Australian Aborigines – The First Settlers
By Michael Russell 2006
The literal translation of the word “Aborigine” is “the people who were here from the beginning”. A second translation, not as literal, is “native”. While there are no early written records of their history, archaeologists have found pictorials on rock all over Australia and the Aborigines themselves have handed down oral history for many generations.
According to their oral history, and reliable archaeological dating, the Aborigines arrived in Australia through the north end of the continent when it was still part of the mainland below Southeast Asia. Although they are of the species Homo Sapiens, their biological isolation has deemed that they are not closely related to any other ethnic group.
Due to their isolated locations throughout the continent, it was necessary for them to find their own solutions and adaptations to problems and the environment. Because they were able to find effective ways to live and survive comfortably, forward progress was thwarted. In the vernacular, theirs was the thought that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Unfortunately, this was possibly a reason why, in their first encounters with white settlers, they were thought ignorant and unwilling to “adapt” or change. However, there is archaeological proof that they were innovators in such things as being the first race to embrace human cremation, they created some of the earliest rock art and they invented many useful tools such as the boomerang, the first sharpened axes and grindstones.
For this people to be construed as passive to the circumstances of their environment is most likely one of the greatest misperceptions to a people in human history. Proof has been found that they made the landscape work for them by employing “firestick farming”, to control underbrush growth and to make their hunting easier. They also used a form of resource management, which resulted in alterations in species of flora and fauna. They may well have even assisted in the extinction of prehistoric animals.
When contact with British settlers began (1788) disease, loss of political autonomy, and other circumstances caused widespread problems and even extinctions in some groups of Aborigines. Because of fear, and a desire for control and power by white settlers, many natives were removed from their lands and placed in missions and/or what amounted to concentration camps. This led to further depopulation and demoralization of this proud people. Children were even taken from their natural parents and fostered with those which the “powers that be” determined more capable of helping them to “assimilate”. What began as an ethnic group of about 350,000 in the 18th century dwindled down to roughly half of that number in a period of less than 150 years. There had been 500 to 600 distinct groups, which spoke about 200 different dialects. Many group bloodlines were wiped out, and about 50 of the dialects are now extinct as well.
In more recent years, the Australian Government enacted land-rights legislation that gave back to the Aborigines a small degree of their autonomy and in 1992 and 1996, courts decreed that the Aborigines have the right to own property. There have been apologies, although not formally by the Government, and many more efforts to restore to them their rightful place in both past and modern history. Many Aborigines have stepped forward and helped to educate others about their heritage.
There is currently a reconciliation process in the works to further restore to this native culture the rights and dignity which they most certainly, and richly, deserve.
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