About East Arnhem Land


© Blue Douglas

About the region

East Arnhem Land is in the north-eastern corner of the Northern Territory and covers about 34,000 square kilometres.

The region has an estimated population of 16,000, of whom 12,000 are traditional owners. Yolngu have lived in the region for at least 50,000 years.  Yolngu people practice the longest continuous traditional culture in Australia, maintaining strong ties with their land, religion and customs.

Nhulunbuy, 600km east of Darwin, is the region’s service hub. Originally established in the 1960’s, as a mining town to service the local bauxite mine and alumina plant, the township has since expanded into a large regional centre, servicing the wider regional population.



The earliest history of East Arnhem Land is recorded in the paintings, dances and songs of the Yolngu.  These stories tell of creation ancestors; bringing lands and waters, people, animals and plants into being and laying down the Law that governs them all. This Law defines who owns and manages the region’s lands and waters, which remain essential features of Yolngu identity and culture.

Click here to read “Journey of the Wititj”
(Serpent, Olive python) by Dhänggal Gurruwiwi



The Yolngu people have a proud history of trade and commerce, having had a great deal of contact with outsiders for several hundred years, including Macassan traders who travelled from Sulawesi every year with the north-west wind of the monsoon to collect trepang (sea cucumber) for the China trade. They brought with them metal knives, cloth and tobacco to trade, and Macassan words and songs, which are part of Yolngu culture today.

Nhulunbuy’s industrial history commenced in the 1960’s when a bauxite and alumina industry was established.

The regional economy has been built on the twin pillars of mining and administration, supported by strong manufacturing, construction and retail sectors.

In 2013-14, the entire region contributed around $1.3 billion or 7% to the Territory’s Gross State Product.

Although the suspension of production at the Gove Alumina Refinery will affect the population of Nhulunbuy in the short term, Rio Tinto Alcan estimates that its bauxite operation will contribute more than $500 million to the region over the next five years through expenditure on salaries and wages and spending with local suppliers.