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Australian Aborigines

Australian Aborigines

PRONUNCIATION: aw-STRAY-lee-uhn ab-or-RIDGE-in-eez

LOCATION: Australia; Tasmania

POPULATION: Approximately 265,000

LANGUAGE: Western Desert language; English; Walpiri and other Aboriginal languages

RELIGION: traditional Aboriginal religion; Christianity


The original inhabitants of the continent of Australia took up residence there at least 40,000 years before Europeans landed at Botany Bay in 1788. In 1788, the Aborigines were clearly the majority, numbering around 300,000. In the late 1990s, they were a minority struggling to claim rights to their traditional lands. They also seek money for lost lands and resources. Relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia have not been very good. There is a great deal of resentment on the part of many Aboriginal people for the treatment their ancestors received from the European colonists. Australian Aborigines face many of the same problems that Native Americans face in the United States.


Australian Aborigines traditionally lived throughout Australia and on the island of Tasmania. In the Central and Western Desert regions of Australia, Aboriginal groups were nomadic hunters and gatherers. They had no permanent place of residence, although they did have territories and ate whatever they could either catch, kill, or dig out of the ground. In the southern parts of the island continent, winter is cold and Aboriginal populations had to shelter themselves from the cold wind and driving rain.


There were approximately three hundred different Aboriginal languages spoken in 1788. Now, there are only about seventy-five remaining. Some of these, like Walpiri, spoken in and around Alice Springs in the center of the continent, are well established and in no danger of being lost. Walpiri is taught in schools, and a growing body of written literature is produced daily in the language. Other languages such as Dyribal are nearly extinct.

The largest language in terms of number of speakers is called the Western Desert language, spoken by several thousand Aboriginal people in the Western Desert region of the continent.

Most Aboriginal people speak English as their first or second language. In parts of Australia, distinctive kinds of English have developed within Aboriginal communities. In the Northern Territory there is a kind of English called Kriol that is spoken by Aboriginal people.


Over their long history, a complex and rich Aboriginal mythology has evolved. It has been passed down from generation to generation. This mythology is known as the Dreamtime (Alchera) Legends. The Dream-time is the mystical time during which the Aborigines' ancestors established their world. These myths from ancient times are accepted as a record of absolute truth. They dominate the cultural life of the people.

There are many myths of the Dreamtime. One tells how the sun was made:

Long ago in Dreamtime there was no sun, and the people had to search for food in the dim light of the moon. One day, an emu and a crane started quarreling. In a rage, the crane ran to the emu's nest and snatched one of its huge eggs. She flung the egg high into the sky, where it shattered and the yolk burst into flames. This caused such a huge fire that its light revealed for the first time the beauty of the world below.

When the spirits up in the sky saw this great beauty, they decided that the inhabitants should have this light each day. So, every night, the sky-people collected a pile of dry wood, ready to be set afire as soon as the morning star appeared. But a problem arose. If the day was cloudy, the star could not be seen and no one lit the fire. So the sky people asked the Kookaburra, who had a loud, braying laugh, to call them every morning. When the bird's laugh was first heard, the fire in the sky was lit but threw out little heat or light. By noon, when all the wood was burning, the heat was more intense. Later, the fire slowly died down until the sun had set.

It is a strict rule of the Aboriginal tribes that nobody may imitate the Kookaburra's call, because that could offend the bird and it could remain silent. Then darkness would again descend upon the earth and its inhabitants.


Traditional Aboriginal religion revolves around the Dreamtime. Totems are also an important part of Aboriginal religious identity. Totems are symbols from the natural world that serve to identify people and their relationships with one another in the social world. For instance, a family or clan may be associated with a certain bird. That bird's nature, whether it is ferocious or peaceful, a bird of prey or a songbird, is associated with the family or clan that uses it as its totem.

The religious world of the Aboriginal Australians is inhabited by ghosts of the dead, as well as a variety of spirits who control certain aspects of the natural world, such as the Rainbow Serpent, who brings rain. Rituals are performed to placate these spirits and also to increase the fertility of certain species of animals that are important to the Aborigines.

