What Happened to the Aborigines?
The original inhabitants of Australia, the Aborigines, met the usual fate of widely-scattered native peoples when the white settlers began to arrive and multiply. Their numbers fell drastically. This was not due to any policy of cruelty or repression.
From the start intentions towards them were good. But the vision of the white administrators was not equal to bridging the gulf between the intensely religious and ceremonial native culture, and the materialistic aims of the settlers.
By a natural process-perhaps the result of apathy or despair the number of Aborigines fell from 350,000 in the 18th Century to some 40,000 in the 1930s. But since then, with more sympathy and understanding, their numbers have started to rise again. The main effort is now being directed to stop them becoming a permanently underprivileged minority.
Dispersing across the Australian continent over time, the ancient people expanded and differentiated into hundreds of distinct groups, each with its own language and culture. More than 400 distinct Australian Aboriginal peoples have been identified across the continent, distinguished by unique names designating their ancestral languages, dialects, or distinctive speech patterns.
Historically, these groups lived in three main cultural areas, known as the Northern, Southern, and Central cultural areas. The Northern and Southern areas, having richer natural marine and woodland resources, were more densely populated than the less resource-rich Central area.
There were once about 250 distinct Aboriginal languages, hundreds more dialects, and many more clans and subgroups. But there is deep spiritual and cultural overlap among them, and indigenous Australians. They lived for a couple of thousand generations in small, nomadic bands, as befits a hunter-gatherer existence, moving in their own rhythms about the vast expanse of Australia.
Then on April 29, 1770, British explorer James Cook landed his ship, the Endeavour, on the southeastern shore. The next two centuries were a horror show of cultural obliteration—massacres, disease, alcoholism, forced integration, surrender.
More than a half million Aboriginals currently live in Australia, less than 3 percent of the population. Few have learned to perform an Aboriginal dance or hunt with a spear.
Many anthropologists credit Aboriginals with possessing the world’s longest enduring religion as well as the longest continuing art forms—the cross-hatched and dot-patterned painting styles once inscribed in caves and rock shelters. They are one of the most durable societies the planet has ever known. But the traditional Aboriginal way of life is now, by any real measure, almost extinct.