Pre-colonial history


  • Indigenous Australians were the first people to live on the continent (and surrounding islands) now known as Australia.

  • There is evidence that suggests that Indigenous Australians have lived in Australia for over 40,000 years making Australian Indigenous cultures some of the oldest, if not the oldest, surviving civilisations in the world.

  • At the time of European settlement, Indigenous habitation spanned the Australian continent. Archaeologists estimate that the population level was between 250,000 and 1 million people, and that it had been relatively stable for thousands of years.

  • It is estimated that between 500 - 700 Indigenous nations co-existed, each with their own governance systems, languages, cultural practices, religions and traditions.

  • The world as it was known to Indigenous Australia forever changed when a colony was established at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788.

  • Governor Phillip’s instructions on first settlement in 1788 had been to maintain peaceful and friendly relations with the native inhabitants. Aborigines were defined to be British subjects and entitled to the protection of British law.

  • The reality was to be very different.

  • In the following decades, other colonies were established around the continent to which convicts were exported and where free settlers and emancipists were granted title to lands.

  • Indigenous people were displaced from their lands, moved into reserves, and killed in battles for their land, or by hunting parties and poisoning of waterholes.

  • Many Indigenous people died from introduced diseases. In the second half of the 19th Century, Torres Strait Islanders also lost their independence when the Queensland Government annexed the Torres Strait Islands.

  • The notion that the Indigenous people of Australia were ‘primitive’ and ‘uncivilised’ prior to European settlement is fully discredited.

  • Indigenous peoples’ limited technology prior to the arrival of Europeans has been confused with a lack of social sophistication.

  • Although Indigenous peoples lacked the technology possessed by Europeans, Australia’s Indigenous people had a rich system of kinship, far-flung trading networks and well developed systems of governance with complex interlocking rights, responsibilities, privileges and entitlements to the land.

  • For tens of thousands of years, Indigenous people maintained a system of spiritual beliefs and rituals concerning life after death.

  • This is demonstrated in ancient burial practices, such as those uncovered by archaeological excavation in the Willandra Lakes Region.

  • For example, in the dunes of Lake Mungo excavation has uncovered the remains of a cremated female over 25,000 years old, and of a buried male, about 40,000 years old, whose remains were covered in red ochre.

  • Indigenous people did not mark out land ownership according to traditional European methods but rather used geographic boundaries, such as rivers, lakes and mountains.

  • This led to the incorrect claim of terra nullius (‘land belonging to no one’) which was used to justify the acquisition of land and to claim sovereignty of Australia.

  • As Justice Brennan declared in the famous Mabo case, the theory that the Indigenous peoples had no property interests in the land was “a discriminatory denigration of indigenous inhabitants, their social organisation and customs”.

  • What is the Dreaming/Dreamtime/Creation - The Dreamtime is the Aboriginal understanding of the world, of its creation, and it's stories.

  • It is a belief system that the Dreamtime is the beginning of knowledge, from which came the laws of existence.

  • The Dreaming world was the old time of the Ancestor Beings. They emerged from the earth at the time of the creation.

  • The Earth was a flat surface, in darkness. A dead, silent world. Unknown forms of life were asleep, below the surface of the land. Then the supernatural Ancestor Beings broke through the crust of the earth.

  • The sun rose out of the ground. The land received light for the first time.

  • The supernatural Beings, or Totemic Ancestors, resembled creatures or plants, and were half human. They moved across the barren surface of the world. They travelled hunted and fought, and changed the form of the land.

  • In their journeys, they created the landscape, the mountains, the rivers, the trees, waterholes, plains and sandhills. They made the people themselves, who are descendants of the Dreamtime ancestors.