Who were the indigenous inhabitants of Australia before European colonization?

Indigenous Australians, comprising both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, have inhabited the continent for tens of millennia. Representing the world’s oldest continuous cultures, they possess diverse languages, traditions, and histories, profoundly connected to the Australian landscape, but have faced challenges since European colonization in the 18th century.

The indigenous inhabitants of Australia before European colonization were the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Image: Australian colonial artist Robert Hawker Dowling, Group of Natives of Tasmania, 1859

Here’s an overview of their history and major facts:

Aboriginal Peoples

Aboriginal peoples have lived in Australia for at least 65,000 years, making them one of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures. Their history is rich and diverse, with languages, traditions, and practices varying widely among different groups.

Before European settlement, there were over 250 distinct language groups across Australia. Many of these languages have been lost, but efforts are being made to revive and sustain the remaining ones.

An Eastern Arrernte man in his hut in the Arltunga district, Northern Territory, in 1923

Aboriginal cultures are deeply connected to the Australian landscape and have rich oral traditions, art, Dreamtime stories (which are central to understanding the world and humans’ place within it), music, dance, and social and spiritual practices.

Aboriginal peoples had sophisticated land management practices, including controlled burning, hunting techniques, and agriculture in some regions.

A 1770 sketch of two Aboriginal men by the British explorer James Cook’s illustrator Sidney Parkinson

Torres Strait Islander Peoples

Torres Strait Islands

Torres Strait Islanders are the indigenous people of the Torres Strait Islands, which are located between the northern tip of Queensland, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.

While they share some similarities with Aboriginal cultures, Torres Strait Islander peoples have distinct customs, languages, and traditions. Their culture is strongly influenced by the sea, and many of their myths, stories, and traditions revolve around marine practices and creatures.

Before European contact, there were two main languages spoken in the Torres Strait: Kalaw Lagaw Ya and Meriam Mir.

Did you know…?

The contemporary demographic distribution shows a significantly larger population of Torres Strait Islander people residing on the mainland — nearly 30,000 — compared to around 4,500 who remain on the Islands. This migration pattern reflects the broader trend of urbanization and movement towards areas with more resources and opportunities.

Torres Islanders dance on Yorke Island, 1931

Cultural and Trade Networks

With the onset of the Holocene inter-glacial period around 11,700 years ago, global temperatures rose, causing sea levels to rise. This inundation isolated groups of Aboriginal people on smaller offshore islands, including Tasmania, which was once connected to the mainland by a land bridge.

Trading canoe at Erub (Darnley Island), c. 1849

Despite these geographical changes, Aboriginal communities maintained intricate networks across the continent. This is evident in shared tool technologies, art styles, and even stories that traverse vast distances.

Furthermore, certain Aboriginal groups on the northern coastlines had interactions with nearby cultures, like the Torres Strait Islanders and the Makassar traders from what is now Indonesia. These interactions included marriage, conflict, and trade, particularly in trepang (sea cucumber) with the Makassar people.

Men and boys playing a game of gorri, 1922

Genetic History of Aboriginal Australians

An Aboriginal encampment near the Adelaide foothills in an 1854 painting by Alexander Schramm

The genetic makeup of Aboriginal Australians reflects the long history and diverse origins of its many groups.

Genetic studies have shown that Aboriginal Australians have a complex lineage that links them closely with populations from the islands around Southeast Asia, supporting the theory of migration routes through these regions.

Their genetics also reveal a deep connection to the land, with evidence suggesting minimal outside contact until European arrival.

Impact of European Colonization

Artwork depicting the first contact that was made with the Gweagal Aboriginal people and Captain James Cook and his crew on the shores of the Kurnell Peninsula, New South Wales

At the moment European powers began to colonize Australia, the indigenous peoples of the continent were not a singular, homogenous group. Instead, they made up diverse societies, each with its own unique culture, customs, and way of life.

