The Aborigines of Australia

Who are the Aborigines of Australia?

The first men to have occupied Australian soil, the Aborigines have been the indigenous people of the island continent for at least 40,000 years.
For millennia, these multiple semi-nomadic tribes developed in autarky a culture of their own, until the landing of Western settlers at the end of the 18th century.

“When the English settlers arrived, the Aborigines moved within large territories,”. They lived by hunting, gathering and fishing in groups of one to a few dozen families. The frequency and extent of their movements varied from region to region, as they depended heavily on water and food resources. “
According to a census in 2011, there are 670,000 indigenous people in Australia, which represents 3% of the population.

The mystery of their origins

Most specialists estimate that the Australian Aborigines would have reached Australia or, to be precise, the proto-continent “Sahul”, between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago, during the Ice Age.
Prehistorians claim that the first inhabitants came from Sunda, a proto-continent that brought together Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
Immigrants likely landed on the North Coast by boat, it is not known whether these were makeshift rafts or elaborate ships.
We do not know either the purpose of their arrival: were they castaways, exiles or explorers?
The hypothesis of arrivals in successive waves has never been confirmed. Be that as it may, the Mungo man, homo sapiens discovered near a lake in New South Wales, remains the oldest human fossil known to date in Australia, and is believed to be around 40,000 years old.

Aboriginal culture

It is difficult to speak of an Australian “aboriginal culture”, as the traditional social organization is very complex and varies according to the regions and the country. environment.
A study thus estimated at more than 250 the number of languages ​​spoken in Australia when the British arrived!
One concept is however common: the aboriginal tradition is based on a spirituality linked to the land, the landscape, the fauna and the flora referring to the dawn of the creation of the world.
“Many aboriginal groups believe that at the time of its origins the Earth was the theater of cosmological events during which the ancestors created landscapes, men, clan divisions, rituals and land management”.
According to the beliefs of the Aborigines, rocks, hills, lakes bear the imprint left by the creative spirits. The story of each creator ancestor is part of a geographical itinerary that may cross others.
This religious philosophy is generally translated by the “Dreamtime”. The ritual ceremonies of the aborigines, songs, dances and body paintings, maintain the link between the world of the living and that of the ancestors: it is a question of perpetuating the creative episodes and transmitting them to young adults.
Among the outstanding features of Aboriginal culture, painting has an important place, whether it be rock, on ground, on wood or, more recently, on fabric .
Popular emblem of Aboriginal culture, the didgeridoo, a wooden wind instrument, was created in the Stone Age (20,000 years).
The traditional weaponry consisted of shields, spears thrown by a thruster (woomera) and boomerangs.
Kriol, an English Creole that developed at the beginning of the 20th century, is today the first language of the Aborigines.

The ordeal of colonization

When British settlers landed at the end of the 18th century, London proclaimed the law of terra nullius: Australia was land without owners.
The aboriginal population is however estimated then between 300,000 and 750,000 people (even a million according to some historians).
“Despite the official desire to protect indigenous peoples, the colonization of their continent had the effect of a cataclysm for them, and there were many clashes. »
With the arrival of Westerners, the aboriginal population fell sharply: they were no more than 100,000 in 1900. The first scourge for the natives were the diseases brought by the colonists, such as smallpox.
But deadly conflicts are legion as Westerners expand. Some Aborigines mobilize and engage in a veritable guerrilla war to protect their land, attacking farms and livestock. The settlers responded with massacres like the one in Myall Creek: in 1838, white settlers killed 28 aborigines.
From the 1870s, most Australian states embarked on a policy of “protecting” indigenous people. It is nothing more or less a question of segregation and an attack on the aboriginal culture: the indigenous populations are uprooted from their environment of birth, and deported in reserves, cut off from the white population.

The “stolen generations”

It is one of the darkest chapters in Australian history, unveiled in 1997 in the “Bringing them home” report.
From the end of the 19th century until the beginning of the 1970s, nearly 100,000 Métis children, by order of the government, were forcibly torn from their families, placed in orphanages, social centers or Christian missions, to be educated ” European style ”.
“Assimilation is the goal. Until all the aborigines live like any white Australian ”, explained in 1937 the Commonwealth conference on the situation of the natives.
Cut off from their cultural roots, most children have a hard time experiencing this uprooting. Many of them, according to the report, were sexually assaulted by their guardians. On February 13, 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will deliver a speech of repentance and forgiveness to “remove a great stain from the soul of the Nation”.

Gradual recognition

Until the end of the 1960s, Aborigines were virtually excluded from white society. However, militant movements were heard, especially on a farm in Wave Hill (Northern Territory) in 1966: underpaid, native employees, speaking Gurindji, went on strike to protest against their living and working conditions.
Their demand resonates across the country. In a positive way: in 1967, a referendum granted all Aborigines citizenship and the guarantee of a minimum wage.

Another major step in Aboriginal resistance in 1972: activists set up an Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of the Federal Parliament in Canberra to claim ownership of traditional lands. An Aboriginal flag is designed.

Four years later, the signing of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act is a highlight. It guarantees the right to land for certain aboriginal groups in the Northern Territory. The territories are partially returned to the ancestors of the traditional owners, who return to live there in communities. It was not until 1992 that the Australian High Court annulled the principle of terra nullius: for the first time, it recognized the titles of land ownership to the aborigines (Native Titles).
This marked improvement in the status of the Aborigines, however, did not eliminate their alarming living conditions, nor the racism of certain white Australians. The situation of the minority, confined to the outskirts of towns, is still dramatic. Alcoholism, drugs, violence, delinquency, suicide, unemployment… The life expectancy of white Australians exceeds that of the natives by seventeen years.


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