Since the colonization of Australia, many Aboriginal people have converted to Christianity, either by choice or through the influence of education in mission schools. For generations, European colonists would remove children from Aboriginal families and send them to Christian schools. This practice was thought to be in the best interests of the Aborigines. Resentment over these kidnappings is still strong.


As part of the larger Australian society, Australian Aborigines can participate in major holidays. Australia Day, January 26, is the equivalent of Independence Day in the United States. This holiday is often the occasion of public protests on the part of Aboriginal people. Many Aboriginal people participated in major protests during the Australian Bicentennial in 1988. Traditional Aboriginal society, however, has no such holidays.


In some Aboriginal societies, there were both male and female rituals that marked the passage from childhood to adulthood.

Death in Aboriginal Australian societies was accompanied by complex rituals. Among the Walpiri of central Australia, a wife would have to isolate herself from the rest of the community upon the death of her husband. She would live in a "widows' camp" for a period of one to two years. During that time she would communicate through a system of sign language. She was not permitted to speak during this period. If a woman chose not to follow these traditions, her husband's ghost could steal her soul, which would lead to her death.


Behavior and interpersonal relations among Australian Aboriginals are defined by family roles. In many Aboriginal societies, certain kinfolk stand in what are called "avoidance relationships" with each other. For instance, in some groups a son-in-law must avoid his mother-in-law completely. Individuals will often change course entirely and go out of their way to avoid meeting a prohibited in-law. In other types of relationships, a son-in-law can only speak to his mother-in-law by way of a special language, called "mother-in-law language." The opposite of avoidance relationships are "joking relationships." These are relationships between potential spouses that typically involve joking about sexual topics.

Aboriginal people find it odd that non-Aboriginal people say "thank you" all the time. Aboriginal social organization is based on a set of obligations between individuals who are related by blood or marriage. Such obligations do not require any thanks. For example, if a family asks to share a relative's food, the relative is obligated to share without any expectation of gratitude in response. Australians often see this Aboriginal behavior as rude.


Health care is a major problem for most Aboriginal people. For rural groups, access to health care may be extremely limited. In precolonial times, they would have relied on traditional health practices to cure illness and limit disease. However, through European influence, many rural societies have lost knowledge of traditional medicine and have come to rely on Western medicine, which is not always available to them.

Housing varies between urban and rural Aboriginal people. The national, state, and local governments have encouraged nomadic groups to settle in houses in the European manner. They have built houses for some groups that live in the desert regions of central and western Australia. Aboriginal people have adapted these structures to their own design. They use them for storage, but usually regard them as too small and too hot for eating, sleeping, or entertaining.


Marriage in traditional Aboriginal societies is complicated. Its customs have interested and puzzled anthropologists for centuries. In many societies, first marriages were arranged. Husbands were often much older than their wives.

Among the Tiwi of the Melville and Bathurst islands off the northern coast of Australia, females were betrothed at birth. Females in this society were always married. This practice was related to the Tiwi belief that females became impregnated by spirits. Human males were not understood to be a part of reproduction. However, Tiwi society also required that every individual have a "social father." Social fathers were husbands of children's mothers. They were necessary because the spirits that impregnated the women could not help raise the children.


Australian Aborigines were one of the only groups of people in the world not to wear any type of clothing. Both men and women went naked. Today, of course, things have changed considerably and Aboriginals dress the same as Australians.


Since many Aboriginal groups were nomadic hunters and gatherers, they did little in the area of food preparation. Meals were simple, as was their preparation.


Most urban Aboriginal children have the opportunity to attend public school. They often encounter discrimination in the classroom, however. Some communities have developed their own programs to help Aboriginal children succeed in the educational system.

At Yuendumu in central Australia, the Walpiri have a very well developed educational system. It provides both European-style education and education in the areas of traditional language and culture. As is the case for Australians, school is mandatory through the tenth grade. Grades eleven and twelve are optional.


Traditional Aboriginal societies were nomadic. Because of this, they did not value material objects. They also did not develop many musical instruments.

One that is well-known is the dijeridoo, a long tube made from a piece of wood that has been hollowed out by termites. These long trumpets produce a drone that accompanies ritual dancing. Dijeridoos have become popular instruments in modern world music. A few Aboriginal people teach dijeridoo to non-Aboriginal people who want to learn to play it.

