What does "Terra Nullius" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Latin term terra nullius, meaning “land belonging to no person” is used to refer to lands not associated with a specific sovereign or government. While the term implies that the land is empty, in actuality it was often used to describe regions inhabited by indigenous peoples, such as Australia. Colonizing nations claimed that the land belonged to no one and therefore they had the right to occupy it.

"Terra nullius" often is used to refer to sections of Antarctica.
"Terra nullius" often is used to refer to sections of Antarctica.

This term has a loaded and complex history. In terms of the history of colonialism, terra nullius could be better thought of as a term used to describe an area that is not subject to a European-style government. A number of nations with complex social and political structures were occupied by European powers on the grounds that they were terra nullius, despite the demonstrable fact that people were already there and using the territory.

Indigenous groups in several regions of the world filed suits during the 20th century in attempts to restore title to their land or lay claim to land of particular importance to them, such as religious sites. These groups argued that the circumstances under which the land was taken were false, as colonizers claimed the land was not in use and wasn't subject to any government when this was not the case. Some of these suits were successful, restoring important sites to indigenous control.

This concept has also been used to literally describe land that belongs to no one, such as the no man's land found on the borders of some nations. In a few regions of the world, border disputes and redrawings have resulted in situations where there are strips of land that no one has laid claim to. Officially, the land belongs to no one and no government or entity considers the land its responsibility or property. Sections of Antarctica are often described as terra nullius, although by common agreement they are not exploited, as Antarctica is considered a resource for all of humanity.

In modern contexts, people occasionally use this term to describe land that does not appear to be subject to a government as discussed above. Because of the association with terra nullius and colonialism, this usage is not universal, and it is advisable to use this term with care. In the sense of land truly belonging to nobody, terra nullius is quite rare, as most human societies are reluctant to allow unclaimed land in their vicinity to lie fallow and unused.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Perhaps some land should be held in common in a community, and it usually is, in parks and things. And if they didn't make sure it was kept clean and tidy and safe, it would quickly become ugly.

I have no problem with the government or local councils owning land as long as they take care of it.

I know that it shouldn't have been taken from indigenous people, but we have to live in the world we have right now, and right now there are just too many people to try and bring back tracts of land that are terra nullius.

Too many people means that there are always going to be those around who will exploit whatever they can, which is why land has long ago been divided up, and now we can only do what we can with it.


This term was used in some of the most tragic actions of humanity's past. It shows a fundamental difference between the colonizing nations and the indigenous peoples they displaced.

I mean, I guess they arrived in a new place, saw that the land wasn't being farmed in lots of places and just assumed that meant it wasn't being used.

But, hunter gatherer societies need huge tracts of uncultivated land in order to thrive. This is not even mentioning the spiritual and cultural aspects of land.

I think the colonists probably knew they were doing something wrong, and did it anyway. It makes me sad.


I often wish that more terra nullius existed. I think of all the homeless people and those who have lost their homes to foreclosure, and I wish that they had free land to claim.

The homeless could set up camp in tents on terra nullius, even if they had no resources to build permanent homes. I’m sure that charitable organizations would contribute to constructing dwellings for the homeless if land were readily available.

Especially in the United States, that is just a dream. I don’t know if even one square foot of land is terra nullius here. It’s hard to imagine we were once the land of opportunity, the great unexplored terrain.

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