At the time of first contact with the European colonists in the late 18th century, most Aboriginals were hunter-gatherers with a complex oral culture and spiritual values based upon reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime is at once the ancient time of creation and the present day reality of dreaming. (Also see Aboriginal mythology).
There were a great many different Aboriginal groups, each with their own individual culture, belief structure, and language (approximately 200 different languages at the time of European contact). These cultures overlapped to a greater or lesser extent, and evolved over time. Lifestyles varied a great deal, and the sterotyped image of a proud and naked hunter standing one-legged in the red sand of the central Australian desert cannot be applied across the board. In present-day Victoria, for example, there were two separate communities with an economy based on fish-farming in complex and extensive irrigated pond systems (one on the Murray River in the state's north, the other in the south-west near Hamilton), and trade with other groups from as far away as the Melbourne area.
The Aboriginal population was decimated by British colonization which began in 1788. A combination of disease, loss of land (and thus food resources) and outright murder reduced the Aboriginal population by an estimated 90% during the 19th Century and early 20th Century. A wave of massacres and resistance followed the frontier. The last massacre was at Coniston[?] in the Northern Territory in 1928. Poisoning of food and water has been recorded on several different occasions.
The number of violent deaths at the hands of whites is still the subject of a vigorous and politically-loaded debate, with some figures—notably Prime Minister John Howard—rejecting what Howard terms "the black-armband" view of Australian history. Figures of around 10,000 have been advanced by historians such as Henry Reynolds[?]. Historian Keith Windschuttle[?] claims such numbers are not backed up by documentary evidence, finding evidence existing only for a much smaller number. Reynolds attacks Windschuttle's interpretation of the existing evidence, points out that documented proof that Windschuttle requires is unlikely to be available, and questions Windschuttle's rejection of other forms of evidence such as oral history.
Despite the prominence of the direct violence debate, loss of land was probably more significant as a killer, and there is no doubt that by far the major factor in the decline of Australia's Aboriginal population was disease: in particular, chickenpox, smallpox, influenza, venereal diseases, and measles spread in waves throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Aboriginal people had no understanding of European diseases, and very little of the genetic resistance that Europeans had evolved over the centuries. It is estimated that about 90% of the Aboriginal population decline was the result of disease spreading in advance of the European colonists. As always with infectious diseases, the worst-hit communities were the ones with the greatest population densities where disease could spread more readily. Entire communities in the moderately fertile southern part of the continent simply vanished without trace, often before European settlers arrived or recorded their existence. The large fish-farming economy in south-west Victoria, for example, was entirely unknown to science until the turn of the 21st century, when investigations by a team of archeologists working with and guided by surviving members of a local Aboriginal community began to unearth the foundations of houses and rediscover the irrigation system.
In spite of the decline in their numbers throughout the 19th century, Aboriginal men, women and children became a very important source of labour to the large sheep and cattle stations (i.e. ranches) which came to dominate northern Australia. They were also employed in other northern industries, such as pearling. Aborigines in northern Australia were often forced to work and the term slavery has been used in regard to their employment. They were usually paid only in food and other basic items. This labour system lasted until the pastoral industries began to decline in the late 20th century.
During the first half of the 20th century, native welfare boards were established in the various states. These instituted a policy of separating children from their parents based upon racial stereotyping. Pale-skinned children were forcibly removed, and Aboriginal parents often darkened up their children to keep them. This aspect of Aboriginal history is also open to considerable debate. See Stolen Generation.
Many Aborigines now live in towns and cities around Australia, but a substantial number live in settlements (often located on the site of former church missions) in what are often remote areas of rural Australia. The health and economic difficulties facing both groups are substantial (for instance, life expectancy of Aboriginal people is often 20 years shorter than the wider Australian population) and the root causes and solutions have been, again, contentious politicial issues.
Aboriginal people have succeeded in Australian life through excelling at sport, especially Australian Rules football. For example:
Prominent Aboriginal performing artists and entertainers include:
A generally acceptable indigenous name for most of the 'Australian Aborigines' in New South Wales and Victoria is the term Koori[?] or Koorie. Aboriginal groups in other parts of Australia have their own names, such as Murri[?] in southern Queensland, Noongar[?] (or Nyungah) in southern Western Australia, Nunga[?] in South Australia and Palawa[?] in Tasmania. These names are not "tribal" but refer to the languages spoken by many groups over large areas.