In many Aboriginal societies men used a "bullroarer" to frighten women and uninitiated males at ceremonial events. The bull-roarer is a decorated and shaped piece of flat wood. It is attached to a line and swung around above a person's head to produce a whirring sound. The sound is usually said to be the voice of important spirits of the land. Unlike their Oceanic neighbors, Australian Aborigines did not use drums.

Dance is an extremely important part of Aboriginal ceremonial life. Many dances mimic the movements and behaviors of animals such as the brolga crane of the northern wetlands. There are several performance troupes in Australia that travel to urban centers to perform both traditional and new dances.


In traditional Aboriginal societies, labor was divided according to age and sex. Women and children were responsible for gathering vegetables, fruit, and small game such as goannas (a large lizard). Men were responsible for obtaining meat by hunting both large and small game. Men in Aranda society hunted with a variety of implements including spears, spear throwers, and nonreturning boomerangs.

Aboriginal people in urban areas are employed in a variety of jobs. However, gaining employment is often difficult due to discrimination.


Rugby, Australian-rules football (soccer), and cricket are important spectator and participant sports in Australia. Basketball is a fast-growing sport. Aboriginal people play for some of the semiprofessional rugby teams.


In some parts of Australia, Aboriginal people have established their own broadcasting stations for radio and television. These have been most successful in the central region of Australia, in and around Alice Springs.

In these communities, elders have realized that if they do not provide programming for their youth, the youth will turn away from the traditional ways of life. Aboriginal bands also produce music videos for these programs, as well as for distribution to the larger Australian society.


Australian Aboriginal art has been extremely popular on the world art market for some time now. The paintings of "dreamings" from the Central Desert region bring a high price, especially if the artist is one of the well-known Aboriginal artists. In the Walpiri community of Yuendumu, the elders decided to paint the doors of the classrooms of the school with various "dreamings." Boomerangs, decorated with stylistic Aboriginal symbols, are popular with tourists. According to Aboriginal legend, the boomerang was created by the snake, Bobbi-bobbi. According to this tale, Bobbi-bobbi sent flying foxes (perhaps like bats) for men to eat, but they flew too high to be caught. Bobbi-bobbi gave one of his ribs to be used as a weapon. Because of its shape, it always returned to the person who threw it. Using the boomerang as a weapon, men were able to cause the flying foxes to fall to earth. But the men became overconfident in their use of the boomerang, and threw it so hard that it crashed through the sky, creating a large hole. Bobbi-bobbi was angry when he learned of this, and he took back his rib when it fell back to earth.


Keeping the right to pursue traditional ways of life is one of the biggest social problems facing Aboriginal people. To pursue traditional lifestyles, Aboriginal language and folklore must be maintained. Many Aboriginal communities have hired teachers to help in the efforts to preserve the traditional language for future generations. There are more languages in need of preservation, however, than there are teachers willing to help preserve them.

Life in urban areas, where the standard of living is very low, has bred a high level of domestic violence and alcoholism among Aborigines. In an attempt to reverse this trend, some older males have "kidnapped" young men and taken them off to traditional lands. Once removed from the city, they are enrolled in a kind of "scared straight" rehabilitation program. There have been mixed reactions to this kind of behavior, both within Aboriginal society and in the larger Australian society.


Bell, Diane. Daughters of the Dreaming. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Berndt, R. M., and C. H. Berndt. The World of the First Australians. Sydney: Ure Smith, 1964.

Contested Ground: Australian Aborigines Under the British Crown. St. Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1995.

Hiatt, Lester R. Arguments About Aborigines: Australia and the Evolution of Social Anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Holmes, Sandra Le Brun. The Goddess and the Moon Man: The Sacred Art of the Tiwi Aborigines. Roseville East, Australia: Craftsman House, 1995.

In the Age of Mabo: History, Aborigines, and Australia. St. Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1996.

Kohen, James L. Aboriginal Environmental Impacts. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, 1995.


Australian Tourist Commission. [Online] Available, 1998.

Embassy of Australia, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Wood, Shana. Austalian History. [Online] Available, 1996.

World Travel Guide. Australia. [Online] Available, 1998.

