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Indigenous Australians are the original inhabitants of the Australian continent and nearby islands, and these peoples' descendants. Indigenous Australians are distinguished as either Aboriginal people or Torres Strait Islanders, who currently together make up about 2.6% of Australia's population.
The Torres Strait Islanders are indigenous to the Torres Strait Islands which are at the northern-most tip of Queensland near Papua New Guinea. The term "Aboriginal" has traditionally been applied to indigenous inhabitants of mainland Australia, Tasmania, and some of the other adjacent islands. The use of the term is becoming less common, with names preferred by the various groups becoming more common.
The earliest definite human remains found to date are that of Mungo Man which have been dated at about 40,000 years old, but the time of arrival of the ancestors of Indigenous Australians is a matter of debate among researchers, with estimates ranging as high as 125,000 years ago.
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.
Although there were over 250-300 spoken languages with 600 dialects at the start of European settlement, fewer than 250 of these remain in use – and all but 20 are considered to be endangered. Aborigines today mostly speak English, with Aboriginal phrases and words being added to create Australian Aboriginal English.
The population of Indigenous Australians at the time of permanent European settlement has been estimated at between 318,000 and 750,000, 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.
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 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. At present the term refers only to those peoples who were traditionally hunter gatherers. It does not encompass those Indigenous peoples from the Torres Strait, who traditionally practised agriculture.
The word Aboriginal has been in use in English since at least the 17th century to mean "first or earliest known, indigenous," (Latin Aborigines, from ab: from, and origo: origin, beginning), Strictly speaking, "Aborigine" is the noun and "Aboriginal" the adjectival form; however the latter is often also employed to stand as a noun.
The use of "Aborigine(s)" or "Aboriginal(s)" in this sense, i.e. as a noun, has acquired negative, even derogatory connotations in some sectors of the community, who regard it as insensitive, and even offensive. The more acceptable and correct expression is "Aboriginal Australians" or "Aboriginal people," though even this is sometimes regarded as an expression to be avoided because of its historical associations with colonialism. "Indigenous Australians" has found increasing acceptance, particularly since the 1980s.
The broad term Aboriginal Australians includes many regional groups that often identify under names from local Indigenous languages. These include:
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
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
Islanders 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 often been applied to Indigenous Australians. This owes more to superficial physiognomy than ethnology, as it categorises Indigenous Australians with the other black peoples of Asia and Africa. 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.
In recent years young Indigenous Australians – particularly in urban areas – have increasingly adopted aspects of Black American, African and Afro-Caribbean culture, creating what has been described as a form of "black transnationalism."
The Indigenous languages of mainland Australia and Tasmania have not been shown to be related to any languages outside Australia. There were more than 250 languages spoken by Indigenous Australians prior to the arrival of Europeans. Most of these are now either extinct or moribund, with only about fifteen languages still being spoken by all age groups.
Linguists classify mainland Australian languages into two distinct groups: the Pama-Nyungan languages and the non-Pama Nyungan. The Pama-Nyungan languages comprise the majority, covering most of Australia, and are a family of related languages. In the north, stretching from the Western Kimberley to the Gulf of Carpentaria, are found a number of groups of languages which have not been shown to be related to the Pama-Nyungan family or to each other; these are known as the non-Pama-Nyungan languages.
While it has sometimes proven difficult to work out familial relationships within the Pama-Nyungan language family, many Australianist linguists feel there has been substantial success. Against this some linguists, such as R. M. W. Dixon, suggest that the Pama-Nyungan group – and indeed the entire Australian linguistic area – is rather a sprachbund, or group of languages having very long and intimate contact, rather than a genetic linguistic phylum.
It has been suggested that, given their long presence in Australia, Aboriginal languages form one specific sub-grouping. Certainly, similarities in the phoneme set of Aboriginal languages throughout the continent suggest a common origin. One similarity of many Australian languages is that they display mother-in-law languages: special speech registers used in the presence of only certain close relatives. The position of Tasmanian languages is unknown, and it is also unknown whether they comprised one or more than one specific language family.
The consensus among scholars for the arrival of humans in Australia is placed at 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, with a possible range of up to 70,000 years ago. The earliest human remains found to date are that of Mungo Man which have been dated at about 40,000 years old. It is generally believed that the indigenous Australians are the descendants of a single migration into the continent, although a minority propose that there were three waves of migration.
Aborigines lived as Hunter-gatherers. They hunted and foraged for food from the land. Aboriginal society was relatively mobile, or semi-nomadic, moving due to the changing food availability found across different areas as seasons changed.
It has been estimated that at the time of first European contact, the absolute minimum pre-1788 population was 315,000, while recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 750,000 could have been sustained.
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 little as 5 or 6 to as many as 30 or 40. Each nation had its own language and a few had several. Thus over 250 languages existed, around 250 of which are now extinct or on the verge of extinction.
The mode of life and material cultures varied greatly from region to region. The greatest population density was to be found in the southern and eastern regions of the continent, the River Murray valley in particular.
Since British colonisation
British colonisation of Australia began with the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay in 1788. An immediate consequence of colonisation was a pandemic of Old World diseases, including smallpox which is estimated to have killed up to 90% of the local Darug people within the first three years of white settlement.
Smallpox would kill around 50% of Australia's Indigenous population in the early years of British colonisation.
A second consequence of British settlement was appropriation of land and water resources, which continued throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries as rural lands were converted for sheep and cattle grazing.
In 1834 there occurred the first recorded use of Aboriginal trackers, who proved very adept at navigating their way through the Australian landscape and finding people.
During the 1860s, Tasmanian Aboriginal skulls were particularly sought internationally for studies into craniofacial anthropometry.