Australian Aborigines - the original inhabitants of the continent - are one of the best known and least understood people in the world. Since the nineteenth century they have been singled out as the world's most primitive culture and the living representatives of the ancestors of mankind. Aborigines are therefore probably more familiar to the rest of the world than are the white Australians who immigrated to the continent from Britain and other European countries. In reality, Aboriginal culture, as anthropological work over the last hundred years has revealed, is a complex, subtle, and rich way of life. On our way toward describing and understanding Aboriginal art, we need to look briefly at this culture, what it was in the past and what it has become today.
Aborigines have occupied Australia for at least forty thousand years. They came originally from southeast Asia, entering the continent from the north. (Present-day Australia, including Tasmania, was then one continent with what is now New Guinea.) Although Aborigines are Homo sapiens, biological isolation has meant that they are not racially closely related to any other people. Because of their relative cultural isolation, Aborigines were forced to develop their own solutions to the problems of human adaptation in the unique and harsh Australian environment. The result was a stable and efficient way of life. Probably because of its effectiveness, the society was slow to change, especially technologically. This gave to Aboriginal Australia the appearance of unchangingness. The archaeological record reveals, however, a number of innovations, among them the earliest known human cremations, some of the earliest rock art, and certainly the first boomerangs, ground axes, and grindstones in the world.
The stereotype of Aborigines passively succumbing to the dictates of their environment has also been recently questioned. We now know that they altered the landscape in significant ways, using what has been called "firestick farming" to control underbrush growth and to facilitate hunting. Aborigines also altered species occurrence of flora and fauna by resource management and possibly assisted in the extinction of prehistoric animals.
The notion of pristine natives with a "pure" culture was an artificial one - many Aborigines had considerable contact with Melanesians and Indonesians long before the European colonists arrived in Australia. Aboriginal groups also influenced each other. Waves of change swept the entire continent - changes in tools and implements, in social organisation, and in ceremonial practices and mythological concepts. Aboriginal culture was dynamic, not static. The Aboriginal culture of the last two hundred years, the period after the arrival of the colonists, has also been dynamic. This is why it is difficult to speak of a hard and fast dichotomy between Aborigines "before" and "after" contact with the Europeans. Nevertheless, it is useful to look at Aboriginal culture at the point of first contact and as it is today.
The population of Australia at the time of the arrival of the whites in 1788 was probably between 250,000 and 500,000. The pattern of Aboriginal settlement was like that for present-day Australians, except in the tropical north, with most of the population living along the coasts and rivers. Densities varied from one person for every thirty-five square miles in the arid regions to five to ten persons for every one square mile on the eastern coast. Residential groups ranged in size from ten to fifty people, with some temporary ceremonial gatherings reaching up to five hundred.
Most people tend to think of Aborigines as a unified, homogeneous group. Yet the Aborigines never used one collective term to describe themselves. No one individual Aborigine, in the precolonial past, would have known of the existence of many of the other Aboriginal peoples and regions of the vast continent of Australia, which covers nearly three million square miles - almost the area of the United States.
To the early European settlers, the Aborigines of the Sydney district (and later those throughout the whole continent), were primitives, natives or Noble Savages. So, descriptions of them (either written or in sketches/ paintings), were classificatory and comparative. There were a number of physical distinctions between different tribes. It was noted that the Gundungurra who lived in the Blue Mountains west of Camden were taller and stronger than the Eora / Dharawal who lived on the coast. Or so European observers said. Some tribespeople were said to be darker than others (dark brown or black) and were different in other ways, but anyone who indulges in descriptions should ask themselves why they are doing this. People are people and differences of color and shape shouldn't matter. However derogatory descriptions of Aborigines during the 19th century were often a justification for massacres and poisoning of people.