The original inhabitants of Australia who have occupied the continent for at least 40,000 years (or maybe even 60,000 years). The Aborigines arrived either by way of the now-submerged Sahul Shelf or by rafts and canoes, in one or more waves.
The people and languages (or dialects) were associated with stretches of territory, and the largest entities recognized by the people were language-named groups. These groups made up smaller, local groups (clans) which consisted not only of men and women but also of several species. A group bore the name of one of these species, its totem. The men of the clan were divided into moieties, with each man (or woman) custodian of the mythology, ritual, sites, and symbols associated with one or more natural species and with ancestral heroes. Through ritual reenactment, the creative past became operative in the present, and the life of species and man was assured. The myths and ritual constituted the Dreaming, or Dreamtime, which signified the continuity of life unlimited by space and time.
In the late 18th century there was an estimated population that ranged from 300,000 to more than 1,000,000, but after contact with Europeans their numbers have been decimated by dispossession, poverty, cultural dislocation, and disease. In the mid-eighties they numbered fewer than 230,000, less than 2 percent of the total population of Australia.
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This section was last updated on October 14, 2013.