History of Indigenous Australia

Australia’s history timeline needs to be better understood, with many people knowing only the fraction of Australian heritage that began when European invaders first arrived in 1788.

The reality is that the timeline of Australian colonisation covers only the last two centuries, whereas Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived in the country for roughly 60,000 years.

Taking a step back through history gives us a glimpse into the rich cultural and societal beliefs that began shaping our nation thousands of years before the invasion and how this affected Aboriginal ancestors and their ancient culture.

The Origins of Australia

While historians typically suggest that the first Indigenous Australian people settled between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago, the Dreamtime, a powerful spiritual belief, indicates that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have always been part of the land. The Dreamtime refers to the beginning of all things when Aboriginal ancestors created rivers, hills, plants and animals, and the people who made up the first tribes and lived in harmony with their surroundings as caregivers and custodians.

First Nations tribes have diverse languages, cultures, and customs, with many believing that their ancestors are spirits represented by animals. Aboriginal folklore remains an important aspect of life at the centre of communities, families, and culture, with ancestors keeping watch over their people, and referring to life in the past, the present day, and into the future.

It is important that all Australians respect, preserve and hold space for this incredible cultural heritage, which belongs to one of the oldest civilisations on the planet. We have an extraordinary wealth of artefacts and artwork that tell us more about the way of life long before colonisation changed the landscape irreparably.

Australia Before British Colonisation

Around 750,000 people lived in what we now call Australia before the 1788 invasion, with more than 500 groups of First Nations people with highly developed cultures, relationships with the land and societies that had evolved over thousands of years.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived very differently to our present-day cities, air travel and technology, relying on the land for sustenance, shelter, and water–but never damaging or exhausting natural resources.

While we use collective terms such as ‘Indigenous Australian people,’ there were hundreds of tribes, often made up of large extended families where communities would care for each other, passing down history and tradition from one generation to the next. There were multiple languages and dialects; some were shared between groups, and others were specific to regions of Australia. Of more than 250 distinct languages, after colonisation, only around 145 remain–110 are in critical danger of being forever lost.

How the British Invasion Impacted Indigenous Australia

An honest and open look at our history reflects a long-standing series of injustices suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people–both at the time of colonisation and today.

Within weeks of the invasion, epidemics emerged, with smallpox killing over half of the First Nations people, when colonists brought with them diseases that had devastating consequences. Between 1788 and 1900, appropriation of land and water, brutal massacres and enforced labour made previously independent communities dependent on colonisers, with the population of Indigenous Australian people dropping to between 50,000 and 90,000 in 1962.

Legislation in the 1960s finally permitted First Nations people the right to vote. Still, it was followed by a 1971 judgement that abolished Indigenous Australian native title to land, irrespective of the long-standing ownerships that pre-dated colonisation by countless generations.

Impacts included extreme hardships, loss of homelands, denied citizenship, forced removal of children, and refused access to basic human rights such as education and housing. In modern times, the facts remain stark:

  • Indigenous Australian people have a life expectancy of ten years less than other Australians.
  • The national imprisonment rate is fifteen times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  • Educational attendance gaps are around 8% for primary-aged students and 14% for secondary school pupils.

Although many of the gaps in access to opportunity and life outcomes have narrowed due to work in recent years, the fact that there is a gap in today’s Australia is the legacy of an invasion with ramifications that continue to echo.

Learning the details of a difficult, troubled, and unpleasant past is complex and challenging. However, it remains essential to rebuild a harmonised, inclusive, and respectful Australia, with full knowledge of how the European invasion impacted Aboriginal and First Nations Islander people–and continues to do so.

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