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Australian Aborigines


AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINES. Australian Aborigines are believed to have first arrived in northern Australia forty to sixty thousand years ago. They gradually spread throughout the continent, adapting to a vast range of environments from coastal tropics to inland desert, from temperate grasslands to mountainous highlands and riverine plains. In view of the diversity of plant and animal resources available in such a variety of settings, it is difficult to generalize about Aboriginal food, diet, and cooking practices. Nevertheless, some fundamental features were common to virtually all of the five hundred "tribes" or language groups believed to have been living in Australia at the time of European settlement at the end of the eighteenth century.


Aborigines practiced a highly mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle, moving frequently from place to place in accordance with seasonal availabilities of food resources. At the same time, they manipulated the environment in such a way as to favor certain species of flora and fauna. Their management of the land and its resources included setting light to dry grass and undergrowth in specific areas at certain times of the year in order to drive out small animals that they could easily capture. This practice has since been termed "firestick farming." It had a secondary benefit in that the new green growth which followed rain attracted small marsupials and other animals to the area, thus ensuring food supplies.

Typically, men hunted large game such as kangaroos and emus, and speared, snared, or otherwise procured smaller animals (opossums, bandicoots), birds (wild ducks, swans, pigeons, geese), and fish. Men tended to operate individually, while groups of women and older children collected plant foods (fruits, nuts, tubers, seeds), small game such as lizards and frogs, and shellfish. There were variations to this pattern; around coastal Sydney, the principal food-gathering task of women was fishing, and men also collected vegetables. The relative contributions of men and women to the communal meal varied according to season and location, but women's gathering activities could provide from 50 to 80 percent of a group's food. The time taken to collect a day's food varied similarly, but rarely would it have occupied the whole day.

The Aboriginal diet was far from monotonous, with a very wide range of food resources exploited. In northern Australia, thirty different species of shellfish were collected throughout the year from seashore and mudflats; in Victoria, about nine hundred different plant species were used for food. Whatever the available resources, Aborigines did not always and necessarily eat everything that was edible; in some coastal regions fish and sea animals were preferred as sources of protein, and land animals were relatively neglected. On the other hand, Tasmanian Aborigines ate lobsters, oysters, and other shellfish but did not eat scaly fish; they avoided carnivorous animals and the monotremes platypus and echidna, though in other regions echidnas were eaten.

Tools were basic: a digging stick for women, spear and spear thrower for men. Fish, birds, and small game could be caught in woven nets or in conical basket traps. Many Aboriginal groups used lines, with crude shell or wooden hooks, to catch fish; alternatively, fish traps were sometimes constructed in rivers and along the coast to entrap fish, or temporary poisons were placed in water-holes to stun fish or bring them to the surface.

Food Distribution and Taboos

Complex rules determined food sharing arrangements. Men were usually treated preferentially in the distribution of game, with the hunter distributing the various portions among his male relatives who might then pass some to the women; if the hunter himself had a share it was an inferior cut. Offalheart, liver, kidneys, brainstended to be particularly prized, and often went to senior men. Women's gathering was for themselves and their immediate family rather than for the whole group, and there were certain plant foods that men apparently ignored.

Because of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs that people, plants, animals, and, indeed, the land are all part of a system created by ancestral spirits, all united and having equal rights to the resources of the country, totemic relationships existed between human and nonhuman species. The rules governing these relationships varied; for some groups killing and eating the totem was always taboo, while for others it might have been prohibited only at specific times or in special ceremonies. Thus some language groups of Aborigines may not have eaten emu while neighboring groups did.

Particular taboos, usually involving animal foods, applied to women during pregnancy or lactation, to young girls at their first menstruation, and to young boys at the time of their initiation. Wallaby and two species of bandicoot were sometimes forbidden to girls, because they would cause premature puberty, and to young boys, because they would favor brownish rather than black beards. Some foods, such as bitter tubers, were prohibited to children but sweet foods, such as plant galls and the edible gums that exude from kurrajong and other trees, were regarded as special treats and preferentially left to the young.

