Indigenous Australians are members of groups that existed in Australia and surrounding islands prior to European colonisation. The phrase is therefore somewhat broad in scope, including such ethnically diverse groups as Tiwi people, Noongar people, and Torres Strait Islanders, and does not generally imply a close relationship or common origin of all included groups.
The relationship between modern Indigenous Australians and Australia's earliest inhabitants remains a matter of scholarly debate. The earliest definite human remains found to date in Australia are those of Mungo Man, which have been dated at about 40,000 years old, but comparison of the mitochondrial DNA with that of ancient and modern Aborigines indicates that Mungo Man is unrelated to any modern Indigenous Australians. The time of arrival of humans in Australia is also a matter of debate among researchers, with estimates dating back as far as 125,000 years ago.
Recent findings indicate that Indigenous Australians are probably descendants of the first modern humans to migrate out of Africa to Asia, roughly 70,000 years ago, arriving in Australia around 50,000 years ago. The Torres Strait Islanders are indigenous to the Torres Strait Islands, which are at the northernmost tip of Queensland near Papua New Guinea. The term "Aboriginal" is traditionally applied to only the indigenous inhabitants of mainland Australia and Tasmania, along with some of the adjacent islands, i.e., the "first peoples". Indigenous Australians is an inclusive term used when referring to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders.
There is great diversity among different Indigenous communities and societies in Australia, each with its own unique mixture of cultures, customs and languages. In present-day Australia these groups are further divided into local communities. At the time of initial European settlement, over 250 languages were spoken, but it is currently estimated that 120 to 145 of these remain in use, and all but 13 are considered to be endangered. Aboriginal people today mostly speak English, with Aboriginal phrases and words being added to create Australian Aboriginal English (which also shows the influence of Indigenous languages in the phonology and grammatical structure). The population of Indigenous Australians at the time of permanent European settlement has been estimated at between 318,000 and 1,000,000 with the distribution being similar to that of the current Australian population, with the majority living in the south-east, centred along the Murray River.
Since 1995, the Australian Aboriginal Flag and the Torres Strait Islander Flag have been among the official "Flags of Australia".
Men from Bathurst Island, 1939
Though Indigenous Australians are seen as being broadly related as part of what has been called the Australoid race, there are significant differences in social, cultural and linguistic customs between the various Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups.
The word aboriginal has been in the English language since at least the 16th century, to mean, "first or earliest known, indigenous". It comes from the Latin word aborigines, derived from ab (from) and origo (origin, beginning). The word was used in Australia to describe its indigenous peoples as early as 1789. It soon became capitalised and employed as the common name to refer to all Indigenous Australians.
Strictly speaking, Aborigine is the noun and Aboriginal the adjectival form; however, the latter is often also employed as a noun. Use of either Aborigine(s) or Aboriginal(s) to refer to individuals has acquired negative connotations in some sectors of the community, and it is generally regarded as insensitive and even offensive. The more acceptable and correct expression is Aboriginal Australians or Aboriginal people. The term Indigenous Australians, which also includes Torres Strait Islander peoples, has found increasing acceptance, particularly since the 1980s.
Main article: List of Indigenous Australian group names
The broad term Aboriginal Australians includes many regional groups that often identify under names from local Indigenous languages. These include:
Men and boys playing a game of gorri, 1922Koori (or Koorie) in New South Wales and Victoria (Victorian Aborigines);
Ngunnawal in the Australian Capital Territory and surrounding areas of New South Wales;
Goorie in South East Queensland and some parts of northern New South Wales;
Murrdi in Southwest and Central Queensland;
Murri in other parts of Queensland where specific collective names (such as Gorrie or Murrdi) are not used;
Nyungar in southern Western Australia;
Yamatji in central Western Australia;
Wangai in the Western Australian Goldfields;
Nunga in southern South Australia;
Anangu in northern South Australia, and neighbouring parts of Western Australia and Northern Territory;
Yapa in western central Northern Territory;
Yolngu in eastern Arnhem Land (NT);
Bininj in Western Arnhem Land (NT);
Tiwi on Tiwi Islands off Arnhem Land.
Anindilyakwa on Groote Eylandt off Arnhem Land;
Palawah (or Pallawah) in Tasmania.
These larger groups may be further subdivided; for example, Anangu (meaning a person from Australia's central desert region) recognises localised subdivisions such as Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra, Luritja and Antikirinya. It is estimated that prior to the arrival of British settlers, the population of Indigenous Australians was approximately 318,000–750,000 across the continent.
