The Aborigines were the first people to live in Australia. How long they were there before the first Europeans arrived is uncertain. Various factors make certainty about how long Australia has been inhabited, whether there were one or more waves of migration, and whether they came from island or mainland Asia impossible. The most commonly given estimate is between 48,000 and 50,000 years ago. Discoveries of Aboriginal art engravings in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, however, indicate Aborigines may have inhabited Australia for more than 116,000 to 176,000 years, crossing the sea from Indonesia to the Australian landmass. (The word aborigine means “the people who were here from the beginning.”) We may not yet know, however, how long Australia has been inhabited by hominids; new fossil evidence indicates that the history of humans in Australia may go back as far as 500,000 years.
Fossilized skulls found at Bathurst, New South Wales (NSW), have been identified as being of two distinct late Homo erectus types unrelated to the Aborigine. Some anthropologists now think that two distinct races of people inhabited Australia at the same time, during the last ice age and that these two races interbred to produce the modern Aborigine. The robust Kow Swamp race appears to be descendants of the Java Man (Homo erectus) of 500,000 years ago, while the smaller Lake Mungo race came to Australia from China, probably descendants of the Peking Man (Homo erectus pekinensis) and later Java type, Wadjak Man. An earlier cranium from Katoomba, NSW, is believed to be as much as 500,000 years old.
Although probably the oldest landmass in geological terms, Australia was the last to be visited by European adventurers. There are several reasons why, even though the existence of a large southern landmass had been postulated in the late Middle Ages. Europeans had failed to find what they called Terra Australis, in spite of active trade routes between Asia and Europe. Perhaps the most likely reason for their failure is its location. First, the continent was positioned off the oceanic-island trading corridor of the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, so there was no lucrative incentive to search for it. Second, Australia was hard to reach in the sailing ships of the day. The winds in the Southern Hemisphere have a tendency to veer north toward the equator west of Australia, and east of the continent strong headwinds discourage sailing into them.
The Dutch were the first European explorers to reach the continent. In 1616 the Dutch sailor Dirk Hartog (1580–1621) followed a new southern route across the Indian Ocean to an island off the coast of Western Australia. In 1688 William Dampier (1652–1715), an English pirate, landed in the northwest of what he called New Holland. After his return to England he published a book about his travels, entitledVoyages, and persuaded the naval authorities to finance another expedition to search for the continent’s wealth. His report on the second expedition (1699–1700), however, criticized the land and its people in such discouraging terms that the British lost interest in Australia for almost 70 years. In 1768 Captain James Cook (1728–79) left England on a three-year expedition to the Pacific, in the course of which he visited Australia. Cook landed first at Botany Bay on the eastern coast of Australia, and at Possession Island in the north where he named the region New South Wales and claimed it for England. Cook’s two additional voyages in the 1770s added to the information available about the Australian landmass and strengthened Britain’s claims to the continent. Australia was generally seen as a remote and unattractive land unfit for European settlement.
After the American Revolution ended in 1783, and Britain could no longer ship British convicts to America as it had done, it decided to establish its first settlement in Australia to solve the problem of overcrowded prisons. In 1788 Arthur Phillip (1738–1814), a naval officer, arrived at Port Jackson with his cargo of prisoners, where he found a near-perfect harbor. On January 26 (now commemorated as Australia Day) the first permanent European settlement in Australia was founded on January 26, 1788, and named Sydney for Lord Sydney (1733–1800), who had issued the charter for the colony.
By the mid-1800s Britain had two flourishing penal colonies in New South Wales and Western Australia, with nearly 150,000 prisoners. Among them 30 percent were Irish, 20 percent were women, and the majority hailed from Britain’s poorer classes. Unskilled British officers were granted large tracts of land, and convicts, many of them poorly educated or illiterate, were assigned to them as laborers. Later land grants were also extended to the prisoners who had been released after completing their sentences. In 1793 free settlers began arriving from England. During the period between 1820 and 1880, Australia witnessed several major developments: the establishment of new colonies along the coast, the expansion of sheep- and cattle- rearing in the interior, and the discovery of gold and other minerals in the eastern colonies. With the influx of immigrants and the growth of the cities and ports, the Australian colonies began to agitate for more democratic government. By the mid-1850s all four eastern colonies had instituted new systems that vested power in a cabinet or council of ministers responsible to a popularly elected assembly.
