As the aborigines tell it, their troubles began in 1770. That was when Capt. James Cook landed at Botany Bay south of what is now Sydney.

The effect of the subsequent influx of Europeans on Australia's original inhabitants was disastrous. The settlers drove the aborigines off their lands, sometimes slaughtering them, and brought in new diseases that decimated them. Over the next 100 years the aborigines dropped from about 300,000 to 60,000 and their extinction seemed likely.

Then in the 1920s, the aboriginal population began to grow again. By this year it was estimated to exceed 170,000, about 1.2 percent of Australia's 14.7 million people.

To this day, many aborigines live much as they are believed to have lived for 40,000 years.

As primitive hunter-gatherers rooted in the paleolithic era, aborigines moved across the land seasonally in small tribes and carried only a few crude tools for hunting, foraging and cooking. Although they never wove cloth, made pottery, used beasts of burden or developed a written language, they lived in egalitarian societies in harmony with nature.

Because the aborigines did not grow crops or herd animals, the Europeans believed they had no attachment to the land. In fact, the land meant everything to them, and possession of it today lies at the core of the dispute with Australian authorities.

The essence of this attachment is the aboriginal concept of the "Dreamtime," a vaguely defined halcyon era thousands of years ago when the earth was young and full of innocence and great semihuman creatures roamed the land.

Aborigines believe that these mythical "heroes of the Dreamtime" created man and other living things and gave the landscape its physical features. When the Dreamtime mysteriously ended, the aborigines believe, the spirits of the heroes came to reside in certain natural features that were thereafter "sacred sites."

This spiritual affiliation with the land is even more important for aborigines because of their belief that for a child to be born, a "spirit-child" from one of the Dreamtime heroes' sites must enter the mother. The place, the spirit and the person then form a timeless link.

Besides creating their world, aborigines believe, the Dreamtime heroes gave them all their tools, laws and rituals.

According to anthropologist Charles Mountford, "The myths . . . are accepted as absolute truth and an answer to all the questions of living. The saying, 'As it was done in the Dreamtime, so must it be done today,' has established the laws of behavior that all must obey."