A new definition was proposed in the Constitutional Section of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs' Report on a Review of the Administration of the Working Definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Canberra, 1981):
An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives.
Justice Gerard Brennan in his leading judgment in Mabo v Queensland (No 2) stated:
Membership of the Indigenous people depends on biological descent from the Indigenous people and on mutual recognition of a particular person's membership by that person and by the elders or other persons enjoying traditional authority among those people.
The category "Aboriginal Australia" was coined by the British after they began colonising Australia in 1788, to refer collectively to all people they found already inhabiting the continent, and later to the descendants of any of those people. Until the 1980s, the sole legal and administrative criterion for inclusion in this category was race, classified according to visible physical characteristics or known ancestors. As in the British slave colonies of North America and the Caribbean, where the principle of partus sequitur ventrem was adopted from 1662, children's status was determined by that of their mothers; if born to Aboriginal mothers, children were considered Aboriginal, regardless of their paternity.
In the era of colonial and post-colonial government, access to basic human rights depended upon your race. If you were a "full blooded Aboriginal native ... [or] any person apparently having an admixture of Aboriginal blood", a half-caste being the "offspring of an Aboriginal mother and other than Aboriginal father" (but not of an Aboriginal father and other than Aboriginal mother), a "quadroon", or had a "strain" of Aboriginal blood you were forced to live on Reserves or Missions, work for rations, given minimal education, and needed governmental approval to marry, visit relatives or use electrical appliances.
The Constitution of Australia, in its original form as of 1901, referred to Aboriginals twice, but without definition. Section 51(xxvi) gave the Commonwealth parliament power to legislate with respect to "the people of any race" throughout the Commonwealth, except for people of "the aboriginal race". The purpose of this provision was to give the Commonwealth power to regulate non-white immigrant workers, who would follow work opportunities interstate. The only other reference, Section 127, provided simply that "aboriginal natives shall not be counted" in reckoning the size of the population of the Commonwealth or any part of it. The purpose of section 127 was to prevent the inclusion of Aboriginal people in section 24 determinations of the distribution of House of Representatives seats amongst the states and territories.
After both of these references were removed by the 1967 referendum, the Australian Constitution had no references to Aboriginals. Since that time, there have been a number of proposals to amend the constitution to specifically mention Indigenous Australians.
The change to Section 51(xxvi) gave the Commonwealth parliament the power to make laws specifically with respect to Aboriginal peoples as a "race". In the Tasmanian Dam Case of 1983, the High Court of Australia was asked to determine whether Commonwealth legislation, whose application could relate to Aboriginal people—parts of the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983 (Cth) as well as related legislation—was supported by Section 51(xxvi) in its new form. The case concerned an application of legislation that would preserve cultural heritage of Aboriginal Tasmanians. It was held that Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, together or separately, and any part of either, could be regarded as a "race" for this purpose. As to the criteria for identifying a person as a member of such a "race", the definition by Justice Deane has become accepted as current law. Deane said:
It is unnecessary, for the purposes of the present case, to consider the meaning to be given to the phrase "people of any race" in s. 51(xxvi). Plainly, the words have a wide and non-technical meaning [...]. The phrase is, in my view, apposite to refer to all Australian Aboriginals collectively. Any doubt, which might otherwise exist in that regard, is removed by reference to the wording of par. (xxvi) in its original form. The phrase is also apposite to refer to any identifiable racial sub-group among Australian Aboriginals. By "Australian Aboriginal" I mean, in accordance with what I understand to be the conventional meaning of that term, a person of Aboriginal descent, albeit mixed, who identifies himself as such and who is recognised by the Aboriginal community as an Aboriginal.
While Deane's three-part definition reaches beyond the biological criterion to individual's self-identification, it has been criticised as continuing to accept the biological criterion as primary. It has been found difficult to apply, both in each of its parts and as to the relations among the parts; biological "descent" has been a fall-back criterion.
Eve Fesl, a Gabi Gabi woman, wrote in the Aboriginal Law Bulletin describing how she and possibly other Aboriginal people preferred to be identified:
The word 'aborigine' refers to an indigenous person of any country. If it is to be used to refer to us as a specific group of people, it should be spelt with a capital 'A', i.e., 'Aborigine'.
While the term 'indigenous' is being more commonly used by Australian Government and non-Government organisations to describe Aboriginal Australians, Lowitja O'Donoghue, commenting on the prospect of possible amendments to Australia's constitution, was reported as saying:
I really can't tell you of a time when 'indigenous' became current, but I personally have an objection to it, and so do many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. [...] This has just really crept up on us ... like thieves in the night. [...] We are very happy with our involvement with indigenous people around the world, on the international forum [...] because they're our brothers and sisters. But we do object to it being used here in Australia.
O'Donoghue went on to say that the term indigenous robbed the traditional owners of Australia of an identity because some non-Aboriginal people now wanted to refer to themselves as indigenous because they were born there.