At the time Europeans began to arrive on the continent, it is estimated that the indigenous Australians numbered about 350,000, but the population steadily decreased over the next 150 years. Initially there were only a few confrontations between the settlers and the Aborigines around Sydney, even though there were many Aborigine campsites nearby. The causes of the declining Aboriginal population were infectious diseases to which the natives had no immunity and colonial government policies that included forced removal from their lands and separating children from their parents. It would be 1967 before the Europeans began to understand that their treatment of the indigenous people was wrong.
Once Britain established a penal colony on Van Diemen’s Land in 1803 (which they renamed Tasmania in the 1850s), the indigenous population that had inhabited the island for about 35,000 years was almost eradicated. Although the people had numbered about 5,000 when the British arrived, there were soon merely a few mixed race survivors. On the continent the story was much the same, and Aboriginal communities were destroyed on a large scale. In spite of the official British policy of protection, as the European population of Sydney continued to expand, and as the ranchers sought larger expanses of land for their sheep, Aboriginal communities retreated into the drier interior.
The official colonial policy of Britain throughout the 19th century was to treat the Aborigines as equals, with the intention of converting them to Christianity. Governor Macquarie established a school for Aboriginal children. Such gestures, however, underfinanced and generally unsupported in practice, were the exception. In fact change from a policy of protection to one of punishment was the usual direction in the colonies.
A number of Aboriginal people were assimilated into white settlements, while others assisted settlers as guides, trackers, and stockmen. But clashes, enmity, and sporadic violence were common as the settlers moved into the center of the country, encroaching on Aboriginal lands. Some Aborigines were employed on sheep stations, and others were used for police patrols. The colonists’ real attitude toward Aborigines is revealed by the fact that they were systematically hunted and poisoned. Aboriginal women were abducted and raped, and children were taken from their parents. While exceptions to the European hostility existed, it was the general assumption among the whites that Aboriginal culture would die out. On the local and colonial levels the active destruction or neglect of Aboriginal culture was often accompanied by the practice of segregation: The indigenous population was herded onto reserves and denied participation in the world of the colonists.
Forced to survive on increasingly meager supplies of food, the Aborigines’ numbers continued to decrease. By the 20th century those Aboriginal communities capable of sustaining their culture were mostly confined to the Northern Territory, Queensland, and New South Wales. Not until the 1950s did the colonial government begin to reconsider the inhumanity of its policies toward the Aboriginal population and attempt to reverse the consequences of Europeans’ past treatment of them. Then the Aboriginal population began to creep back to its preEuropean level, but it required a 1967 referendum for the federal government to begin to initiate policies that would actually benefit the Aborigines. It would still be years before Australia’s high court would recognize the Aborigines’ title to their land. During the 19th century the European population continued to grow, primarily along the coastline, where the capital cities of the six original colonies were located. Dense settlement of the continent’s interior was simply impossible. As gold mining in Victoria and New South Wales declined in the 1860s, even prospectors moved to the cities. By the beginning of the 20th century Sydney and Melbourne were among the world’s largest cities, even though the continent itself was sparsely populated. In spite of rapid urbanization the six capitals were engaged in intense rivalry, making unification and the necessary standardization difficult. Furthermore the individual colonies regarded their connections to each other as secondary to their ties with Great Britain. Victoria and New South Wales, for example, used different gauges for their railways, making rail travel between them impossible, and the project of standardization did not begin until the 1960s.
As a result of urbanization the capital cities dominated in all the colonies. In the 1850s, for example, merchants and professionals were the ones who demanded political reform and new constitutions. After 1850 it was the small urban manufacturers and the growth of mass trade unionism that made possible democratic governments, ensuring the passage of legislation that favored urban populations. It was Victoria’s workers, for example, who pioneered the eight-hour workday in 1856. Although the production of wool and new mineral discoveries continued to be the major economic supports in the colonies, their political systems managed to keep the large ranch owners and other wealthy families from dominating them.
