The vast majority of the population is of
European, mainly British, origin. The Aboriginal human inhabitants of Australia,
however, came from southeast Asia. Archaeological finds place their first
arrival between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago, when Ice Age water levels
made the crossing less lengthy. Some migrated to Tasmania by a land bridge
that later disappeared; they developed separately. The Aborigines are usually
classified as a distinct race (Australoid) because of anatomical characteristics
that set them apart from the Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid races. Their
livelihood was based on hunting small game and gathering insects, roots,
seeds, and berries. They lived mainly near the north and east coasts. (See
The arrival of Europeans in Australia was a disaster for the Aborigines. When European settlement began in the late 18th century, there were perhaps as many as 1,200,000 Aborigines living in the continent. Many Aborigines were driven away from water holes and hunting grounds, especially in the south and east, and died of hunger and thirst. Many were killed outright. Many died of the new diseases the settlers brought with them. In Victoria an Aboriginal population of more than 10,000 was reduced to 2,000 in 30 years. The last Tasmanian full-blooded Aborigine is thought to have died in 1876. By 1921 the total Aboriginal population in Australia had declined to 60,000. During the 19th century, some Aborigines became a source of cheap labor for settler employers, especially on sheep and cattle stations (i.e., ranches) in the Australian interior, and laws were passed segregating and subordinating the Aboriginal population.
The condition of the Aborigines began to improve in the second half of the 20th century as public opinion swung against the discriminatory policies of earlier times. Most legal restrictions on Aborigines were repealed. Aborigines were made eligible for the same social service benefits as other Australians and efforts were begun to promote the education of the Aborigines. Also, a movement emerged among Aborigines to foster pride in their heritage and to recover lost land rights.
In 1991 there were about 229,000 Aborigines and 29,000 Torres Strait Islanders. They lived in all parts of Australia, but the Aborigines made up a larger proportion of the population in the Northern Territory than anywhere else, while the Torres Strait Islanders were concentrated in Queensland. Few if any still followed the ancestral lifestyle and most were more or less integrated into the modern Australian community. Nevertheless, many Aborigines continued to suffer from poverty, job and housing discrimination, and poor health conditions.
The population of Australia according to
the 1991 census was 16,849,495 (New South Wales, 5,731,926; Victoria, 4,243,719;
Queensland, 2,978,617; Western Australia, 1,586,393; South Australia, 1,400,655;
Tasmania, 452,847; Australian Capital Territory, 280,085; Northern Territory,
175,253). Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory are the most densely
populated areas; the huge desert regions of the Northern Territory and
Western Australia are the most sparsely populated.
In the 1980's the birth rate was 16 per 1,000 population and the death rate 8 per 1,000, giving a rate of natural increase of less than 1 percent. Life expectancy is 79 years for women and 72 for men, compared to 78 and 71 in the United States.
Between 1861 and 1929 immigration accounted for one quarter of the population increase. In 1947 a large-scale immigration program was begun, and by 1990 the Australian-born proportion of the population dropped from 90 percent to 77.5 percent.
Anxious to increase the population rapidly in the postwar years, the federal government formed a series of migration agreements with overseas governments. These provided for financial assistance to immigrants, usually in the form of assisted passages, hostel accommodation on arrival, and instruction in English. Though until 1945 nearly all immigrants were of Anglo-Celtic (English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or Cornish) descent, between the 1940's and early 1970's agreements were negotiated with the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, West Germany, Malta, Spain, Turkey, and Yugoslavia, and the government's goal of maintaining a ratio of at least half of all immigrants being British was not achieved. Though many migrants subsequently returned to their homelands, a sufficient number remained to alter the overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic population of the prewar era. Although the people of Anglo-Celtic ancestry continue to constitute about three quarters of the population, the nation has become a multiethnic mosaic of peoples from other nations. The multicultural influences are obvious -- in the faces on the street, the popularity of restaurants specializing in national cuisines, the rise of soccer (in earlier decades a "migrants" game) to status as a national sport, the growth in numbers of people following the Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist faiths, and the diversity of the foreign-language press.