Food Preparation and Cooking

Many fruits and nuts and a few plant foods could be eaten raw and did not require cooking, but generally roots, bulbs, and tubers were roasted in hot ashes or hot sand. Some required more or less lengthy preparations to improve their digestibility or, in some cases, to remove bitterness or leach out quasi-poisonous components. In the central Australian desert, Aborigines relish the honey sucked from the distended bellies of underground worker ants; in effect, these "honey ants" serve as live food stores for other worker ants.

The principal means of removing toxins were pounding, soaking, and roasting, or a combination of any of these. One particular variety of yam, Dioscorea bulbifera, was subjected to a series of treatments to remove bitterness. First it was scorched to shrivel the skin, which was removed; then it was sliced and the slices coated with wet ashes and baked in a ground oven for twelve hours or more, and the ashes were then washed off before eating.

The kernels of the cycad palm (Cycas armstrongii ), highly toxic in their unprocessed state, were treated by pounding, soaking in still or running water until fermented, and pounding again between stones to produce a thick paste that was cooked in hot ashes, sometimes wrapped in paperbark, yielding a kind of damper or bread.

Aborigines did not have sophisticated cooking equipment; basic culinary techniques included baking in hot ashes, steaming in an earth oven, or roasting on hot coals, this last method typically used for fish, crabs, small turtles, and reptiles. Oysters, too, were often cooked on hot coals until they opened, but in northern Australia large bivalves were "cooked" by lighting a quick fire on top of the closely packed shells arranged on clean sand, hinge side uppermost.

Cooking in hot ashes was the most common method of preparing tubers, roots, and similar plant products including yams (Dioscorea spp.) and the onion-shaped tubers of spike rush (Eleocharis spp.), both of which were important foods for Aborigines in northern Australia. Witchetty grubs (Xyleutes spp.) and similar grubs from other trees were also cooked in hot ashes, if not eaten raw, as were the flat cakes, commonly called dampers, made from the seeds of wild grasses such as native millet (Panicum sp.). The relatively complicated preparation involved threshing, winnowing, grinding (using smooth stones), the addition of water to make a paste, then baking in the ashes. Seeds of other plants, such as wattles (Acacia spp.), pigweed (Portulaca spp.), and saltbush (Atriplex spp.), as well as the spores of nardoo (Marsilea drummondii ), were treated similarly.

Earth ovens were essentially pits, sometimes lined with paperbark or gum leaves, heated with coals or large stones previously heated in a fire. Foods to be cooked were placed in the oven, covered with more paperbark, grass, or leaves and sometimes more hot stones, then enclosed with earth or sand. Roots and tubers were sometimes placed in rush baskets for cooking in an earth oven, and when clay was available, such as near the edge of a river, fish were enclosed in clay before baking.

Large game such as kangaroo and emu was gutted immediately after killing and carried back to camp where the carcass was thrown onto a fire for singeing. After the flesh had been scraped clean, the animal was placed in a pit in which a fire had previously been lit to supply hot coals, covered with more hot coals plus earth or ash or sand, and baked. The cooking time depended on how long hungry people were willing to wait.

Ceremonial Foods

When special occasions such as initiation brought large numbers of Aborigines together, it was essential that food resources in the vicinity of the meeting place were both adequate and reliable. Ceremonial foods, therefore, were less associated with particular qualities than with seasonal abundance. In the mountainous regions of southern New South Wales and Victoria, bogong moths (Agrotis infusa ) were profuse and easy to collect in late spring and summer, and at this time Aboriginal groups converged in the mountains where ceremonies took place. The prevalence of shell middens suggests that shellfish provided ceremonial sustenance in coastal areas. In Arnhem Land (Northern Territory) cycad nuts were plentiful at the end of the dry season, when travel was still possible, and the kernels, once heated to remove toxins, were ground to yield a thick paste, and subsequently baked in the ashes to serve as a special ceremonial food for men participating in sacred ceremonies and forbidden to women and children unless authorized by older men.

Many Aborigines today have lost touch with their foods and foodways, preferring instead the convenience of Western-style foods. Nevertheless, recognition of the health benefits to Aborigines of their traditional diet has resulted in active encouragement of hunter-gatherer practices, even if only to supplement store foods. In many areas, Aborigines have special hunting and fishing rights for species that are otherwise protected or subject to limitsthough today their hunting typically involves firearms rather than clubs and spears.