The arrival of the British in 1788 had catastrophic effects on the indigenous populations. They faced dispossession from their lands, introduction of diseases to which they had no immunity, violence, forced removals, and the subsequent policies that aimed at assimilating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children into white society.

Many traditional practices were disrupted or forbidden, leading to loss of languages and cultural practices. The effects of colonization are still felt today, with significant socio-economic and health disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

New South Wales Mounted Police killing Aboriginal warriors during the Waterloo Creek massacre, 1838

Influence of Introduced Religions

European settlers brought with them various religious beliefs, notably Christianity. Over time, some indigenous communities adopted aspects of these religions, either voluntarily or due to missionary activities and government policies. As a result, some contemporary Indigenous Australians might follow Christian practices intertwined with their traditional beliefs.

As an Anglican place of worship, the church stands as a testament to the island’s Christian heritage, stemming from the arrival of those missionaries in the 19th century. It serves as both a spiritual hub and a historical monument to the transformational events of the past. Image: All Saints Anglican Church on Erub (Darnley Island)

Recognition & Modern Times

Despite the challenges, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures remain resilient. There have been significant movements toward recognition, rights to land and sea, preservation of languages and culture, and addressing the socio-economic challenges faced by indigenous communities.

The annual NAIDOC Week celebrations are one of the many ways Australians celebrate and recognize the history, culture, and contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Health and Economic Challenges

Despite being the continent’s first inhabitants with rich cultural traditions, Indigenous Australians, both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, face significant disparities when compared to the broader Australian population.

Indigenous Australians generally have shorter life expectancies, higher rates of chronic diseases, and more significant mental health challenges.

They also face economic challenges, including higher unemployment rates, lower income levels, and, in many cases, limited access to education and other essential services.

Administration of the Torres Strait Islands

The Torres Strait Islands predominantly fall under the jurisdiction of Queensland, one of Australia’s states.

However, their administration is overseen by the Torres Strait Regional Authority, a dedicated entity established by the Australian federal government. This ensures that the unique needs and rights of the islanders are catered to.

Meanwhile, a few islands located nearer to the coast of mainland New Guinea are governed by Papua New Guinea’s Western Province. Notably, Daru Island, which hosts the provincial capital, Daru, is among these islands under Papua New Guinea’s control.

The Dreaming

Despite the numerous changes and challenges, the concept of the Dreaming remains a central component of Aboriginal spirituality.

The Dreaming, often difficult to translate into English, encompasses the time of creation when ancestral beings shaped the world and set down the moral and social codes to live by. It’s not just a historical event but permeates everyday life.

Through the Dreaming, Aboriginal people understand their place in the world, their relationships with the land, and their connection to ancestors.

Flags of the Indigenous Australians

Indigenous Australians have several flags that represent their diverse communities and their rich cultural heritage. The two most recognized flags that represent Indigenous Australians are:

Aboriginal Flag

The Australian Aboriginal Flag. It was designed by Aboriginal Australian artist Harold Joseph Thomas in 1971. Together with the Torres Strait Islander Flag, it was proclaimed a flag of Australia in 1995.

The flag is horizontally divided into equal halves of black (top) and red (bottom), with a yellow circle in the center.

The black represents the Aboriginal people of Australia, the yellow circle symbolizes the Sun (the giver of life), and the red represents the earth and the spiritual relationship between the Aboriginal people and the land.

Harold Thomas, a Luritja man from Central Australia, designed this flag in 1971.

Torres Strait Islander Flag

The flag features three horizontal stripes, with green at the top and bottom and blue in between. These stripes are divided by thin black lines. A white dhari (headdress) is centrally located over the blue stripe, and beneath it is a white five-pointed star.

The flag was designed in 1992 by Bernard Namok.


  • Green: Represents the land.
  • Blue: Represents the sea.
  • Black: Represents the Torres Strait Islander people.
  • Dhari: Signifies Torres Strait Islander people.
  • Star: Represents the five island groups within the Torres Strait and maritime navigation, a significant aspect of Torres Strait Islander culture.