Development of the Australian colonies into a single nation lacked the passionate nationalism of similar struggles in other colonies. Earl Grey (1764–1845), the colonial secretary of Britain, had considered unification of the colonies back in 1847, and John Dunmore Lang (1799–1878), a Scottish Presbyterian cleric in New South Wales, had formed the Australian League to work toward uniting Australia. With the formation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, however, British officials rejected the idea of a similar arrangement for Australia. Eventually Australia adopted its constitution in 1901. Based on British parliamentary traditions; it incorporated some features of the United States’ governmental system as well. The British sovereign is Australia’s head of state, and the Australian prime minister, accountable to the Australian parliament, is the head of the government. The states exercise all powers not specifically given to the federal government. In the course of the 20th century Australia began to develop both a national government and a national culture. Commonwealth governments, led by such Australians as Alfred Deakin (1856–1919), quickly moved to declare a protective tariff on imports to foster the new government’s economic base, established consistent ways of determining minimum wages, and retained the white immigration policy. In spite of such advances Australians wanted to retain their individual colonial identities, so national political parties were only loosely organized. It was World War I, however, that transformed Australia into a unified state with a distinct identity. Australia sent more than 330,000 volunteers when the Allies asked for help; more than 60,000 perished, and 165,000 were wounded. With a casualty rate higher than most of the Allies, Australia became increasingly conscious of its contribution to the war effort. When the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) attacked the Ottoman (Turkish) forces in the Dardanelles on April 25, 1915, Australians forged an identity as a nation. In numerical terms Gallipoli may have been a minor engagement, but it acquired considerable national and personal importance to the Australians who fought there.
ANZAC Day remains the country’s most significant day of public recognition.
Between World War I and World War II, in an effort to sustain the wartime levels of production and expansion that had enriched Australia’s economy, the government tried to expand some basic industries, but the Great Depression of the 1930s severely damaged the Australian economy, and public and private debt increased dangerously during a period of massive unemployment. Recovering from the depression proved to be an uneven effort in Australia. Economic policies such as price cuts and limited credit made the post-depression years harder in Australia than they were in other countries.
When World War II began in 1939 Australia sent its armed forces to support Britain. Then in 1941 the Pacific war between Japan and the United States began. Because Great Britain could not provide enough support for defending Australia, the government allied itself with the United States, and until the Philippines were freed General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964) and his staff based their operations in Australia. Although Australia’s casualties were not as heavy as they had been in World War I, Australians were more psychologically affected because of the proximity of Japanese forces. Australian industry was, however, improved as a result of the war. The economy had been reoriented toward manufacturing, and heavy industries now surrounded the capital cities. Postwar development continued to expand the possibilities created during the war.
In 1949 when Robert Menzies (1894–1978) became Australia’s prime minister, a long period of stability began. While he maintained a sentimental link with Great Britain, he also paid more attention to Pacific and South Asian affairs. Soon Asians were attending Australian institutions, and by 1966 the white Australia immigration policy was inconsequential. It was formally discarded in 1973, and immigration has since been based on criteria other than race. In 1967 a national referendum gave the federal government a mandate to implement policies and make laws that would start to reverse the harm caused to the Aboriginal people during European colonization. In 1970 Harold Thomas, an artist and an Aborigine, designed the Aboriginal flag. It was intended to be an eye-catching rallying symbol for the Aboriginal people and a symbol of their race and identity. It is divided horizontally into two sections of equal size, one black (top) and one red (bottom). Centered on the line between the black and the red is a solid bright yellow circle. The black represents the Aboriginal people, the red, the Earth and the Aborigines’ spiritual relationship to the land, and the yellow, the Sun, the giver of life.
During the second half of the 20th century Australia’s alliance with the United States continued to gain strength, and the country followed the United States into the Korean War, joined the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), participated in it from 1954 until its dissolution in 1977, and fought alongside U.S. troops in Vietnam. During the same period Australia’s ties with Japan continued to develop, and the country adjusted its domestic and foreign policies accordingly.