Although, as noted above, the government wanted at least half of all immigrants to be British, immigrants came from all over Europe and that goal was not achieved. Restrictions on the immigration of nonwhites were lifted in 1973. Since then, immigration from Asia has increased appreciably. In the period 1986-1990, when 635,790 people settled in Australia, immigrants from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Hong Kong made up 22 percent of arrivals. By comparison, the next two largest groups were those from Great Britain and Ireland (19.5 percent) and New Zealand (13 percent). Lesser numbers came from South Africa (3 percent), India (2 percent), Lebanon (2 percent), Yugoslavia (2 percent), the United States (1.5 percent), Poland (1 percent) and Germany (1 percent). Many immigrants -- a total of 460,000 -- have come as refugees, the majority from Europe in the immediate postwar years. A total of 54,976 refugees arrived in the period 1986-1990 under the United Nations convention, about 40 percent from Indochina. By the 1990's Australia was home to peoples of some 150 nationalities.
At the 1991 census, 12,465,640 persons, or 74 percent of the population, described themselves as Christians. The main denominations were Roman Catholic (27.3 percent of identified Christians), Anglicans (23.9 percent), Uniting Church (8.2 percent), Presbyterian (4.3 percent), Orthodox (2.8 percent), Pentecostalist (2.8 percent), Baptist (1.7 percent), and Lutheran (1.5 percent). The non-Christian faiths with the largest numbers of adherents were Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. No religion is established by law or receives state aid.
More than 60 percent of the population lives
in the metropolitan areas of the six state capitals. Since the 1950's,
suburban development adjacent to these cities has further increased the
concentration of population in urban areas. The largest and oldest state
capital is Sydney, New South Wales, with (in 1991) 3,538,970 inhabitants
in its metropolitan area. Following in size are Melbourne, Victoria, with
3,022,157; Brisbane, Queensland, with 1,334,746; Perth, Western Australia,
with 1,143,265; Adelaide, South Australia, with 1,023,617; and Hobart,
Tasmania, with 181,838. All are important seaports and rail, industrial,
financial, and administrative centers. A few other cities are also important.
Newcastle, New South Wales, a port at the mouth of the Hunter River and
the site of a great iron and steel works, had a population of 427,703 in
1991, including the surrounding coal-mining towns, vineyard areas, and
the rich agriculture Hunter River Valley. Wollongong-Port Kembla, New South
Wales, another rapidly growing mining and iron and steel center, had 236,010
inhabitants. Geelong, a port and industrial center in Victoria, had 145,323
inhabitants. Other cities, with their 1991 populations, include Broken
Hill (23,739), a mining center in New South Wales; Townsville (116,554)
and Rockhampton (62,820), both ports and sugar-growing centers in Queensland;
and Launceston (96,441), a thriving commercial town in the north of Tasmania.
In the Northern Territory, the port of Darwin (78,139 inhabitants in 1991)
is the largest town and the administrative center.
The federal capital, Canberra, with 278,894 people in its metropolitan area in 1991, was only a small town four decades earlier. Planned as a model city by Walter Burley Griffin in 1911, it developed slowly before World War II. But after the creation of the National Capital Development Commission in 1956, its growth was very rapid.
Australian Aborigines, the original inhabitants of the Australian mainland and some offshore island groups. They are one of the two indigenous peoples living in Australia, the other being the Torres Strait Islanders. The Aborigines, a dark-skinned people of about the same average height as Europeans, are racially distinct from other peoples. They have accordingly been classified as Australoid, a separate subdivision of humankind. The Torres Strait Islanders, who occupy the numerous small islands of the strait that separates Australia from New Guinea, are, like the peoples of New Guinea, largely of Melanesian origin. At the 1991 census 228,709 people identified themselves as Aboriginal and 28,624 as Torres Strait Islanders. Their number respectively constituted 1.36 percent and 0.17 percent of the Australian population.
Human occupation of Australia probably began
between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago, though dates of up to 100,000 years
ago have been hypothesized. Evidence suggests that the people who became
the Aborigines came from southeastern Asia, probably by raft or canoe.