Dean of Indigenous Research and Education at Charles Darwin University, Professor MaryAnn Bin-Sallik, has publicly lectured on the ways Aboriginal Australians have been categorised and labelled over time. Her lecture offered a new perspective on the terms urban, traditional and of Indigenous descent as used to define and categorise Aboriginal Australians. She said:
Not only are these categories inappropriate, they serve to divide us. [...] Government's insistence on categorising us with modern words like 'urban', 'traditional' and 'of Aboriginal descent' are really only replacing old terms 'half-caste' and 'full-blood' – based on our colouring.
She called for a replacement of this terminology by that of "Aborigine" or "Torres Strait Islander" – "irrespective of hue". It could be argued that the indigenious tribes of Papau New Guinea and West Papau (Indonesia) are more closely related to the aboriginal Australians that to any tribes found in Indonesia, however due to ongoing conflict in the regions of West Papua, these tribes are being marginalised from their closest relations.
Scholars had disagreed whether their closest kin outside Australia were certain South Asian groups or African groups. The latter would imply a migration pattern in which their ancestors passed through South Asia to Australia without intermingling genetically with other populations along the way. A 2009 genetic study in India found similarities among Indian archaic populations and Aboriginal people, indicating a Southern migration route, with expanding populations from Southeast Asia migrating to Indonesia and Australia.
In a genetic study in 2011, researchers found evidence, in DNA samples taken from strands of Aboriginal people's hair, that the ancestors of the Aboriginal population split off from the ancestors of the European and Asian populations between 65,000 and 75,000 years ago—roughly 24,000 years before the European and Asian populations split off from each other. These Aboriginal ancestors migrated into South Asia and then into Australia, where they stayed, with the result that, outside of Africa, the Aboriginal peoples have occupied the same territory continuously longer than any other human populations. These findings suggest that modern Aboriginal peoples are the direct descendants of migrants who left Africa up to 75,000 years ago. This finding is supported by earlier archaeological finds of human remains near Lake Mungo that date to 45,000 years ago. The same genetic study of 2011 found evidence that Aboriginal peoples carry some of the genes associated with the Denisovan (a species of human related to but distinct from Neanderthals) peoples of Asia; the study suggests that there is an increase in allele sharing between the Denisovans and the Aboriginal Australians genome compared to other Eurasians and Africans. Examining DNA from a finger bone excavated in Siberia, researchers concluded that the Denisovans migrated from Siberia to tropical parts of Asia and that they interbred with modern humans in South-East Asia 44,000 years ago before Australia separated from Papua New Guinea. They contributed DNA to Aboriginal Australians along with present-day New Guineans and an indigenous tribe in the Philippines known as Mamanwa. This study makes Aboriginal Australians one of the oldest living populations in the world and possibly the oldest outside of Africa, confirming they may also have the oldest continuous culture on the planet. The Papuans have more sharing alleles than Aboriginal peoples. The data suggest that modern and archaic humans interbred in Asia before the migration to Australia.
A comparison between Aboriginal Australian, European, and Asian genomes indicated that Aboriginals are more closely related to Asians than they are to Europeans. The comparison also showed that Europeans are significantly more similar genetically to Asians than they are to Aboriginal Australians, indicating an extended period of Aboriginal genetic isolation.
Blood samples collected from members of the Walbiri tribe of the Northern Territories were used to study the genetic makeup of the Walbiri in particular and Aboriginal Australians at large. The study concluded that the Walbiri are descended from ancient Asians whose DNA is still somewhat present in Southeastern Asian groups, but has been diminished greatly. The Walbiri also lack certain information found in modern Asian genomes, and carry information not found in other genomes, reinforcing the idea of ancient Aboriginal isolation.
Aboriginal Australians are genetically most similar to the indigenous populations of Papua New Guinea, and more distantly related to groups from East India. They are very distinct from the indigenous populations of Borneo and Malaysia, sharing relatively little genomic information with them as compared to the groups previously mentioned. This data indicates that Australia was isolated for a long time from the rest of Southeast Asia, and remained untouched by migrations and population expansions into that area.
Aboriginal Australians have disproportionately high rates of severe physical disability, as much as three times that of non-Aboriginal Australians, possibly due to higher rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes and kidney disease. In a study which compared Aboriginal Australians to non-Aboriginal Australians, obesity and smoking rates were higher among Aboriginals, both of which are contributing factors or causes of serious health issues. The study also showed that Aboriginal Australians were more likely to self-report their health as "excellent/very good" in spite of extant severe physical limitations.
An article on 20 January 2017 in The Lancet describes the rate of suicide among Aboriginal Australians as a "catastrophic crisis":
In 2015, more than 150 [Aborigines] died by suicide, the highest figure ever recorded nationally and double the rate of [non-Aborigines], according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Additionally, [Aboriginal] children make up one in three child suicides despite making up a miniscule percentage of the population. Moreover, in parts of the country such as Kimberley, WA, suicide rates among [Aborigines] are among the highest in the world.
