Their present population is estimated at about 125,000 to 130,000, out of which about 50,000 are of homogeneous ancestry, and 80,000 are mixed aboriginal and European.
These aborigines were consisted of about 500 tribes. Each one of these tribes had its own recognized territory and distinct language or dialect.
The archaeology of Australia shows a human occupation of the continent between 25,000 and 40,000 years before present.
The Aborigines, whether in one or several waves, arrived in Australia, either by way of the now submerged Sahul Shelf (South-East Asia) or where land connections were absent, by rafts and canoes.
There are kinsmen still to be found all the way back to Asia, such as the Sakai (Malaya) and Toala (Celebes). In South India, millions of pre-Dravidians belong to the same race. There is some evidence suggesting that they arrived in Australia during the Wurm Ice Age, i.e., about 40,000 years ago.
1. Racial Characteristics:
The physical features of Australian aborigines may be described as Negroid with the very vital difference that their hair is wavy, and never woolly. In the desert areas, their hairs are, however, tawny.
The shape of the nose is very variable and is often almost narrow in the Broome district of Western Australia. So also the lips are often well-shaped and not particularly Negroid.
Although predominantly dark-skinned, they have a predominantly white base of archaic type, mixed with Negroid. Their stature varies from short to medium, ranging between 1.60 and 1.75 metres.
The face of the aborigines is generally medium, broad to narrow and the eyes colour vary from brown to brown-black. Aborigines are generally sturdy and muscular.
There had been too much of amalgamation of blood. Consequently, it is difficult to find aborigines who still retain quite unaltered their physical features and primitive culture.
But there are a few tribes in the areas of isolation and relative isolation” in the north-western parts of Australia (Western Australia) which still have a high degree of purity of race.
The Australian aboriginals who arrived here from the Pacific Islands (Borneo, New Guinea) used to practice a simple type of agriculture there. But as the geographical conditions in Australia made agriculture impossible as a way of life, they were forced to become hunters.
After the arrival of the Europeans, the aboriginals have been pushed to the areas of harsh environment and territories of isolation like the desert of Australia and the northern forested tracts and islands.
The Europeans seem to have driven away the more simple aboriginal inhabitants towards the mountains and margins of the south-east, including the island of Tasmania, who even now may be considered as marginal’s. Amongst the Australian hunters are the N.W.C., Queensland tribes, New South Wales, West Victoria, the Dieri, Maryborough, Narrinjeri, Euahlayi, Arunta (Aranda), Bidjandjara, Gurindji, Gunwinggu, Kamilaroi, Kadaku, Murngin, Tiwi, Wailbri, Wurora, Yin-yoront, Northern Australians,
Central Australians, Murngin and Walkelbura. Most of the aboriginals are found in the states of Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia.
Their major concentration is in the Great Sandy Desert, Gibson Desert, Victoria Desert (Western Australia), Arnhem land, Berkly Tableland, Macdonnel Range, Harts Range Bathurst and Melville Islands (Northern Territory), Cape York Peninsula, Grey Range, Gregory Range, Selwyn Range, Wellesley Islands, Buckland Tableland (Queensland) and in the hilly deserts and mountainous areas of South Australia, Western Australia and New South Wales.
In the fertile and highly urbanized areas of South-East Australia, the aboriginals, especially those living in the metropolitan cities, have greatly lost their cultural identity and they are living in ghettos and crowded slums.
The climatic conditions in the habitat of aboriginals vary from tropical to sub-tropical in the North-West Australia and semi-arid to hot and arid in the Central and Western Australia.
The Australian desert has virtually no rain. In the Great Sandy Desert, Gibson Desert and Great Victoria Desert, the average annual rainfall varies between 10 and 25 cms, but it increases to the north.
The northern parts of Queensland and Northern Territory of Australia are wet in which the average annual rainfall ranges between 50 and 100 cms.
The northern habitats in wet climate are rich in flora. The deserts and tablelands of Australia have been worn into a flat monotonous landscape through millions of years of erosion. In the middle, it is broken by the Macdonnel and Musgrave Ranges which are split by deep gorges.
There are many inland drainage basins and of the inland seasonal rivers flow only after a spell of rain and their beds remain dry for long periods. These seasonal rivers flow into a series of playas—shallow lakes which are often dry. In the territories of aboriginals, there are numerous artesian wells.
The continent of Australia in general and the habitat of aboriginals in particular have a distinct flora. In the hot desert regions, the ground is bare of herbage, whereas when the rains come there is abundant grass. The desert has scrubs and porcupine grass. The animals are mainly marsupials.
3. Spatial Distribution and Density:
The spatial distribution of aboriginals is highly uneven. Most of them are living in areas of harsh environment. As a result of the clash of two cultures, the primitive culture of aboriginals has crumbled away wherever there are large numbers of white settlers.
As semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, the aboriginal groups inhabited their own territories, but they joined adjacent groups for certain purposes, among them religious gatherings and trade. They did not have permanent settlements but made small camps near watering places, building windbreaks and huts.
Because the aborigines needed to be mobile, they had few everyday belongings. Men carried spears, spear throwers, and various kinds of boomerangs, whereas women, their digging stick, dishes, and bags or baskets.
