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The word "aboriginal" means "the first" or "earliest known". The word was first used in Italy and Greece to describe people who lived there, natives or old inhabitants, not newcomers, or invaders.
Australia may well be the home of the worlds first people. Stone tools discovered in a quarry near Penrith, New South Wales, in 1971 show that humans lived in Australia at least twelve thousand years before they appeared in Europe.
So far three early sites have been discovered in Australia, the Penrith one being dated about forty-seven thousand years old, a Western Australian site forty thousand years old and another in Lake Mungo, New South Wales, thirty-five thousand years old.To put this in perspective, so that we can appreciate the time scales, since the first fleet arrived in 1788 there have only been 8 generations of settlers. On the other hand, there have been in excess of 18,500 generations of aboriginals!
The first recorded sighting of Australia was in 1606 by the Dutch captain of "Duyfken" William Jansz who described the natives as "...savage, cruel, black barbarians who slew some of our sailors". In the same year the Spaniard, Luis Vaez de Torres sailed around the strait that bears his name. He described the natives as "...very corpulent and naked. Their arms were lances, arrows, and clubs of stone ill fashioned". Jan Carstenz in 1623 described several armed encounters with Aboriginals, and judged the country "...the most arid and barren region that could be found anywhere on earth; the inhabitants too, are the most wretched and poorest creatures that I have ever seen in my age or time". As a result of such reports the Dutch government decided the land that was not suitable for colonisation.
Macassans: The First Visitors?
In northern Arnhem Land, and on Melville and Bathurst Islands, the Aboriginals carved special wooden grave posts. These posts were adapted from the masts of the Macassan boats that visited the northern coast each year from Macassar and Celedes to collect trepang.
The Macassan visitors came in what the Aboriginals regard as historic times, and their camps were both large and well organised. The campsites are still marked by tamarind trees, which grew from the seeds of the fruit, dropped by the fishermen.
The Macassan introduced the dugout canoes and taught the Aboriginals the use of steel in making knives, spear blades and tomahawks. The Aboriginals watched or took part in the entertainment and ceremonies; they learned to play cards, and began to adapt their song rhythms to the strange tunes and sounds of foreign musical instruments.
The Aboriginals learned more about the culture of the visitors by travelling to Macassar with the fishermen, returning with the fleet the following season; some of them remained in Macassar. The Aboriginals adopted some Macassan words into their own languages; for example compass directions, names of tools and parts of the boats. The names of Macassans are still remembered, and Aboriginals often adopted Macassan names as well as their own.
The Aboriginal flag is divided horizontally into two equal halves of black (top) and red (bottom), with a yellow circle in the centre. The black symbolises Aboriginal people and the yellow represents the sun, the constant renewer of life. Red depicts the earth and also represents ochre, which is used by Aboriginal People in ceremonies.
The flag - designed by Harold Thomas - was first flown at Victoria Square, Adelaide, on National Aborigines' Day on 12 July 1971. It was used later at the Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972.
Today the flag has been adopted by all Aboriginal groups and is flown or displayed permanently at Aboriginal centres throughout Australia.
The Torres Strait Islander flag - designed by the late Bernard Namok - stands for the unity and identity of all Torres Strait Islanders.
It features three horizontal coloured stripes, with green at the top and bottom and blue in between - divided by thin black lines.
A white dhari (headdress) sits in the centre, with a five-pointed white underneath it. The colour green is for the land, and the dhari is a symbol of all Torres Strait Islanders. The black represents the people and the blue is for the sea. The five-pointed start represents the island groups. Used in navigation, the star is also an important symbol for the seafaring Torres Strait Islander people. The colour white of the star represents peace.