Australia’s involvement in Vietnam was as controversial as it was in the United States. By 1967 as many as 40 percent of Australians serving in Vietnam were conscripts. The civil unrest caused by conscription and being sent to fight an unpopular war, helped the Australian Labor Party gain power in 1972, with Gough Whitlam (b. 1916) at the helm. Whitlam acted immediately to quell the civil disturbance by withdrawing Australian troops from Vietnam, abolishing national service and fees for higher education, establishing a system of free and universally available health care, and supporting the land rights of Aboriginal people. On June 3, 1992, Whitlam’s sensibility was confirmed when Australia’s High Court rejected the European claim of terra nullius (“empty land”) in Mabo and others v. Queensland (No. 2) in proceedings begun in 1982 and confirmed the Aborigines’ native title.
After a period of recession and high unemployment in the early 1990s, the electorate lost faith in the Labour government, and in early 1996 the Conservative coalition, led by John Howard (b. 1939), defeated Labour leader Paul Keating (b. 1944). In the last years of the 20th century, placing the government in the hands of an Australian president instead of the British queen was a major issue, because some felt that the rule of a distant monarch was archaic. In 1999 a national referendum was held to decide the issue. A majority of the population voted to retain the status quo.

Australia is the largest island and the smallest continent in the world. Its coastline is 16,007 miles long. It is situated in the Southern Hemisphere, between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean in an area sometimes referred to as Oceania. Australia’s borders lie beyond its landmass. East Timor, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea lie to the north of Australia; the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are northeast of it; and New Zealand is off the southeast coast. The shortest border, 93 miles, is between Australia and Papua New Guinea, but Boigu Island (with two smaller islands), the northernmost inhabited island in Australian territory, is only three miles from Papua New Guinea.
This geographical anomaly has necessitated an unusual border arrangement that allows people of Papua New Guinea and Torres Strait Islanders access to the waterway across the border.
Australia consists of six states and several territories. The six states, which began as separate British colonies, are New South Wales (capital, Sydney), Queensland (capital, Brisbane), South Australia (capital, Adelaide), the island of Tasmania (capital, Hobart), Victoria (capital, Melbourne), and Western Australia (capital, Perth). The two most important territories are the Northern Territory (capital, Darwin) and the Australian Capital Territory (or ACT; national capital, Canberra), located within the state of New South Wales. ACT also includes Jervis Bay Territory, which serves as a port and naval base for the national capital. Australia has several inhabited external territories that include Norfolk Island, Christmas Island, and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, as well as several largely uninhabited external territories.
The climate in Australia is arid to semiarid. The country has a temperate zone in the south and east and a tropical climate in the north. The tropical zone (40 percent of Australia’s landmass) has two major seasons—wet (summer) and dry (winter)— while the temperate zone has four seasons. Because of its location Australia’s summer begins in December, its fall, in March, its winter, in June, and its spring, in September.
Uluru (known as Ayers Rock until 1986), which is located in central Australia, is the second largest monolith in the world; the largest, located in Western Australia, is Mount Augustus. The highest mountains in mainland Australia are situated in an area known as the Snowy Mountains in the province of New South Wales. These form a part of the Great Dividing Range that separates the central lowlands from the eastern highlands. The highest peaks are Mount Kosciusko (7,310 feet), Mount Townsend (7,247 feet), and Mount Twine (7,201 feet). The largest coral reef in the world, the Great Barrier Reef, extends for 746 miles along Australia’s northeast coast.
The main rivers in Australia are the Murray River and its tributary, the Darling River, which flow in the Murray-Darling River Basin. This drainage basin comprises the major part of the interior lowlands of Australia, covering more than 386,102 square miles, about 14 percent of the continent. Australia’s most distinctive fauna are the marsupials and monotremes. These animals are found nowhere else on Earth. The marsupials, including kangaroos and koalas, give birth to partially developed offspring, which they suckle and keep in a pouch. The montremes, including platypuses and echidnas, lay eggs but also nurse their young.

Except for the area around Perth in Western Australia, most of Australia’s rich farmland and good ports are found in the east and the southeast. Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Adelaide are the leading industrial and commercial cities.