They usually went naked, but groups in cold southern areas made and wore fur cloaks. Aboriginal society had a well-developed trading economy: goods of various kinds (spears, others, implements, pendants) were exchanged and passed from one group to the next the whole economy was cress-crossed with trade routes.
4. Kinship and Family:
An aboriginal tribe consisted of several local groups, which, food permitting associated for most of the year. The territory of each group, membership of which was in the male line, was focused upon a watering place where the group’s ancestors originally settled and where the preexistent spirits of its members were believed to have sojourned ever since waiting for incarnation and reincarnation.
Founders of secondary settlements and their descendants were forever kinsfolk of the primary group and its descendants, regardless how far they were separated in space, time and customs.
A system of classifying everyone as a relation codified reciprocal behaviour based on recognized indirect kinship links (if any), on apparent generation level, on membership of clan, and on ritual affiliation.
In much of Australia, relations were divided into two, four, or eight groups which were correlated with rules of marriage and descent and were normally exogamous.
Such division still persisted among traditional groups in modern times. Marriage rules varied, but generally a person had to marry someone who was related to him or her in a specific way. Marriage was seen as a union of individuals and kin groups.
The aborigines divided the year into five to eight seasons, depending on the region, each being marked by the normally expected climatic conditions and by the kind of procurable foods.
The aborigines faced the recurrence of drought and food failures by regarding natural species and the rain as part of man’s social and moral order and by entering into ritual relations with them.
Each group within a traditional tribe consisted not only of men and women but also of several species, so that all were relations. The group (clan) bore the name of one of these, its totem.
Further, the men were divided into lodges each of which was custodian of the mythology, rituals, sites, and symbols associated with one or more natural species and with ancestral heroes.
5. Aboriginal Gerontocracy:
Among the Australian aborigines, who are the lower hunters, the way of getting food is similar to that of the other hunting societies, though their culture and institutions, including tools, are more complex and sophisticated. Their social units are also larger and some tribes like Arunta, they coincide with totemic groups.
The groups are thus presided over by a chief of prestige, who may also perform religious functions, but whose authority is considerably undefined though the office may be hereditary in the family or at least within the totem.
In any case, he is advised by a council of elders which is ordinarily concerned with such important functions as organizing military expeditions to punish crime or to exact blood-vengeance.
The influence of the elders in the Australian tribes is such that they have been said to constitute a kind of ‘gerontocracy’ or rule of elders.
In ordinary circumstances, the group deals with differences arising from adultery, theft and similar offences without any special machinery.
But when it cannot settle the dispute, or the crimes committed are serious, as incest, marrying a woman from a group forbidden by exogamic rules, illicit acquisition of totemic secrets, murder or death caused by sorcery, the council of elders takes a hand in the matter.
Thus, if a man is found guilty of wounding or killing another, the relatives of the victim are given the right of wounding or killing him according to the lex talionis which means “an eye for eye; a tooth for tooth”.
But if the offender escapes in order to avoid penalty, he may be killed at sight by anybody as an outlaw. Incest usually ends with the spearing to death of both offenders.
The economy as well as the physical and the socio-cultural environment influence the religious activities by providing the concepts, ways, and symbols through which man approaches the supernatural. The conception of God is as legislator becomes meaningless without a system of law.
The food gatherers of Australia believe in totemism. Besides God, they worship the spirits. Lightning, thunder and roaring of storm are considered as the signs of God’s displeasure and therefore they are worshipped by the aboriginals. God is known as Motogon among the Australian aboriginals.
They have an advanced type of morality connected with religion. The sacrifices and prayer, avoidance of unjustified homicide, prohibition of incest, adultery, fornication, prenuptial unchastely, unnatural vice, theft, lying, etc., are considered as immoral and against religion.
In the life of the aboriginals, dreams and their interpretation have great significance. Only the old men had full knowledge of the dreaming and therefore authority in rituals and matters of social behaviour.
It is the belief of the aboriginals that the goods of this world are meant to be primarily for human use the cherished dreams of many thinkers where labour is demanded from all for individual and social reasons and where land and its resources are neither ravished nor plundered but reverently regarded as God’s gift to mankind.
7. Art and Paintings:
The aboriginal myths and rituals were expressed in art, poetry, music and dance. The myths are preserved in chants that are poetic in expression, rhythmic in structure, and complex in language and music.
Sacred objects and even weapons, such as the boomerang, were painted and engraved to express myths, which were also chanted ‘into’ them. The actors’ bodies were painted in ritual, and mythological designs were engraved or painted on stone, on bark, and on the ground.
The painting and engraving being themselves rites painting was also done for pleasure. Singing and dancing also took place both at the social corroboree and on the secret ground.
There were regional schools of art and music and also regional differences in the form and decoration of implements and weapons. The content of some major religious cults also varied regionally.
Besides the prehistoric rock paintings, there is also in Aboriginal Australia more advanced style of art. Their paintings are usually made -with white, red, and black pigments conveniently mixed, with which the natives adorn their huts or dwellings; they are commonly used in the tribes of Northern Territory, especially among Kadaku.
In Australia, there are also other types of more sophisticated art consisting of linear designs endowed with symbolic meaning, and decorations carved in relief which are ordinarily associated with sacred objects.
It must also be added here that the symbolism, rhythm, and symmetry associated with sacred paintings are the objects of aesthetic delight to the present-day Australian aborigines, who feel proud of them as their national art.