During 1803–33, the population of the Tasmanian Aborigines was reduced from an estimate of around 5,000 to around 300, largely from diseases introduced by British settlers and conflict with British settlers. The last confirmed ""full blooded"" Palawa, a woman called Trugernanner (often rendered as Truganini), died in 1876. However, many people of Palawa descent remain and some aspects of traditional Palawa culture have survived among them.
Almost all of the Indigenous Tasmanian languages have been lost. Currently there are some efforts to reconstruct one of the languages from the available wordlists and to revive the aboriginal culture from aspects maintained in some families who can trace their ascendancy from aboriginal people. Some members of the modern-day descendant community who claim ancestry to Tasmanian Aborigines are the result of the pre-colonisation Aboriginal population having been heavily intermixed with later-arriving European settler communities (particularly those originating from the British Isles).
In the Warreen Cave in the Maxwell River valley of the south-west archaeologists have recently excavated materials proving Aboriginal occupation from as early as 35,000BP which proves that the indigenous Tasmanians were the most southerly population in the world during the pleistocene era.
After the sea rose to create Bass Strait the two land masses of the Australian mainland and the island of Tasmania became separated, and the Aboriginals that had migrated from mainland Australia became cut off from their cousins on the mainland. Because neither side had ocean sailing technology the two groups were unable to maintain contact with each other.
It had been a long held view that unlike other populations around the world the small population of Tasmania wasn't able to share any of the new technological advances being made by mainland groups, thus making Tasmanian Aboriginals the simplest people on Earth. It had also been thought that like the mainland Aborigines, they did have stone age technology but because of the ocean divide they didn't share any of the mainland Aboriginal advances like: barbed spears, bone tools of any kind, boomerangs, hooks, sewing, and the ability to start a fire.
However recent archaeological evidence has started to challenge these views. Very little is known about the nature of social, cultural, or territorial history of the Tasmanian Aborigines, but archaeological research has provided ethnographic evidence that debunks many long held myths about Tasmanian Aborigines. Although an explanation has not been found, it has been determined that approximately 4,000 years ago, the Tasmanian Aborigines largely dropped seafood from their diet, and began to eat more land mammals such as possums, kangaroos, and wallabies. They also switched from worked bone tools to sharpened stone tools. It is now believed that they also constructed basic wooden shelters and small domed 'huts' to protect themselves during chilly winter months, although it seems they preferred to live in cave dwellings.
It had also been a long held view that the Tasmanian Aborigines had lost the ability to create fire, however recently found evidence not only debunks this belief , but suggests that like their mainland cousins, the Tasmanian Aborigines used fire to clear land and herd animals to aid in hunting practices. It may now seem as though they were better seafarers than previously thought, and were able to construct canoes which were sturdy enough to enable them to navigate to off-lying islands and exploit the seal colonies of the south and west coasts.
It is believed that prior to European arrival in Tasmania, the Aboriginal people of Tasmania were divided into nine main tribes with a combined population of between 4,000 to 10,000 people. Each tribe consisted of groups of between six and fifteen 'bands' of forty to fifty people. Although they seemed to remain loosely within regions of the island, the Tasmanian aborigines were a primarily nomadic people who lived in adjoining territory, moving from area to area based on seasonal changes in food supplies such as seafood, land mammals and native vegetables and berries. The different tribes shared similar languages and culture. They socialized, intermarried and fought 'wars' against other tribes.
These practices also increased conflict over women among Aboriginal tribes. This in turn led to a decline in the Aboriginal population. European disease, however, does not appear to have become a serious factor until after 1829.
Rapid pastoral expansion and an increase in the colony's population triggered Aboriginal resistance from 1824 onwards. Whereas settlers and stock keepers had previously provided rations to the Aborigines during their seasonal movements across the settled districts, and recognised this practice as some form of payment for trespass, the new settlers and stock keepers were unwilling to maintain these arrangements.
