There is not a single Aboriginal culture. In fact, there were over 600 different languages and dialects spoken on the continent at any one time, and there are as many different beliefs as well. Estimates vary, but it has been suggested that the indiginous peoples of Australia arrived on the continent anywhere, perhaps in a long period, between 40,000 and 140,000 years ago. Most theories have them coming from the Indonesian islands and Papua New Guinea at the time that a good deal of that area was land, but some theories also have at least certain groups coming from Africa, India, or even the Pacific islands. In any case, the continent, an uninhabited yet strange land, full of odd products of isolated evolution, was vast and difficult to live in. While some of the groups living on the coasts may have had a relatively easy life, groups living farther inland in the plains and deserts had a more difficult existence. Most of the peoples were nomadic hunters and gatherers--the men going out during the daytime to hunt and the women staying near the camp to collect food--and thus had to eke a substinence lifestyle off what the land could offer them. Only a few groups in the north and the Torres Islands developed any sort of stationary agriculture, possibly influenced by the various Malay and perhaps even Chinese vistors who frequented the northern coasts.
These Malay traders brought implements like knifes and other tools to the local peoples, who returned the bargain with sea cucumbers and other local delicacies, which the Malays would sell to the Chinese. In this way the Aboriginal populations of Australia were not in fact completely isolated from the rest of the world as is popularly thought. These foreign traders were one end of an extremely complicated set ofa paths that criss-crossed the continent. While most people never left the area directly near their birthplace, there were a few intrepid souls who acted as traders, walking across the continent. Much of this travel was directed by a keen sense of the night sky and the positions of stars, as well as by a system of remarkable songs that would actually have physical descriptions of the features of the terrain and of sources of food and water that the traveller would need to recognize to make it safely to the next camp. These songlines were often very long and complex songs which could take people hundreds of miles safely.
Another relative unifier among the Aboriginal peoples is the concept of Dreamtime, the time of creation when various spirits and animals walked the earth. Even if this time has passed, however, it is still possible to reconnect with the forces that lived in the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime is a difficult concept for Westerners to grasp, for it is a highly mystical, enveloping concept. It is also interesting to note that the concept of Dreamtime dramatically lessened armed conflict among the different groups of pre-colonial Australia. As all the land was sacred and wrapped up in the remnants of Dreamtime, virtually no wars of conquest took place in relatively recent history. For a continent with hundreds of different peoples, it was remarkably peaceful. The many disparate groups were further united by a concept of
Unfortunately, this relative peace was to quickly come to a halt when British ships landed on the coast. While a couple of Portuguese ships had come by a hundred years before, the British quickly saw an opportunity, and in 1788 the first colonies were founded on the island. As was typical, the British quickly subjugated the "primitive" natives, the majority of whom died from smallpox, and within a period of a few decades the British had complete control over the new continent and the Aboriginal peoples were another repressed majority. Initially, the British just used Sydney as a prison colony, but over time, as what happened in the United States, the proportion of Aboriginal people declined as more or more willing British settlers arrived. By the time Australia broke away from the United Kingdom in 1901, the Aborigines were a small proportion of the nation.
While many Aboriginal people are struggling with economic difficulties and mass-market problems like diabetes and alcoholism, there has been a resurgence of late of their native cultures. Aboriginal culture was slowly fading away until some white Australians saw the wonderfully colourful and expressive drawings and art of the Aboriginal peoples and publicized them on a world stage. As the knowledge of this artwork spread, accompianing knowledge about the varied and advanced cultural beliefs of these people have spread around the world, ensuring that at least a small part of this fascinating tapestry of 100,000 years of culture will remain forever.