Torres Strait Islands flag. It was designed in 1992 by Bernard Namok.


Both flags have been recognized by the Australian government as official “Flags of Australia” since 1995. Over the years, they have come to be widely recognized symbols of the original inhabitants of Australia and their cultures.

Controversy surrounding Australia Day

Australia Day, celebrated on January 26th, marks the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. Many Aboriginal people view it as a day of mourning or “Invasion Day” because it represents the beginning of the colonization and the suffering of their ancestors.


The fact that these cultures have persisted for so long, despite the profound challenges, including colonization, loss of lands, and subsequent social and political upheavals, attests to their resilience, adaptability, and the deep spiritual connection to the Australian landscape.

Important Facts

Europe’s first contact with the Indigenous Australians

The diversity among indigenous groups in Australia cannot be emphasized enough. Each has its own language, stories, practices, and relationship to the land, making it difficult to generalize about all Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • As of the 2021 census, Indigenous Australians, which includes both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, made up 3.8% of the total population of Australia. This demonstrates that while they are a significant and vital part of the Australian community, they are a minority in terms of population size.
  • Aboriginal Australians have lived on the continent for tens of thousands of years, and during periods of lower sea levels, they inhabited vast sections of what is now the submerged continental shelf. These land areas connected mainland Australia to some of its surrounding islands, including Tasmania.
  • The Torres Strait Islands comprise a collection of at least 274 tiny islands located in the Torres Strait, the channel that distinguishes the northernmost point of mainland Australia, the Cape York Peninsula, from the island of New Guinea. While these islands collectively cover a broad region of 48,000 km2 (19,000 sq mi) within the strait, their combined land mass is relatively modest, totaling just 566 km2 (219 sq mi).
  • It’s estimated that over 250 distinct languages were spoken by Aboriginal Australians at the time Europeans first arrived. These languages were as different from each other as English is from Chinese or Russian. They belonged to several different language families and had their own dialects.
  • While Lieutenant James Cook, during his voyage in 1770, proclaimed British sovereignty over the eastern portion of Australia at Possession Island, it wasn’t until nearly a century later, in 1862, that the British formally began to administer and exert control over the Torres Strait Islands. This initiation of British governance marked the start of significant changes for the islanders, as it introduced new administrative structures, laws, and external influences.
  • The Torres Strait Islands consist of over 270 islands, but only 16 of these are inhabited. According to recent Australian census, the population of the Torres Strait Islands stood at 4,514. Of this number, a significant majority, 91.8%, identified themselves as Indigenous Torres Strait Islander peoples. This highlights the islands as a stronghold of Indigenous culture and heritage in the region.
  • Just as in other parts of the world, different Indigenous Australian communities used varied tools and technologies. Some used advanced spear-throwing devices like the woomera, while others developed intricate fish traps. Their tools and technologies were well adapted to their specific environments, from coastal areas to desert interiors.

Questions and Answers

Ritual face mask from a Torres Strait Island (19th century).

What is the meaning of the term “Songlines”?

Songlines are the Aboriginal navigation paths that crisscross Australia. They are tracks that correspond to roads or pathways that have been traveled for eons and are recorded in traditional songs, stories, dance, and art.

Aboriginal Australians, from Ridpath’s Universal History

Who are some notable Aboriginal Australians in contemporary times?

Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira

Notable individuals include Cathy Freeman (Olympic athlete), Adam Goodes (AFL player), Albert Namatjira (artist), Evonne Goolagong Cawley (tennis player), Jessica Mauboy (singer), Noel Pearson (lawyer, activist and essayist), and Professor Marcia Langton (academic).

Evonne Goolagong Cawley is a former world no. 1 tennis player

What are Native Title rights?

Native Title rights in Australia refer to the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to land, which was recognized by the Australian legal system in the 1992 Mabo decision. It acknowledges the traditional rights and interests to land and waters, according to traditional laws and customs.

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