Whether they arrived over a relatively short period of time or over thousands
of years and whether they came by accident or design are still uncertain.
The original settlers were food gatherers, hunters, and fishers who required a territory centering on a supply of permanent fresh water. When the numbers of a group so increased that the food stores within its range were likely to be eaten out, a subgroup split off to colonize a new territory; in this way, all Australia was eventually occupied. As groups encountered new environments and climates, lifestyles in various parts of the continent eventually adapted to local conditions, which varied widely between the savannas, rain forests, and mangrove swamps of the north; the coral atolls of the northeast coast; the temperate forests, grasslands, and riverine, lacustrine, and estuarine systems of the southeast and southwest; the central and western deserts; and the cold subalpine zones of the far southeast. In time cultures also diversified, resulting in the variegated social, cultural, and linguistic patterns that characterized Aboriginal life when permanent European settlement began in 1788.
Patterns of Aboriginal Settlement
Estimates of the number of Aborigines in
1788 vary. The commonly accepted figure is about 350,000, but some estimates
have ranged as high as between one and two million. It is possible that
epidemics brought by European mariners and traders from Indonesia before
1788 cut a wide swath through the indigenous population. The population
was unevenly spread. It was relatively dense along the fertile northern,
eastern, and southeastern coastal strips and the few constantly flowing
rivers, and sparse in the semiarid and arid regions constituting three
fourths of Australia's surface area.
Each individual group carried on a seminomadic life within its traditional food-gathering area, and except for the ceremonies and trading exchanges that periodically brought groups together, kept largely to its own territory. Groups consequently diverged from one another in language and custom over time. By 1788 there were some 500 distinct groups, each with its own language or dialect, territory, and peculiarities of social organization and custom. Such groups are commonly referred to as tribes, though they lacked the overarching political unity usually associated with that term. The tribe, often consisting of several smaller units generally called clans, was usually known by a single name. The watering hole or some spot not far away was the focal point of each group's activities. It was regarded as the historical home of both the human members of the group and the animals of the area. Myths told how the group's ancestors and heroes discovered the spot, performed significant rituals and exploits there, and perhaps also died there. The historically indefinable period when these activities are thought to have occurred, commonly known as the Dreamtime or Dreaming, remains a source of inspiration and identity for many contemporary Aborigines.
Food-gathering and Tools
Each group had its own body of knowledge
regarding the sources, procurement, and preparation of food. Apart from
taboos on particular foods that some groups observed, most enjoyed a mixed
and relatively abundant diet of plant and animal foods that varied according
to time of year and local environmental conditions. The nutritional and
medicinal properties of the natural resources were well understood; and
technologies were developed to make use of them. Intimate understanding
of their regional resources enabled Aborigines to survive in environments
that European settlers found extremely harsh or uninhabitable.
All Aboriginal manufactures came from nature, and groups traded with each other to obtain raw materials from far away. Stone tool technology was sophisticated. The tool kit contained a range of stone implements, including axes, knives, chisels, gougers, borers, and scrapers. From wood, Aborigines fashioned spears, spear-throwers, boomerangs, throwing sticks, clubs, shields, digging sticks, dishes, fire-making sticks, canoes, musical instruments, and various ceremonial objects. With string spun from vegetable fiber, animal fur, and human hair, they made rope, nets, and net bags; and from bark fiber, reed, palm leaf, and grass they made baskets and fish traps. In cooler areas treated animal skins were stitched together using bone needles, making cloaks and rugs. Fishing hooks and various ornaments were made from shell. Personal ornaments included armbands and headbands; pendants, necklaces, and bracelets, variously made from shell, bone, animal teeth and claws; woven and coiled fiber; and tufts of feather and fur.
As appropriate for a seminomadic people, utensils were best if they were lightweight. Thus stone tools evolved into smaller forms, and larger tools served multiple purposes. The boomerang doubled as a digging stick, club, and musical instrument; the spear-thrower could serve as a chisel when a flint was attached to the handle and as a blade when the edge was sharpened.
