behaviors of animals such as the brolga crane of the northern wetlands. There are several performance troupes in Australia that travel to urban centers to perform both traditional and new dances.


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 large 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 nonreturning boomerangs.

Aboriginal people in urban areas are employed in a variety of jobs. However, gaining employment is often difficult due to discrimination.


Rugby, Australian-rules football (soccer), and cricket are important spectator and participant sports in Australia. Basketball is a fast-growing sport. Aboriginal people play for some of the semiprofessional rugby teams.


In some parts of Australia, Aboriginal people have established their own broadcasting stations for radio and television. These 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 programming for their youth, the youth will turn away from the traditional ways of life. Aboriginal bands also produce music videos for these programs, as well as for distribution to the larger Australian society.


Australian Aboriginal art has been extremely popular on the world art market for some time now. The paintings of "dreamings" from the Central Desert region bring a high price, especially if the artist is one of the well-known Aboriginal artists. In the Walpiri community of Yuendumu, the elders decided to paint the doors of the classrooms of the school with various "dreamings." Boomerangs, decorated with stylistic Aboriginal symbols, are popular with tourists. According to Aboriginal legend, the boomerang was created by the snake, Bobbi-bobbi. According to this tale, Bobbi-bobbi sent flying foxes (perhaps like bats) for men to eat, but they flew too high to be caught. Bobbi-bobbi gave one of his ribs to be used as a weapon. Because of its shape, it always returned to the person who threw it. Using the boomerang as a weapon, men were able to cause the flying foxes to fall to earth. But the men became overconfident in their use of the boomerang, and threw it so hard that it crashed through the sky, creating a large hole. Bobbi-bobbi was angry when he learned of this, and he took back his rib when it fell back to earth.


Keeping the right to pursue traditional ways of life is one of the biggest social problems facing Aboriginal people. To pursue traditional lifestyles, Aboriginal language and folklore must be maintained. Many Aboriginal communities have hired teachers to help in the efforts to preserve the traditional language for future generations. There are more languages in need of preservation, however, than there are teachers willing to help preserve them.

Life in urban areas, where the standard of living is very low, has bred a high level of domestic violence and alcoholism among Aborigines. In an attempt to reverse this trend, some older males have "kidnapped" young men and taken them off to traditional lands. Once removed from the city, they are enrolled in a kind of "scared straight" rehabilitation program. There have been mixed reactions to this kind of behavior, both within Aboriginal society and in the larger Australian society.


Bell, Diane. Daughters of the Dreaming. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Berndt, R. M., and C. H. Berndt. The World of the First Australians. Sydney: Ure Smith, 1964.

Contested Ground: Australian Aborigines Under the British Crown. St. Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1995.

Hiatt, Lester R. Arguments About Aborigines: Australia and the Evolution of Social Anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Holmes, Sandra Le Brun. The Goddess and the Moon Man: The Sacred Art of the Tiwi Aborigines. Roseville East, Australia: Craftsman House, 1995.

In the Age of Mabo: History, Aborigines, and Australia. St. Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1996.

Kohen, James L. Aboriginal Environmental Impacts. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, 1995.


Australian Tourist Commission. [Online] Available , 1998.

Embassy of Australia, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available , 1998.

Wood, Shana. Austalian History. [Online] Available , 1996.

World Travel Guide. Australia. [Online] Available , 1998.

Also read article about Australian Aborigines from Wikipedia

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