Australia’s first people—known as Aboriginal Australians—have lived on the continent for over 50,000 years. Today, there are 250 distinct language groups spread throughout Australia. Aboriginal Australians are split into two groups: Aboriginal peoples, who are related to those who already inhabited Australia when Britain began colonizing the island in 1788, and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who descend from residents of the Torres Strait Islands, a group of islands that is part of modern-day Queensland, Australia.
All Aboriginal Australians are related to groups indigenous to Australia. However, the use of the term indigenous is controversial, since it can be claimed by people who descend from people who weren’t the original inhabitants of the island. Legally, “Aboriginal Australian” is recognized as “a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he [or she] lives.”
In 2017, a genetic study of the genomes of 111 Aboriginal Australians found that today’s Aboriginal Australians are all related to a common ancestor who was a member of a distinct population that emerged on the mainland about 50,000 years ago. Humans are thought to have migrated to Northern Australia from Asia using primitive boats. A current theory holds that those early migrants themselves came out of Africa about 70,000 years ago, which would make Aboriginal Australians the oldest population of humans living outside Africa.
When British settlers began colonizing Australia in 1788, between 750,000 and 1.25 Aboriginal Australians are estimated to have lived there. Soon, epidemics ravaged the island’s indigenous people, and British settlers seized Aboriginal lands.
Though some Aboriginal Australians did resist—up to 20,000 indigenous people died in violent conflict on the colony’s frontiers—most were subjugated by massacres and the impoverishment of their communities as British settlers seized their lands.
The Stolen Generations
Between 1910 and 1970, government policies of assimilation led to between 10 and 33 percent of Aboriginal Australian children being forcibly removed from their homes. These “Stolen Generations” were put in adoptive families and institutions and forbidden from speaking their native languages. Their names were often changed.
In 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a national apology for the country’s actions toward Aboriginal Australians of the Stolen Generations; since then, Australia has worked to reduce social disparities between Aboriginal Australians and non-indigenous Australians.
Only in 1967 did Australians vote that federal laws also would apply to Aboriginal Australians. Most Aboriginal Australians did not have full citizenship or voting rights until 1965.
The struggle continues
Today, about three percent of Australia’s population has Aboriginal heritage. Aboriginal Australians still struggle to retain their ancient culture and fight for recognition—and restitution—from the Australian government. The state of Victoria is currently working toward a first-of-its-kind treaty with its Aboriginal population that would recognize Aboriginal Australians’ sovereignty and include compensation. However, Australia itself has never made such a treaty, making it the only country in the British Commonwealth not to have ratified a treaty with its First Nations peoples.