See also Hunting and Gathering ; Pacific Ocean Societies .


Bryce, Suzy, comp. Women's Gathering and Hunting in the Pitjantjatjara Homelands. Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia: IAD Press, 1997.

Crawford, I. M. Traditional Aboriginal Plant Resources in the Kalumburu Area: Aspects in Ethno-economics. Perth: Western Australian Museum, 1982.

Isaacs, Jennifer. Bush Food: Aboriginal Food and Herbal Medicine. Sydney: Weldons, 1987.

Low, Tim. Bush Tucker: Australia's Wild Food Harvest. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1989.

Meehan, Betty. Shell Bed to Shell Midden. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1982.

Rose, Frederick G. G. The Traditional Mode of Production of the Australian Aborigines. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1987.

Stewart, Kathy, and Bob Percival. Bush Foods of New South Wales: A Botanic Record and an Aboriginal Oral History. Sydney: Royal Botanic Gardens, 1997.

Zola, Nelly, and Beth Gott. Koorie Plants, Koorie People: Traditional Aboriginal Food, Fibre, and Healing Plants of Victoria. Canberra: Koorie Heritage Trust, 1992.

Barbara Santich

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Australian aborigines

Australian aborigines, native people of Australia who probably first came from somewhere in Asia more than 40,000 years ago. Genetic evidence also suggests that c.4,000 years there was an additional migration of people who were related to the inhabitants of modern India. In 2001 the population of aborigines and Torres Straits Islanders was 366,429, 1.9% of the Australian population as a whole. The aboriginal population at the time of European colonization in the late 18th cent. has been estimated to have numbered between 300,000 and 800,000. At that time, there were 500–600 distinct groups of aborigines speaking about 200 different languages or dialects (at least 50 of which are now extinct). Although culturally diverse, these groups were not political and economic entities and lacked class hierarchies and chiefs. They lived by hunting and gathering, and there was extensive intergroup trade throughout the continent.

The aborigines have an intricate classification system that defines kinship relations and regulates marriages. The Kariera, for example, are divided into hordes, or local groups of about 30 people, which are divided into four classes, or sections. Membership in a section determines ritual and territorial claims. In half of the hordes the men are divided among the Karimera and Burung sections; in the other half they are divided among the Palyeri and Banaka sections. These sections are exogamous, and rules of marriage, descent, and residence determine how these sections interact: Karimera men must marry Palyeri women, and their children are Burung, and so on. Sons live in the same hordes as their fathers, so the composition of hordes alternates every generation. The complex system, by requiring each man to marry a woman from only one of the three possible sections, fosters a broad network of social relations and creates familial solidarity within the horde as a whole. Aborigines maintain elaborate systems of totemism (the belief that there is a genealogical relationship between people and species of plants or animals). They see the relationship between totemic plants and animals as a symbolic map of the relations between different people.

Contact with British settlers, beginning in 1788, initially led to economic marginalization, a loss of political autonomy, and death by disease. So-called pacification by force culminated in the late 1880s, leading to a massive depopulation and extinction for some groups. By the 1940s almost all aborigines were missionized and assimilated into rural and urban Australian society as low-paid laborers with limited rights; many aborigine children were taken from their natural parents and given to foster parents to promote assimilation.

In 1976 and 1993 the Australian government enacted land-rights legislation that has returned to the aborigines a degree of autonomy, and court decisions in 1992, 1996, and 2006 have recognized aboriginal property and native title rights. The recent increase in aboriginal population reflects improved living conditions and a broad and inclusive definition of aboriginal identity on the part of the government. Their average standard of living and life expectancy, however, are not comparable with that of most Australians. In 1999 the Australian government issued an official expression of regret for past mistreatment of aborigines but, concerned that it would encourage claims for compensation, did not issue the formal national apology sought by aboriginal leaders until 2008, when the government was led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The election of Adam Giles as chief minister of Northern Territory in 2013 marked the first time that an aborigine headed a state-level government in Australia.

See P. S. Bellwood, Man's Conquest of the Pacific (1978); W. Shapiro, Social Organization in Aboriginal Australia (1979); G. Blainey, Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia (1982); S. Bennett, Aborigines and Political Power (1989).

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