At the time of the first European settlement about 200 years ago, the aboriginals occupied all of Australia and the island of Tasmania. The estimate of the 18th-century population was at least 300,000, comprising more than 500 tribes speaking about 200 different languages or dialects. About 50 of these dialects are now extinct.
Contact with European settlers was catastrophic to the aboriginal population, bringing economic marginalization, a loss of political autonomy, and death by disease. The so-called 'pacification' led to massive depopulation and extinction for some groups. By the 1940s almost all aborigines were assimilated into rural and urban Australian society as low-paid laborers with restricted rights; many aborigine children were taken from their natural parents and given to foster parents to promote integration.
In the 1980s there were about 230,000 aboriginals. Of these, only a fourth were pure aborigines still pursuing the traditional semi-nomadic life of hunter-gatherers and following a seasonal, cyclical calendar. Another fourth lived in big cities. The remainder lived in rural areas.
Recently the Australian government enacted land-rights legislation that has returned to the aborigines some degree of autonomy. Court decisions in 1992 and 1996 recognizing aboriginal property rights promoted improved living conditions and a broader and more comprehensive definition of aboriginal identity on the part of the government. Their average standard of living and life expectancy, however, are not equivalent with that of most Australians.
Many of the Australian aborigines are still devoted to notions of kinship and walkabout the desire to revisit the sacred sites. According to their cosmology, the Wondjina spirits who created the planet descended from other worlds in flying crafts.
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