Torres Strait Islanders
Map of Torres Strait Islands
Main article: Torres Strait Islanders
The Torres Strait Islanders possess a heritage and cultural history distinct from Aboriginal traditions. The eastern Torres Strait Islanders in particular are related to the Papuan peoples of New Guinea, and speak a Papuan language. Accordingly, they are not generally included under the designation "Aboriginal Australians". This has been another factor in the promotion of the more inclusive term "Indigenous Australians". Six percent of Indigenous Australians identify themselves fully as Torres Strait Islanders. A further 4% of Indigenous Australians identify themselves as having both Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal heritage.
The Torres Strait Islands comprise over 100 islands which were annexed by Queensland in 1879. Many Indigenous organisations incorporate the phrase "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander" to highlight the distinctiveness and importance of Torres Strait Islanders in Australia's Indigenous population.
Eddie Mabo was from "Mer" or Murray Island in the Torres Strait, which the famous Mabo decision of 1992 involved.
The term "blacks" has been used to refer to Indigenous Australians since European settlement. While originally related to skin colour, the term is used today to indicate Aboriginal heritage or culture in general and refers to people of any skin pigmentation. In the 1970s, many Aboriginal activists, such as Gary Foley, proudly embraced the term "black", and writer Kevin Gilbert's ground-breaking book from the time was entitled Living Black. The book included interviews with several members of the Aboriginal community including Robert Jabanungga reflecting on contemporary Aboriginal culture
Main articles: History of Indigenous Australians, Prehistory of Australia and Australian archaeology
See also: Australian_Aborigines § Origins
Arrival and occupation of Australia
Artwork depicting the first contact that was made with the Gweagal Aboriginal people and Captain James Cook and his crew on the shores of the Kurnell Peninsula, New South Wales
Most scholars date the arrival of humans in Australia at 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, with a possible range of up to 125,000 years ago. Genetic studies appear to support an arrival date of about 44,000 years ago.
The earliest anatomically modern human remains found in Australia (and outside of Africa) are those of Mungo Man; they have been dated at 42,000 years old. The initial comparison of the mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton known as Lake Mungo 3 (LM3) with that of ancient and modern Aborigines indicated that Mungo Man is not related to Australian Aborigines. However, these findings have been met with a general lack of acceptance in scientific communities. The sequence is criticized as there has been no independent testing, and it has been suggested that the results may be due to posthumous modification and thermal degradation of the DNA. Although the contested results seem to indicate that Mungo Man may have been an extinct subspecies that diverged before the most recent common ancestor of contemporary humans, it is generally accepted that the Lake Mungo remains are direct ancestors of present-day Indigenous Australians.[unreliable source?] Independent DNA testing is unlikely as the indigenous custodians are not expected to allow further invasive investigations.
It is generally believed that Aboriginal people are the descendants of a single migration into the continent, a people that split from the first modern human populations to leave Africa 64,000 to 75,000 years ago, although a minority propose that there were three waves of migration, most likely island hopping by boat during periods of low sea levels (see Prehistory of Australia). Aboriginal people seem to have lived a long time in the same environment as the now extinct Australian megafauna.
Genetically, while some Indigenous Australians have a Melanesian and Papuan admixture, most are more closely related to Central and South Asian populations. Research indicates a single founding Sahul group with subsequent isolation between regional populations which were relatively unaffected by later migrations from the Asian mainland. The research also suggests a divergence from the Papuan people of New Guinea and Mamanwa people of the Philippines about 32,000 years ago with a rapid population expansion about 5,000 years ago. A 2011 genetic study found evidence that the Aboriginal, Papuan and Mamanwa peoples carry some of the genes associated with the Denisovan peoples of Asia, suggesting that modern and archaic humans interbred in Asia approximately 44,000 years ago, before Australia separated from Papua New Guinea and the migration to Australia. A 2012 paper reports that there is also evidence of a substantial genetic flow from India to northern Australia estimated at slightly over four thousand years ago, a time when changes in tool technology and food processing appear in the Australian archaeological record, suggesting that these may be related.
Aboriginal people mainly lived as hunter-gatherers, hunting and foraging for food from the land. Although Aboriginal society was generally mobile, or semi-nomadic, moving according to the changing food availability found across different areas as seasons changed, the mode of life and material cultures varied greatly from region to region, and there were permanent settlements and agriculture in some areas. The greatest population density was to be found in the southern and eastern regions of the continent, the River Murray valley in particular.
There is evidence that some Aboriginal populations in northern Australia regularly traded with Makassan fishermen from Indonesia before the arrival of Europeans.
At the time of first European contact, it is generally estimated that the pre-1788 population was 314,000, while recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 500,000 to 750,000 could have been sustained, with some ecologists estimating a population of up to a million people was possible. The population was split into 250 individual nations, many of which were in alliance with one another, and within each nation there existed several clans, from as few as 5 or 6 to as many as 30 or 40. Each nation had its own language, and a few had several.
All evidence suggests that the section of the Australian continent now occupied by Queensland was the single most densely populated area of pre-contact Australia.