Traditional Social Organization
A local group usually consisted of several
families occupying an area -- usually called an estate -- that
served as their home base and that their forebears had owned since the
Dreamtime. Though this was an area of great ritualistic and emotional significance,
a group did not confine itself to its estate. When a group did range across
neighboring estates for food-gathering, trading, or ceremonial purposes,
principles of reciprocity, proprietary rights, and neighborly behavior
Labor was divided along gender lines. Men were the hunters of large game, were warriors, and served as guardians of law and religion. Women gathered plant foods and small game and raised children. Groups were largely egalitarian, possessing neither chiefs nor inherited status. However, the society was gerontocratic. As those who accumulated the greatest knowledge of natural resources and religious lore, middle-aged or older men exercised the greatest authority and enjoyed the greatest prestige. Older women, too, held enhanced authority and prestige.
Social organization was based upon kinship. An individual's relations were grouped into a number of classes. The number varied a little in different regions, but the principle did not: Any person more distantly related than two degrees was usually included in a class named after a closer relation. This was true for both lineal kin (parents, grandparents, children, etc.) and collateral kin (brothers, sisters, cousins, etc.). The makeup of these classes varied from individual to individual. Thus, one class included the individual's mother, the mother's sisters, and her parallel cousins (daughters of women who were her mother's sisters or were reckoned as such). All of these were called "mother" by the individual. And so it was with the classes of father, son, mother's brother, sister's son, and other close relations.
One's class relationship to another person determined the reciprocal behavior of both individuals on all social and ritual occasions, from infancy to old age. Of particular importance was the fact that marriage rules referred to these classes in indicating the tribally preferred marriage (usually between particular types of cousins), permitted marriages, and prohibited marriages.
Tribal organization included totemic clans, membership in which was determined by descent. Many tribes were also divided into moieties (halves); and some had a complex system of division into four or eight sections. They were, like the moieties, named, exogamous, and nonlocalized. Rules governed the intermarriage and descent of sections; these rules were correlated with the marriage rules. Exogamy resulted in a continual splitting and rejoining of groups as members married out into neighboring groups and their descendants of later generations married back in.
The Aborigines lived in continuous contact
with nature and knew it intimately. Nature consequently suffused their
world of thought and artistic expression and was integral to their social
system. The groups into which they were organized, especially clans, were
named after animal species -- emu, kangaroo, eaglehawk, goanna, and
so on. The species was the group's totem, linking it with the Dreamtime,
when all had been created; it was thought of as a relation, being of one
"flesh" with the group. Two people from the same totemic group did not
marry because, being of one "flesh," they would have been too close; nor
did one hurt, kill, or eat one's own totem or flesh. The totem was not
only a fundamental spiritual and social reference point, but was thought
to actively intervene in an individual's life, for example, warning of
danger, providing strength in times of trial, bringing news of a loved
All Aboriginal tribes had secret and sacred totemic rituals. During these, representations of the totemic animals and reenactments of their mythical deeds were central. The myths record the works of the creator beings and ancestors who, often in totemic animal form, had first come to the tribal territory, creating its form, bequeathing to it its population of humans, animals, and plants, and instituting its rituals, laws, and sacred sites. Membership in totemic groups was usually patrilineal. Members were expected to preserve the myths, care for the sacred sites and symbols, and reenact the creative deeds of the ancestral heroes. Such action was thought to ensure that the food sources would multiply in due season and to guarantee the safety and security of the group's future.
Initiation. Knowledge of the myths and ritual was considered so vital that it was kept a secret, to be revealed only to the initiated. All males, generally during their adolescence, passed through a long period of rigid discipline, observation of taboos, and a series of rites. Their fortitude was tested by their being exposed to psychological fears of what might happen to them if they broke tribal laws and through painful experiences such as circumcision, cicatrization, tooth evulsion, and depilation. The central theme of many such practices was ritual death and restoration to life. The protracted period of initiation was followed by gradual admission to the group's secret and sacred knowledge.
