Nobody knows exactly when the first Australians arrived. Some say 50,000 years ago. Others say it could have been as far back as 120,000. But one thing is for sure. The Aborginals (the word means "indigenous") of Australia have the oldest continuous culture in the world.
Europeans had heard tales of a mythical southern land (terra australis) for centuries. The Greek geographer Ptolemy speculated a large southern land mass was necessary to help balance the globe. The continent went "undiscovered" for more than 2,000 years. Then in 1770, Capt. James Cook raised the Union Jack over Botany Bay and things would never be the same.
The British founded their colony of New South Wales under the legal principle of terra nullias, which meant the land was technically unoccupied. The English then proceeded to take whatever land they wanted from the native inhabitants, in much the same way land was taken from American Indians.
The idea of owning land was foreign to the native Australians. People belonged to the land; the land did not belong to the people. This conflict of cultures resulted in the widespread decimation of the native population. The aboriginals were no match for the diseases and rapid-fire rifles that came with the white man.
In some places, such as Tasmania, the aboriginals were wiped out practically to the last man, woman and child. There was some resistance. Up until the 1920s, whites still were killed in northern and central Australia.
But the aboriginals faired much better in court than on the battlefield. The Aboriginal Lands Rights Act of 1976 gave the country's original inhabitants some say over their ancesteral lands in the Northern Territory. Since then, the aboriginals have had more defeats than triumphs when it comes to land rights.
Today, the aboriginal land rights issue is a sore topic among many Australians. Many people still refer to aboriginals as "abbos," a derogatory term used much in the same way as "redskin."
Some of the remaining aboriginals, less than two percent of the country's population, plan to use the Olympics as a forum to protest their treatment.