At the time the First Fleet sailed through the heads of Sydney Harbour in 1788, it is estimated that there were over 500 different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages groups across Australia. Archaeological tests have dated Aboriginal presence in Australia as far back as 60 000 years and Torres Strait Islander people to 2500 years.

It wasn’t just language groups that were diverse. Indigenous lifestyles were naturally dependent upon a close relationship with the local environment – so the way of life for people living in Tasmania was vastly different to that of the people living in north-east coastal Australia. One of the ways Aboriginal people identify themselves is as ‘freshwater’ or ‘saltwater’ people, indicating which they are dependent upon for a large part of their sustenance.

The term ‘Indigenous’ is used to cover Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Some people don’t like this term and prefer to be described as ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Torres Strait Islander’. Sometimes they prefer to be referred to by the Aboriginal nation from which they are descended. Torres Strait Islanders make up about 10% of the Indigenous community with some people (4%) identifying as both Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal because of the mix of their parentage.

Aboriginal people across Australia have different names for themselves as well. For example, ‘Koori’ is used in Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory and parts of New South Wales; ‘Murri’ is used in Queensland and northern New South Wales; ‘Noongar’ is used in south-western Western Australia; ‘Nunga’ is used in South Australia; and, ‘Palawa’ is used in Tasmania.

Hot Tip: Defining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

The accepted definition in Australia for people to be identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander for the purposes of inclusion in Indigenous-specific programs is a three-part test. A person must:

  • have Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander ancestry
  • identify themselves as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander
  • be accepted as Indigenous by the Indigenous community.

The third part of this test may be difficult to meet for people who had been removed from their families as children and didn’t grow up in the Indigenous community.

Today, Indigenous people make up 3% of the total population and their cultures are as diverse today as they were in 1788. For a long period of time, it was impossible to accurately estimate the actual number of Indigenous people living in Australia. It wasn’t until 1967, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people began to be included in the census that a more accurate picture of the numbers emerged.

In 1901, when Australia became a federation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander numbers had been so dramatically depleted as a result of colonisation (particularly through disease, frontier violence and destructions of traditional ways of life) that it was assumed that Indigenous people were a dying race. It was estimated in 1901 that there were about 93 000 Indigenous people. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, this number had dropped to 62 000 in 1921 and started to increase from then, reaching 115 953 in 1971, the first time that Indigenous people were formally included in the national census.

Since then, the numbers have bounced back. In 1981, there were 159 897 people who identified as Indigenous, by 1996 there were 386 000 and in the 2010 census there were 669 881 out of a total Australian population of 21 670 143. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has estimated that the Indigenous population will grow by 2.2% every year up until 2021 while the rest of the Australian population will grow by between 1.2-1.7% over the same period of time.

Various reasons are given for this increase in numbers. Firstly, as discriminatory practices have lessened and there are no longer laws that regulate the lives of Indigenous people, and the broader community now perceives that there is much less or no stigma attached to being Indigenous, it has made it easier for people to identify. Secondly, the impact of the policy of removing light-skinned Aboriginal children from their parents for adoption into white families meant that some Aboriginal people were not aware, or could not prove, that they were Aboriginal and only after finding their birth parents could they identify themselves as Indigenous. Thirdly, compared to the rest of the Australian population, statistically, Indigenous people are much younger and Indigenous families have larger numbers of children. The average age of the Indigenous population is 21.8 years compared to 37.6 for the rest of Australia.

Where do Indigenous people live?

  • most (43.8%) Indigenous people live in rural communities
  • 34.8% live in cities (with western Sydney having the largest population in Australia)
  • 21.4% of Indigenous people live in remote areas
  • the largest numbers of Indigenous people live in New South Wales and Queensland.
Where do Indigenous people live


Population number

Percentage of Indigenous population

Percentage of total

New South Wales

208 476




47 333




188 954



South Australia

37 408



Western Australia

88 270




24 165



Northern Territory

68 850



Australian Capital Territory





669 881
(includes other territories)



Source: Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, June 2011, ABS.