One important consequence of initiation was the young men's complete acceptance of the tribal elders, the custodians of the myths and rituals. Their body of knowledge preserved continuity with the Dreaming, and its acceptance by the initiated ensured its transmission to future generations. Only gradually, as middle age came on, did men approach a full understanding of the Dreaming and so qualify to fill positions of religious authority. Moreover, social and moral authority derived its sanction from this religious authority. The gerontocratic control of Aboriginal society thus derived from religious belief.
Magical Rites, "Clever Men," and Healers. The Aborigines understood the world of human events, with its inevitable accidents, injuries, illnesses, and untimely deaths, as being shaped by magical rites. Such events were not regarded as natural or spontaneous but were adduced to sorcery, and were followed by attempts to identify and punish the sorcerer. Among the secret knowledge of each group were chants expressing the wish to injure or kill and rites such as "bone pointing," intended to bring harm to an identified victim.
In some cases a "clever man," a practiced expert in magical rites, could effect a cure by withdrawing the bone or other evil object causing illness. If the sufferer died, he conducted an inquest to identify the group or individual responsible and often succeeded in making a decision acceptable to the group.
In addition to practitioners of magical rites, some individuals treated illnesses with the traditional Aboriginal pharmacopoeia of natural substances.
Art, Music, and Dance
Art, music, and dance were interwoven with
social and religious life. Nocturnal performances of song and dance, now
widely known as corroborees, took place whenever several groups were camped
together. The men, their bodies painted, danced with a marked, energetic
rhythm. The women often formed a chorus to one side, but also had dances
of their own. Singing was usually in unison; but in Arnhem Land, the peninsula
in the Northern Territory where there were songmen specialists, the follow-on
type of harmony and even a fugal structure developed.
Rhythm was kept by beating together resonating clap-sticks, tapping boomerangs together, or by hitting the thighs or buttocks with cupped hands. Traditionally the Aborigines used only one wind instrument, the didjeridu, a hollow piece of wood or bamboo, about 4 or 5 (1.2 or 1.5 meters) long and from 1¹ to 2 inches (3.8-5 cm) in inside diameter. Its range of notes is limited, but it can produce intricate patterns of tone and rhythm. In recent years it has been incorporated into Western music to provide special effects. It is also used by modern Aboriginal rock bands.
Much traditional music is secular, but sacred songs were chanted at ceremonial times. Protracted song and dance cycles, often associated with special events like initiations and funerary rites, were traded from group to group, eventually being performed far from their place of origin. In northern regions particularly these cycles have been maintained, and in recent decades have experienced a resurgence.
The range of visual art is wide. Rock and wood engravings, rock paintings, ground sculpture, body painting, elaborate headdresses, and composite carved and wooden figures are associated with totemic, initiation, and funerary rituals. Weapons, utensils, and ornaments are engraved and painted, the designs often related to Dreaming themes.
Given the vast distances and environmental
diversity of the regions it covered, Aboriginal culture was basically uniform.
Variations in kinship system and social structure were on a common theme;
and so were variations in language. (All the known languages and dialects
belong to one of two major linguistic families neither of which appears
related to languages elsewhere in the world.)
A major grouping, however, can be made on the basis of mythology and ritual. The eastern third of the continent was marked by beliefs in sky culture heroes, by polished stone axes associated with these culture heroes, by tooth evulsion as the main initiation operation, and by the preservation of corpses during the period of mourning.
In the remaining two thirds of the continent circumcision spread fanwise from the northwest as a significant part of initiation. Similarly, a funerary custom involving exposure of the corpse on a tree platform followed by ritual disposal of the bones, appears to have spread from the northwest over much of the western third of the continent; and the mythology of this region centered on totemic heroes who finished their careers in the ground rather than in the sky.
In Arnhem Land unique fertility-mother concepts developed in myth and ritual. It was a mother hero, usually in human form, rather than a male hero, who, according to these concepts, had led her bands of men and women or brought their preexistent spirits into the various tribal countries and by her rituals caused natural species to appear. The wealth of great rituals in this region, some celebrating the death and rebirth of vegetation, is striking.
