60,000+ years ago to 1788

Australia’s first peoples

Aboriginal people have been in Australia for between 50,000 and 120,000 years. They were a hunter-gatherer people who had adapted well to the environment. There were between 300,000 to 950,000 Aboriginal people living in Australia when the British arrived in 1788.3 At that time there were approximately 260 distinct language groups and 500 dialects.

Aboriginal people lived in small family groups and were semi-nomadic, with each family group living in a defined territory, systematically moving across a defined area following seasonal changes. Groups had their own distinct history and culture. At certain times, family groups would come together for social, ceremonial and trade purposes. It is estimated that
up to 500 people gathered at the one time. Membership within each family or language group was based on birthright, shared language, and cultural obligations and responsibilities. Relationships within groups predetermined categories of responsibilities and obligations to the group and to family. Aboriginal people built semi-permanent dwellings; as a nomadic society emphasis was on relationships to family, group and country rather than the development of an agrarian society. Being semi-nomadic meant that Aboriginal people were also relatively non-materialistic. Greater emphasis was placed on the social, religious and spiritual activities. The environment was controlled by spiritual rather than physical means and religion was deeply tied to country.4,5

According to Aboriginal beliefs, the physical environment of each local area was created and shaped by the actions of spiritual ancestors who travelled across the landscape. Living and nonliving things existed as a consequence of the actions of the Dreaming ancestors. Helen Milroy speaks about the importance of land as part of the Dreaming:

We are part of the Dreaming. We have been in the Dreaming for a long time before we are born on this earth and we will return to this vast landscape at the end of our days. It provides for us during our time on earth, a place to heal, to restore purpose and hope, and to continue our destiny.6(p414)

Land is fundamental to Indigenous people, both individually and collectively. Concepts of Indigenous land ownership were, and are, different from European legal systems. Boundaries were fixed and validated by the Dreaming creation stories. Each individual belonged to certain territories within the family group and had spiritual connections and obligations to particular country. Hence land was not owned; one belonged to the land. Aboriginal people experience the land as a richly symbolic and spiritual landscape rather than merely a physical environment. Religion was based on a philosophy of oneness with the natural environment. Both men and women were involved in the spiritual life of the group. While men have been acknowledged as having the overarching responsibilities for the spiritual activities of the groups, past scholars studying Aboriginal cultures have neglected women’s roles. Women’s roles in traditional contexts, how these were disrupted during colonisation, and the misrepresentation of these roles, have become important issues.

Aboriginal social, cultural and historical contexts

The social and economic organisation of Aboriginal groups varied greatly throughout Australia, but some general observations can be made.

  • Aboriginal society had a relatively egalitarian social structure where age, gender, totemic and land affiliations were important demarcations.
  • Women usually provided the staple food supply, and they owned and had special responsibilities towards sites in the landscape, associated song cycles and Dreaming stories. They had exclusive control of the secret ceremonies of reproduction, and their maternal function as child rearers was highly valued.
  • Men hunted and also played an important role in nurturing and teaching children, and there were special responsibilities for a wide network of kin in relation to each child.
  • When a baby was born, she or he immediately had a niche in a complex cosmology defined by Dreaming stories. Identity was secure, and the child had a variety of land relationships via its conception Dreaming, as well as inheritance through its father and mother.
  • The child would gradually be introduced to responsibilities towards land and kin and the strict marriage rules.
  • Values which were taught in traditional Aboriginal society included sharing, respecting the wisdom of age, looking out for the young, gentle treatment and close observation of plants and animals, and the fulfilment of kinship obligations.
  • Families and clans travelled the land throughout the year. They harvested the land's resources when the opportunity was available, and looked after special sites to which they had responsibility.
  • Men and women separately facilitated the reproduction of resources through ritual nurturing. They also spent much time working or negotiating business in the company of their own gender.
  • Decision making and law enforcement were divided between men and women, and ultimate power was often accorded on the basis of custodial obligations towards relevant land or kinship obligations.
  • The tablet of the law which was ensconced in the landscape itself was explained through Dreaming stories as people travelled. While women were in charge of their own business--sacred and secular-men' s power often appears to have been more highly valued in regard to law and punishment matters concerning the larger group. In some areas, women's law was more powerful than others and older women held high status.
  • Gatherings of many clans took place from time to time to conduct social, marriage and religious business. Ritual confrontations were also staged to avenge wrongdoing, and other transgressions could be punished physically or through potentially fatal sorcery. Dancing and singing, story telling, drawing, painting and sculpture took place all year round, and through such entertaining means everyone learnt the law of their group.

Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody



Dates and events

Aboriginal people have been in Australia for at least 60,000 years (Torres Strait Islanders at least 2500 years).

It is only in the past 500 years there has been European contact with Australia and the Torres Strait.

1606 - The Spaniard, Vaez de Torres has explored the Strait which today bears his name.

Mid 1600s - Portuguese traders from Timor began raiding Melville Island, just off the coast of Darwin, to kidnap young male Tiwi for slaves. The Portuguese continue their raids until about 1800.

1688 - The first English visitor, William Dampier, arrived at Cygnet Bay on the West coast of Australia.

It was during his time here that he made the presumption that people seemed to have no tools other than wooden ‘swords and lances’, whilst recording also that they ‘constructed fish weirs and dug wells’. He described that local Djawi and Bardi as being, ‘the miserablest people in the world’. He visited nearby Roebuck Bay in 1698, his opinion of ‘much the same blinking creatures’ reinforced during his second trip. He also discharged his gun at one of them.

Dampier’s negative opinion was not insignificant in England’s decision to treat Australia as terra nullius when it occupied the east coast of the continent a century later.

Although intermittent, the visits by people from Melanesia and Asia are evidence that the original Australians did not live in complete isolation.

1694 - the English fleet blew up the port of Dieppe destroying many records of European exploration; although it is speculated that the Portuguese may have mapped as far as Australia’s southeast coast in 1522. Ultimately, it would be Spain who protested the British possession of the whole eastern coast of Australia, claiming it infringed the Spanish law of the Indies.

The Dutchman, Captain William Jansz recorded his visit, in the Duyfken, to about 200 miles off the coastline from the Pennefather River to Cape Keerweer on Western Cape York Peninsula in Queensland. Upon landing at Batavia river to make observations, ‘the crew was attacked and one mortality, speared’.

This act of resistance to European visitors, the earliest in written record, was by a number of Tjungundji people whose country is located several kilometres south of the former location of Mapoon and who were familiar with outside visitors.

The Tjungundji share songs with a number of groups in Cape York, which demonstrate ceremonial links to the peoples of Papua New Guinea. For thousands of years intermarriage, cultural and technological exchange was conducted along trade routes which threaded north from the mainland and through the Torres Strait Islands.

Source: Australian Museum




READING: 1A Aboriginal Australia Aboriginal People of NSW Before 1788

READING: 2A : Aboriginal Society Prior to the British Arrival (Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody)

Upper Hunter

READING 101: Rock art and Rocks

  • Reading 12A Introduction to Rock Art
  • Reading 12B Hands on Rock
  • Reading 12C Biame

Tiddalik is the key character in one of the most widely related dreaming stories on the eastern seaboard of Australia.

  • Reading 12D: Tiddalik

READING 102A : Aboriginal people in the Hunter Valley

The term rock painting is used to describe Aboriginal art were materials have been applied to a rock surface to make a design or picture. These may be elaborate, multi layered and profuse or more simple, like the western concept of a drawing. Paintings and drawings on rock surfaces are found across Australia. There are numerous sites in the Upper Hunter:

Vlideo Clip B: First Footprints over 50,000 years ago (1 min 40 sec)


See: ABC

First Footprints Series 1 Ep 1 Super Nomads: 50,000 To 30,000 Years Ago

The story of how people arrived and thrived on our continent. With startling new archaeological discoveries revealing how the first Australians adapted, migrated, fought and created in dramatically changing environments.

Video Clip C: First Australians Ep1 NSW Arrival 1788 (5 min 59 sec)

See: SBS On Demand for full video 1Hour 10 mins

They Have Come to Stay - This landmark series chronicles the birth of contemporary Australia as never told before, from the perspective of its first people. It explores what unfolds when the oldest living culture in the world is overrun by the world's greatest empire, and depicts the true stories of individuals - both black and white. The story begins in 1788 in Sydney with the friendship between an Englishmen, Governor Phillip, and a warrior, Bennelong.