Australian aborigines, native people of Australia who probably first came from somewhere in Asia more than 40,000 years ago. Genetic evidence also suggests that c.4,000 years there was an additional migration of people who were related to the inhabitants of modern India. In 2001 the population of aborigines and Torres Straits Islanders was 366,429, 1.9% of the Australian population as a whole. The aboriginal population at the time of European colonization in the late 18th cent. has been estimated to have numbered between 300,000 and 800,000. At that time, there were 500–600 distinct groups of aborigines speaking about 200 different languages or dialects (at least 50 of which are now extinct). Although culturally diverse, these groups were not political and economic entities and lacked class hierarchies and chiefs. They lived by hunting and gathering, and there was extensive intergroup trade throughout the continent.
The aborigines have an intricate classification system that defines kinship relations and regulates marriages. The Kariera, for example, are divided into hordes, or local groups of about 30 people, which are divided into four classes, or sections. Membership in a section determines ritual and territorial claims. In half of the hordes the men are divided among the Karimera and Burung sections; in the other half they are divided among the Palyeri and Banaka sections. These sections are exogamous, and rules of marriage, descent, and residence determine how these sections interact: Karimera men must marry Palyeri women, and their children are Burung, and so on. Sons live in the same hordes as their fathers, so the composition of hordes alternates every generation. The complex system, by requiring each man to marry a woman from only one of the three possible sections, fosters a broad network of social relations and creates familial solidarity within the horde as a whole. Aborigines maintain elaborate systems of totemism (the belief that there is a genealogical relationship between people and species of plants or animals). They see the relationship between totemic plants and animals as a symbolic map of the relations between different people.
Contact with British settlers, beginning in 1788, initially led to economic marginalization, a loss of political autonomy, and death by disease. So-called pacification by force culminated in the late 1880s, leading to a massive depopulation and extinction for some groups. By the 1940s almost all aborigines were missionized and assimilated into rural and urban Australian society as low-paid laborers with limited rights; many aborigine children were taken from their natural parents and given to foster parents to promote assimilation.
In 1976 and 1993 the Australian government enacted land-rights legislation that has returned to the aborigines a degree of autonomy, and court decisions in 1992, 1996, and 2006 have recognized aboriginal property and native title rights. The recent increase in aboriginal population reflects improved living conditions and a broad and inclusive definition of aboriginal identity on the part of the government. Their average standard of living and life expectancy, however, are not comparable with that of most Australians. In 1999 the Australian government issued an official expression of regret for past mistreatment of aborigines but, concerned that it would encourage claims for compensation, did not issue the formal national apology sought by aboriginal leaders until 2008, when the government was led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The election of Adam Giles as chief minister of Northern Territory in 2013 marked the first time that an aborigine headed a state-level government in Australia.
See P. S. Bellwood, Man's Conquest of the Pacific (1978); W. Shapiro, Social Organization in Aboriginal Australia (1979); G. Blainey, Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia (1982); S. Bennett, Aborigines and Political Power (1989).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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