A small rural Aboriginal community in northern Australia was surveyed for diabetes, impaired glucose tolerance (IGT), hyperinsulinemia, and lipid levels. Of the 122 adults greater than 17 yr of age who participated (95% response rate), 11.5% had diabetes, 7.4% had IGT, and the remaining 81.1% had normal glucose tolerance. Both diabetes and IGT were strongly age related. This high frequency of diabetes occurred, despite the population being relatively lean. Although the body mass index (BMI) increased with age in both men and women, only 25% of the population overall had BMI greater than 25 kg/m2. There were wide ranges of insulin responses to glucose, with the upper tertile of 2-h insulin levels being more than seven times higher than the lower tertile (144 +/- 13 vs. 19 +/- 1 mU/L). Hyperinsulinemia was associated with IGT, elevated triglycerides, and lower high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. Lipid abnormalities were much more frequent among men than women. Cholesterol levels were an average of 0.55 mM higher and triglycerides an average of 1.05 mM higher in men than in women, and both increased with age. In conclusion, this small isolated Aboriginal population from northern Australia had an unexpectedly high frequency of diabetes (in view of their relative leanness) in association with a high frequency of metabolic abnormalities indicative of insulin resistance (hyperinsulinemia, IGT, hypertriglyceridemia).