The Aborigines of Australia: The Indigenous People Down Under

Ishaan Busireddy & Felix Baum

You have probably heard of the native peoples of the Americas. However, you may be unfamiliar with another unique group of indigenous peoples -- the Aborigines of Australia. The history, culture, and genetics of the Aborigines have been influenced by several diverse groups including a species of cavemen, ancient Indian migrants, and European colonizers.

The first inhabitants of Australia were the Denisovans, an ancient now-extinct human species that inhabited the tropical areas of the world. The Denisovans were short and had very defined faces, and also exhibited the characteristics of dark skin and hair. The Denisovans split off from the common ancestor that they shared with Homo sapiens and Neanderthals about 600,000 to 700,000 years ago and left Africa earlier than our species, Homo sapiens, did. The Denisovans migrated across the equatorial lands, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and finally reached Sahul about 100,000 years ago and gradually spread throughout the landmass. Due to several thousands of years of exposure to the strange Australian environment and the resulting natural selection, Denisovans developed a specialized set of genes that enabled them to survive and settle the whole continent. They lived undisturbed for many millennia.

Tens of thousands of years later, Homo sapiens arrived in Australia from ancient southern India. How these ancient migrants traversed the mixes of harsh terrain and deep waters is unknown, but many theories have been proposed. It is possible that they traveled across the Indian Ocean, which was much shallower back then, and landed in western Australia. They may have even traveled through ancient land bridges instead. Regardless, this migration marked a fundamental change in Australian Prehistory. The Indian migrants introduced new technology, including agricultural technology, and even new animals, such as the ancestor of the wild Dingo dog, to the native Denisovan population. Some of the Indian Homo sapiens settled down in Australia and intermixed with the Denisovans. The interbreeding of Homo sapiens and Denisovans created a powerful hybrid with the technological capabilities of the Sapiens and the environmental adaptations of the Denisovans.

The now-mostly Homo sapien, but 3-5% Denisovan, population thrived in Australia for thousands of years. Because they were spread out over an immensely large area for a very long time, the Aborigines split into hundreds of tribes, each having their own distinct language and customs. There are 28 Aboriginal language families and isolates, the largest being the Pama-Nyungan languages, consisting of about 270 languages which were spoken in most of the island. However, much of this region, especially the coastal areas, is now inhabited by Caucasian Australians. On another note, the Aborigines of the Northern Territory and surrounding areas are still the majority in many places and are thus able to keep their languages and other traditions alive. Languages such as Tiwi are still spoken by their respective Northern tribes.

The Aborigines did not have an organized religion. Rather, they had a collection of mythological and animist beliefs and practices which are collectively known as “Alcheringa” or the Dreaming due to their focus on stories or “dreams.” Each tribe had their own collection of diverse beliefs. However many of them shared some beliefs in common. Many tribes believed in a magical rainbow snake as the creator of the world. For example, the Djabugay tribe believed that the magical rainbow snake “Gudju Gudju'' transformed into a Torresian Carpet Python called Budadji and then shaped the local landscape through his adventures.

After the British arrived, the Aborigines and their culture largely went extinct. However pockets of Aboriginal tribes continue to exist today, keeping the age-old languages and culture of the Aborigines alive.

Image Source: Time Magazine, "Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park" by Rebecca Chandler of Parks Australia