The report advocates Aborigine-led national response to the crisis, asserting that suicide prevention programmes have failed this segment of the population. The ex-prisoner population of Australian Aborigines is particularly at risk of committing suicide; organisations such as Ngalla Maya have been set up to offer assistance.
One study reports that Aboriginal Australians are affected by a large number of infectious diseases, particularly in rural areas. These diseases include strongyloidiasis, hookworm caused by Ancylostoma duodenale, scabies, and streptococcal infections. Because poverty is also prevalent in Aboriginal populations, the need for medical assistance is even greater in many Aboriginal Australian communities. The researchers suggested the use of mass drug administration (MDA) as a method of combating the diseases found commonly among Aboriginal peoples, while also highlighting the importance of "sanitation, access to clean water, good food, integrated vector control and management, childhood immunizations, and personal and family hygiene".
Another study examining the psychosocial functioning of high risk exposed and low risk exposed Aboriginal Australians aged 12–17 found that in high risk youths, personal wellbeing was protected by a sense of solidarity and common low socioeconomic status. However, in low risk youths, perceptions of racism caused poor psychosocial functioning. The researchers suggested that factors such as racism, discrimination, and alienation contributed to physiological health risks in families belonging to ethnic minorities. The study also mentions the effect of poverty on Aboriginal populations – namely, higher morbidity and mortality rates.
Aboriginal Australians suffer from high rates of heart disease. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide and among Aboriginal Australians. Aboriginal people develop atrial fibrillation, a condition that sharply increases the risk of stroke, much earlier than non-Aboriginal Australians on average. The life expectancy for Aboriginal Australians is 10 years lower than non-Aboriginal Australians. Technologies such as the portable iECG device are being developed in order to screen at risk individuals, particularly rural Australians, for atrial fibrillation.
The incidence rate of cancer was lower in Aboriginal Australians than non-Aboriginal Australians from 2005-2009 However, some cancers, including lung cancer and liver cancer, were significantly more common in Aboriginal people. The overall mortality rate of Aboriginal Australians due to cancer was 1.3 times higher than non-Aboriginals in 2013. This may be because they are less likely to receive the necessary treatments in time, or because the cancers that they tend to develop are often more lethal than other cancers.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a large number of Aboriginal Australians use tobacco, perhaps 41% of people aged 15 and up. This number has declined in recent years, but remains relatively high. The smoking rate is roughly equal for men and women across all age groups, but the smoking rate is much higher in rural areas than urban areas. The high prevalence of smoking exacerbates existing health problems such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer. The Australian government has encouraged its citizens, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to stop smoking and not to start at all, in order to prevent the health risks associated with tobacco.
In the Northern Territory (which has a greater proportion of Aboriginal Australians than any other Australian state or territory), per capita alcohol consumption for adults is 150% of the national average. Nearly half of Aboriginal adults in the Northern Territory reported alcohol usage, which may help to explain the high rate of unemployment for Aboriginal Australians. In addition to the inherent risks associated with alcohol use, its consumption also seems to lead to domestic violence. Aboriginal people account for 60% of the facial fracture victims in the Northern Territory, though they only constitute approximately 30% of the population of the state. Unemployment payments provided by the government are often used on alcohol, creating more economic and social problems. Due to the complex nature of the alcohol and domestic violence issue in the Northern Territory, proposed solutions are contentious. However, there has recently been an increase in media attention with regard to this problem, so change may come in the near future.
Modern Aboriginal Australians tend to have nutritionally poor diets, especially in rural areas where higher food costs drive people to consume cheaper, lower quality foods. The average diet contains too many refined carbohydrates and excessive salt, while lacking fruit and vegetables. However, there are a number of challenges inhibiting a transition to healthier diets for Aboriginal Australians, such as shorter shelf lives of fresh foods, resistance to changing existing consumption habits, and disagreements as how best to implement changes. Some suggest the use of taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages in order to limit their consumption, but their effectiveness is questionable. Subsidies for healthy foods has proven effective in other countries, but has yet to be proven useful for Aboriginal Australians specifically.
Dispersing across the Australian continent over time, the ancient people expanded and differentiated into hundreds of distinct groups, each with its own language and culture. More than 400 distinct Australian Aboriginal peoples have been identified across the continent, distinguished by unique names designating their ancestral languages, dialects, or distinctive speech patterns. Historically, these groups lived in three main cultural areas, known as the Northern, Southern, and Central cultural areas. The Northern and Southern areas, having richer natural marine and woodland resources, were more densely populated than the less resource-rich Central area.
There are various other names from Australian Aboriginal languages commonly used to identify groups based on geography, including:Anangu in northern South Australia, and neighbouring parts of Western Australia and Northern Territory
Bama in north-east Queensland
Koori (or Koorie or Goori or Goorie) in New South Wales and Victoria
Murrawarri people in New South Wales (see Murrawarri Republic and Muruwari language)
Murri in southern Queensland
Gunggari in South-west Queensland
Noongar in southern Western Australia
Yamatji (or Yamaji) in coastal and midwest Western Australia
Nunga in southern South Australia
Palawah (or Pallawah) in Tasmania