The Aborigines since 1788. European settlement of Australia from 1788 onward drastically interfered with the Aborigines' economic, social, and religious life. The countryside was taken up by towns, farms, and mining operations. The process of occupation was frequently violent. The Aborigines resisted settlers' encroachments, usually resorting -- as was most practicable in a society based on small, autonomous local groups -- to guerrilla-style raids on outlying homesteads. In some regions, the resistance lasted for years but was eventually broken by the greater number of settlers and the superiority of firearms over spears. The number killed as the frontier moved across the continent is uncertain, but a recent estimate put the figure at 20,000 Aborigines and 3,000 settlers.
More devastating than the massacres was the impact of disease. Smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, measles, influenza, and later, leprosy, all introduced into Australia by the settlers, drastically reduced Aboriginal numbers. The remnants of many dispossessed tribes were reduced to lingering around the settlements, relying on handouts of food and clothing, and subsisting in makeshift camps without sewerage. Their new diet consisted mainly of flour, tea, and sugar. Many became addicted to alcohol and tobacco. Despite the establishment of reservations, usually on unwanted marginal land, and the introduction of paternalistic "protection" legislation, the number of Aborigines continued to decline, hitting a low in 1933 of 74,000. Only in the sparsely occupied semiarid regions did the Aborigines succeed in working out a way of life alongside the sheep and cattle graziers who settled there. In many places, indeed, sheepherding was only possible because of the cheap labor the Aborigines provided. And it was only in the remote deserts and large Arnhem Land reserve that Aboriginal culture survived until the middle of the 20th century, when native artistic and religious traditions were revitalized and redirected.
As their numbers began slowly to increase,
an Aboriginal Advancement (i.e., civil rights) movement developed. Its
aims were to give indigenous peoples, including Torres Strait Islanders,
the full rights and entitlements of citizenship. Until the late 1950's
and early 1960's, the various states denied them these rights, and state
welfare boards adopted assimilation as a goal for eliminating Aborigines'
racial and cultural distinctness. In 1967 the country voted to amend the
constitution to give the federal government jurisdiction over policies
regarding indigenous people, and in 1973 the government established the
Department of Aboriginal Affairs. This agency sponsored or promoted programs
in housing, education, health, land ownership, business, and legal and
administrative reform. In 1991 the department was succeeded by the Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and spent $900 million annually
to support the principle of indigenous self-determination.
The search for better work, education, and health care opportunities, along with the mechanization of farming and herding operations that formerly required the Aborigines' labor, has prompted many Aborigines to move to major cities. The collapse of the pearling industry, which formerly employed many Torres Strait Islanders, has caused many of these people to move to the mainland.
The largest concentrations of indigenous populations today are in cities, often suburbs of low socioeconomic status such as Sydney's Redfern and Mount Druitt. The state with the highest indigenous population is New South Wales (68,941 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, or 1.2 percent of the total). Next is Queensland (67,012 or 2.25 percent); Western Australia (40,002 or 2.52 percent); Northern Territory (38,337 or 21.88 percent); Victoria (16,570 or 0.39 percent); South Australia (16,020 or 1.14 percent); Tasmania (8,683 or 1.92 percent); and Australian Capital Territory (1,768 or 0.63 percent).
As the Aboriginal political movement has gained in strength, it has focused on certain key issues. First is the land rights movement aimed at winning back for particular communities the lands their ancestors once owned. By 1991 a seventh of Australia's land area had come under indigenous ownership. In 1992 the High Court of Australia ruled in favor of a group claiming recognition of their rights of customary ownership of land on Murray Island in Torres Strait. The ruling in this so-called Mabo cause (named after Eddie Mabo, a plaintiff) overturned the legal assumption that Australia had been terra nullius (unowned land) before its occupation by Europeans.
Another controversy has concerned the deaths of indigenous persons in police custody and prison. As a result of a series of such deaths, a commission examined 91 cases between 1987 and 1991 and reported they arose from a background of historical prejudice and dispossession. A National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, formed in response to these findings, was given the task of devising a plan to create harmony between the indigenous and other Australian peoples by 2001. However, separatist sentiment among Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders has given rise to sovereignty movements for both peoples, and each group has adopted its own flag in the last few years.