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There are no accurate estimates of the population of Australia before European settlement. Many estimates were based on post-1788 observations of a population already reduced by introduced diseases and other factors. Smith (1980) estimated the absolute minimum pre-1788 population at 315,000. Other estimates have put the figure at over 1 million, while recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 750,000 could have been sustained.
The Indigenous population has a much younger age structure than that of the total Australian population (see graph 5.8), with 39% of the population aged under 15 (compared to 21% for the total population), and only 3% aged over 65 (compared to 13% of the total population). In 2001, the median age of the Indigenous population was 21 years, compared to 36 years for the total population.
This age structure is largely a product of high fertility and high mortality among the Indigenous population. Although the total fertility rate among Indigenous women has fallen in recent decades, from around six babies per woman in the 1960s to 2.1 babies per woman in 2001, it remains higher than the total fertility rate among the total female population (1.7 babies per woman in 2001). The high mortality experienced by the Indigenous population is reflected in life expectancy at birth, which in 1998-2000 was about 56 years for males and 63 years for females - around 20 years less than the respective life expectancies of all males and females in Australia in 1998-2000.
5.8 AGE STRUCTURES OF THE INDIGENOUS AND TOTAL POPULATIONS - 2001
Source: Experimental Estimates of Indigenous Australians, Electronic Delivery (3238.0.55.001).
While most of the total Australian population is concentrated along the east and (to a lesser extent) the south-west coasts, the Indigenous population is much more widely spread (see map 5.9). About 90% of Australia's Indigenous population live in areas covering 23% of the continent whereas 90% of Australia's total population are contained within just 2.2% of the continent. This reflects the fact that Indigenous people are much more likely to live in remote areas than the rest of the population, and that there is a higher level of urbanisation among the non-Indigenous population than the Indigenous population. However, most Indigenous people live in urban areas of Australia.
5.9 DISTRIBUTION OF THE INDIGENOUS POPULATION(a) - 2001
(a) Represents a random distribution within Statistical Local Area boundaries.
Source: 2001 Census of Population and Housing.