Aboriginal population in Australia

Almost two thirds of Aboriginal people live in Australia’s eastern states. Most of them are young and identify as coming from mainland Australia.

Selected statistics

Percentage of Aboriginal people in Australia's population [8].
Approximate Aboriginal population in 1900 [3].
Number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 2011 [8].
Estimated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in Australia in 2021 [3].
Annual growth rate of the Aboriginal population. Same rate for non-Aboriginal population: 1.2 to 1.7% [3].

Aboriginal population figures

Experts estimate the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders at more than 770,000 at the time of the invasion in 1788 [3]. It fell to its low of around 117,000 people in 1900, a decrease by 84%.

At present, 3% of Australia’s population identify as Aboriginal [8].

It will take until 2021 for population figures to recover. If the current annual growth rate of 2.2% remains stable Aboriginal people can be as many as 721,000 by 2021 [3] and more than 900,000 by 2026 [11].

The faster growth in the Aboriginal population (compared to 1.6% for the general Australian population) is the result of higher levels of fertility and better life expectancy. More Aboriginal people move into peak child-bearing age between now and 2026 [11].

The median age for Aboriginal people, currently 22, is projected to reach 25 by 2026. But this remains much younger than the median age in the general population, which is currently 37 and is expected to rise above 40 by 2026 [11].

A problem is though how many people identify themselves as Aboriginal. “There are a large number of people who don’t answer the Indigenous question in the Census,” explains Patrick Corr, Director of Demography with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) [4].

It is not unusual for people to identify, de-identify, or re-identify as Aboriginal on official documents such as the Census, making the job hard for statisticians.

“We have approximately 1.1 million people whose Indigenous status we don’t know, so we have made some assumptions,” concedes Corr. This uncertainty lets the ABS tag some figures as ‘experimental estimates’.

Tip How much do you really know? Take the quiz about Aboriginal population and share your result!

Where Aboriginal people live

Contrary to what many people think (and to the stereotype of Australian advertising) the majority of Aboriginal people live in Australia’s eastern states and not in the remote desert regions of the continent [1].

The majority of Aboriginal people lives in New South Wales and Queensland.

More than 66% of Aboriginal people live in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria while Western Australia and the Northern Territory contribute only 24% of the Aboriginal population. Queensland is expected to overtake NSW for the title of most Aboriginal residents [3].

The population is the lowest in South Australia (5.6%) and Tasmania (3.6%). The Australian Capital Territory is home to only 0.9% of Australia’s Aboriginal people.

The Northern Territory has the largest proportion of its population who are Aboriginal (30%), compared with 4.7% or less for all other states and the Australian Capital Territory.

Pie diagram showing where Aboriginal people live in Australia. Aboriginal population in Australia. About 60% of Australia’s Aboriginal people live in New South Wales or Queensland. The figures are almost stable since 2001 [1].

Myth: Most Aboriginal people live in the outback

In 2006 the majority (75%) of Aboriginal people lived in cities and non-remote areas. 32% lived in major cities, 21% in inner regional areas and 22% in outer regional areas. Contrary to what is commonly believed, only a quarter lived in remote (9%) and very remote (15%) areas [9].

Most Aboriginal people live in cities.

However, these general statistics hide the fact that percentages differ vastly for states and territories, as the following table shows [14]

Urban, regional and remote distribution of Aboriginal people (in %)
State or territoryUrbanRegional*Remote**
Australian Capital Territory100
New South Wales42525
Northern Territory***1981
South Australia483319
Western Australia342441

* Includes inner and outer regional areas. ** Includes remote and very remote areas. *** Darwin and Hobart are classified as regional areas.

90% of Aboriginal people live in areas covering 25% of Australia, while 90% of non-Aboriginal people live in the most densely populated 2.6% of the continent [6]. (Compare this to who owns how much of the land!)

Aboriginal population numbers are expected to expand more rapidly in urban areas (2.6% a year) than in remote areas (1% a year) [11].

Pie diagram showing in which regions Aboriginal people live in Australia. Aboriginal people live in cities, not the outback. It is a common myth that the average Aboriginal Australian lives in a remote community. Only a quarter do so [9].

More than a third of Aboriginal Australians (36.6%) live among the most disadvantaged 10% of the population and only 1.7% live among the top 10% [10].

Fact Of any single region in Australia, western Sydney has the highest concentration of Aboriginal people. According to the census, around 2 million people were living in greater western Sydney in 2006. A little more than 25,000 of them identified as Aboriginal descent. [12]


The Aboriginal population is relatively young. In the 2006 census, the median age was 20 years, compared with 37 years for non-Aboriginal people [2]. 65% of the Aboriginal community is less than 30 years old, compared with 39% of non-Aboriginal people [5]. The Aboriginal birth rate is 25% higher than that of all of Australia.