So the Aborigines began to raid settlers' huts for food. This resistance first took shape in 1824 when it has been estimated by Lyndall Ryan that 1000 Aborigines remained in the settled districts.
Between 1826 and 1831 a pattern of guerrilla warfare by the Aborigines was identified by the colonists, some of whom acknowledged the Aborigines as fighting for their country. The colonial government responded with a series of measures to limit the conflict, culminating in the declaration of martial law in 1828.
The Black War of 1828-32 and the Black Line of 1830 were turning points in the relationship with European settlers. Even though the tribes managed to avoid capture during these events, they were shaken by the size of the campaigns against them.
George Augustus Robinson, a Christian missionary, befriended Truganini, learned some of the local language and in 1833 managed to persuade the remaining "full-blooded" people to move to a new settlement on Flinders Island, where he promised a modern and comfortable environment, and that they would be relocated to the Tasmanian mainland as soon as possible.
Once on Flinders Island, they were left to their own devices. Of the 300 who arrived with Robinson, tragically 250 died in the following 14 years in poor conditions.
In 1847, the 47 survivors were transferred to their final settlement at Oyster Cove, where — no longer perceived as a threat — they were often dressed up and paraded on official engagements. In 1859 their numbers were estimated at around a dozen; the last survivor died in 1876.
The remains of the Oyster Cove people were treated with disrespect during the 1860s, with many museums claiming body parts for their collections, even though one of the central traits of Aboriginal belief is that a soul can only be at rest when laid in its homeland. In one case, the Royal Society of Tasmania received permission to exhume the body of Truganini in 1878 on condition that it was "decently deposited in a secure resting place accessible by special permission to scientific men for scientific purposes." Her skeleton was on display in the Tasmanian Museum until 1947.
Other cases included the removal of the skull and scrotum — for a tobacco pouch — of William Lanne, known as King Billy, on his death in 1869.
Body parts and ornaments are still being returned from collections today, with the Royal College of Surgeons of England returning samples of Truganini's skin and hair (in 2002).
During the 20th century, the absence of "full blood" Palawa and a general unawareness of the surviving populations, mean that many non-Palawa assumed they were extinct, after the death of Truganini in 1876. Since the mid 1970s Tasmanian Aboriginal activists such as Michael Mansell have sought to broaden awareness and identification with Aboriginal descent.
There is a dispute within the Tasmanian Aboriginal community over what constitutes Aboriginality. A group that identifies itself as the Lia-Pootah claim to be descendants of Tasmanian Aboriginal women, many of whom had been abducted and had children with European sealers that worked in the Bass Strait in the nineteenth century. The Lia Pootah feel that the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre represent the Palawa politically but not the Lia Pootah.
More recently there have been initiatives to introduce DNA testing to establish family history in descendant subgroups. This has drawn an angry reaction from some quarters,, as some have claimed spiritual connection with aboriginality distinct from, but not as important as the existence of a genetic link.
The Tasmanian Palawa Aboriginal community is also making an effort to reconstruct and reintroduce a Tasmanian language, called palawa kani out of the various records on Tasmanian languages. Other Tasmanian aboriginal communities use words from traditional Tasmanian languages, according to the language area they were born or live in.
Under the bill, a person can claim "Tasmanian Aboriginality" if they meet the following criteria:
On 13 August, 1997 a Statement of Apology (specific to removal of children) was issued - which was unanimously supported by the Tasmanian Parliament - the wording of the sentence was
There are many people currently working in the community, academia, various levels of government and NGOs to strengthen what has been termed as the Tasmanian Aboriginal culture and the conditions of those who identify as members of the descendant community.
In November 2006 Tasmania became the first Australian state or territory to offer financial compensation for the Stolen Generations, Aborigines forcibly removed from their families by Australian government agencies and church missions between about 1900 and 1972. Up to 40 Tasmanian Aborigine descendants are expected to be eligible for compensation from the $5 million package.