There has been considerable debate about the size and distribution of the Indigenous population of Australia prior to the arrival of British settlers. A summary of the various estimates made from 1930 (Radcliffe-Brown) to 1980 is provided in Len Smith's important book The Aboriginal Population of Australia (Smith 1980). The methodology used by Radcliffe-Brown was to divide the country into tribal areas and then to employ archaeological material, settlers' accounts and other information to estimate the likely population of each tribe. A similar approach has been applied in almost all subsequent estimates. Smith estimated that the Indigenous population was probably somewhere in the region of 300,000 to 500,000 at the time of British settlement, but he concluded that 'there is probably little to be gained by devoting further attention to this question' (Smith 1980:76).
However, this has not stopped the discussion, and debate rages to this very day; the range of possibilities has extended much beyond that described by Smith. For example, Butlin (1983) argued that the original population had been considerably larger, a claim disputed by Gray (1985). In terms of establishment of heritage, there indeed does not seem to be much point to this debate. It is clear that Indigenous settlement is tens of thousands of years old and, because of this, the number of Indigenous people who have ever lived in Australia, as Len Smith has demonstrated, is certainly massively higher than the number of non-Indigenous people who have ever lived here. It is also indisputable that Indigenous peoples held sovereignty over the land and exercised systems of law and justice prior to British settlement. This surely establishes heritage and prior ownership. There may be a point in estimating the impact of British settlement on the Indigenous population, but the result of such research is almost certain to be circular; that is, the result will be a product of the assumptions made in obtaining it.
Very little research has been conducted on the size and distribution of the Indigenous population from first British settlement until the 1980s. The outstanding exception is