Australian Aborigines, the earliest known inhabitants of Australia. Because of their Stone Age culture, the aborigines are of special interest to anthropologists.
The aborigines, who call themselves Koori, are slender, dark-skinned people averaging about five feet, six inches (1.68 m) in height. Their deep-set eyes are dark brown; their short faces have heavy brow ridges and large, jutting jaws. Most have thick, wavy head and body hair—usually dark brown, sometimes blond or reddish blond.
Anthropologists find it difficult to classify the aborigines as to race. Some scholars classify them as Australoid, together with certain similar Asian and Polynesian peoples. They may have come from southeastern Asia some 50,000 years ago.
Traditionally, the aborigines were hunters and food gatherers. Spears, throwing clubs, and boomerangs were their chief hunting weapons. They did not plant crops, and their only domesticated animal was the dingo (a dog found only in Australia). Each of the almost 500 tribes spoke a different dialect. Most aborigines wore nothing except ornaments; a few tribes used kangaroo skins as cloaks in cold weather. Metals were unknown. However, the social organization, marriage rules, taboos, and religious ceremonies of the aborigines were intricate and well developed.
After European settlement began in 1788, the number of aborigines fell from about 500,000 to less than 50,000 in 1900. The decline was caused mainly by European diseases, which the aborigines had no natural defense against, and by the slaughter of aborigines by settlers. Some aborigines still maintain a somewhat traditional lifestyle but most have settled in urban areas or practice farming or ranching.
For many years the Australian government kept the aborigines on government reserves. During the 1930's aborigine leaders began organizing their people to seek equal rights with whites. In the decades that followed aborigines gradually gained more rights, and in 1967 they won the right to vote. Since then, aborigine leaders have sought the rights to their ancestral lands and the government has returned some lands to them. There are about 410,000 aborigines of full blood or mixed ancestry.