Just 3.4% of the Aboriginal population are over 65 years old, while 14.1% of non-Aboriginal Australians are in that age bracket [8]. For 2021 the median age is expected to increase to 24 years [3], and the elderly population to double.

Graph showing how the Aboriginal population has a strong young base and few seniors, while the non-Aboriginal population is pear-shaped. Aboriginal population distribution. The much younger age structure of the Aboriginal population is largely a product of relatively high levels of fertility and mortality compared with the non-Aboriginal population [8].

Aboriginal households

In 2011 the average size of Aboriginal households was 3.3 persons, while it was 2.6 in non-Aboriginal households [9].

Three-quarters (75.1%) of Aboriginal households were one family households. Just over a quarter (26.6%) of Aboriginal households were couple family with dependent children and a similar proportion (27.1%) was families without dependent children.

One parent families with dependent children comprised 21% of all Aboriginal households, while 14% were lone person households.


90% of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population identified themselves as Aboriginal people (coming from mainland Australia), 6% as Torres Strait Islanders (far North Queensland) and 4% of both origins [2].

Young Aboriginal mother with her baby. Aboriginal population is on the rise. The Australian Bureau of Statistics expects it to increase by 204,000 in the next 15 years [3]. Photo:

Human Development Index

The United Nations use a way of measuring and comparing the development of countries by combining indicators of life expectancy, educational attainment and income into a composite human development index, the HDI.

The UN publishes the HDI annually since 1990. While the result looks very good for Australia, it’s a very different story when considering Aboriginal people separately [7].

Human Development Index 2001
CountryIndex for entire populationIndex for Aboriginal population
New Zealand2073
United States730

Analysing odd population figures

Joe Lane took a close look at Australian Census Aboriginal population numbers.[13] He thought they were odd.

The National Census counts Aboriginal people since 1971. But there’s an oddity: While you would expect population numbers for each age group to fall over time due to mortality, numbers have risen from one Census to the next as Aboriginal people aged.

For example, the 1971 Census recorded 18,873 Aboriginal people in total. By 2006 mortality would have reduced that number to about 15,000. But the 2006 Census recorded 30,783 Aboriginal people born between 1966 and 1971 - more than double the number expected.

The same applies to all age-groups between 1971 and 2011. But why?

Most likely Aboriginal people re-identify with their culture, i.e. if they previously did not identify as Aboriginal they do so in later surveys. (For full details see

Assuming the 2011 Census figures are reliable one can then work backwards to establish more reliable population figures for earlier years. Doing so yields figures more than twice the original Census estimates. Instead of the Aboriginal population growing from 106,290 in 1971 to 548,370 in 2011 (more than 5 times), the total Aboriginal population in 1971, identified as Aboriginal or not, was more like 300,000 to 320,000, or about 3 times the original figure. That means the population grew not 5 times, but between 1.7 and 1.8 times.

If this analysis is roughly right, the annual population growth is much less than the official 4% and more like 1.6 - 1.8%. This means the proportion of Australians who are Aboriginal has probably not risen in those 40 years: it has always been around 2.4%, and the Aboriginal birth-rate has not been 3% per year but more like 1.6 - 1.4%.


View article sources (14)

[1] 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population', Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2008
[2] 'Census shows more identify as Indigenous', Koori Mail 404 p.7
[3] 'Our population is expected to boom', Koori Mail 460 p.5
[4] 'Doubt over 517,000 Indigenous population', Koori Mail 434 p.16
[5] 'Targets set to improve quality of lives', Koori Mail 393 p.10
[6] 'Introducing Indigenous Australia', information leaflet, NSW Department of Indigenous Affairs, c.2001
[7] 'State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples', report, United Nations 2009, p.23
[8] 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population estimates, 2011 - preliminary', Australian Bureau of Statistics 12/2012
[9] 'Healthy for Life - Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services Report Card', Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra 2013
[10] 'NACCHO Aboriginal health alert: Report reveals Aboriginal socio-economic disadvantage', NACCHO Aboriginal Health News Alerts 16/10/2013
[11] 'Indigenous population to grow by a third by 2026, ABS projects', SMH 30/4/2014
[12] 'Indigenous health service in Sydney's west to close', ABC 21/7/2015
[13] Joe Lane, personal email, 9/5/2016
[14] '4705.0 - Population Distribution, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2006', Australian Bureau of Statistics 15/8/2007

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:,
Aboriginal culture - People - Aboriginal population in Australia, retrieved 30 March 2017