Australia is highly industrialized as a result of the two world wars, and manufactured goods account for most of its gross domestic product (GDP). The chief industries include mining (most of which is accomplished with Japanese financial aid), food processing, manufacture of industrial and transportation equipment, chemicals, iron and steel, textiles, machinery, and motor vehicles. Australia’s mineral resources include coal, iron, bauxite, copper, tin, lead, zinc, and uranium, opals, and diamonds. Some logging is done in the east and southeast. The country is agriculturally self-sufficient. Sheep- and cattle-raising have long been staple occupations. Agriculture and horticulture (producing citrus fruits, sugarcane, and tropical fruits) are also important; there are a good number of vineyards, dairies, and tobacco farms. Australia’s chief export commodities are metals, minerals, coal, wool, and beef (of which it is the world’s largest exporter), mutton, grains, and manufactured products. The main imports are manufactured raw materials, capital equipment, and consumer goods.
While the Australian economy fell into a severe recession in the late 1980s, it experienced an extended period of growth beginning in the 1990s. During the last two decades of the 20th century, there was considerable industrial development and an increase in the standard of living.

Australia is a country rich with diverse cultures, traditions, and customs; the major influences include the European, Aboriginal, and Southeast Asian (a large and growing immigrant group in recent years). Although it still has strong ties to Great Britain, Australia also shares a powerful affinity with the United States. Coming out of decades of isolation Australians are gaining prominence in Hollywood; Australian art galleries have been mushrooming in the streets of London and New York; and Australian musicians are performing more and more often on the world’s stages. Australian pop singers, from the Bee Gees to INXS, the Little River Band, and Kylie Minogue (b. 1968) have earned global recognition. In the 20th century Australia could boast several world-famous writers including Nobel Prize winner Patrick White (1912–90) and Booker Prize winners Peter Carey (b. 1943) and Thomas Keneally (b. 1935). Other well-known Australian writers include Thea Astley (1925–2004), Robert Drewe (b. 1943), Helen Garner (b. 1942), Rodney Hall (b. 1935, in England), Christina Stead (1902–83), Elizabeth Jolley (b. 1923), David Malouf (b. 1934), Frank Moorhouse (b. 1938), and Tim Winton (b. 1960).
The Australian film industry is small but growing quickly. Mel Gibson (b. 1956, in the United States), Russell Crowe (b. 1964), and Nicole Kidman (b. 1967, in Hawaii) are the country’s best-known actors. Australian athletes are internationally respected for their skills. British sports such as cricket, rugby, and soccer are very popular. The Australian cricket team is a formidable force. Sir Don Bradman (1908–2001) was a batsman for Australia. Cricket fans consider him the greatest batsman of all time, and he remains one of Australia’s greatest popular heroes. In tennis the Australia Open is one of the four tournaments that make up the Grand Slam, and several Australian players are internationally renowned. Evonne Goolagong (Cawley; b. 1951 in New South Wales), the first Aboriginal tennis player and the winner of many championships, was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1988. Australians have also had great international success in swimming, sailing, and yachting, and Melbourne was the site chosen for the 1956 Olympics, where several Australian athletes distinguished themselves in swimming and track and field events. Sydney hosted the 2000 Summer Olympics, where women’s water polo, Tae Kwon Do, and the Triathlon debuted. Australia ranked second overall in sailing during the Sydney Olympics and stunned the world in 1983 by winning the America’s Cup, the premier race in international sailing competition. Recently after centuries of brutal treatment, efforts have been made to revive the ethnic Aborigine folk culture and ethos. Aboriginal culture experienced a revival at the end of the 20th century, as Aboriginal artists began to explore ways to preserve their ancient values and share them with a wider community.

Contemporary European tastes in Australia use the best seasonal ingredients available with a mix of Asian, European, and Indian cuisines. But many food writers ignored the most basic and authentic Australian cuisine, bushtucker food (wild food), the foods made available by Australia’s plants and animals until 1975, when the Cribbs published Wild Food in Australia. Since then a small industry has grown up around the sale and distribution of “tucker” ingredients, and average diners have come to view bushtucker as an important part of their culinary repertoire. Andrew Fielke, an award-winning Adelaide chef, has pioneered the use of native foods, and the Aussie dialect of English contains many bushtucker words such as yabby (a freshwater crayfish), billy tea (a billy is a metal can used to make tea over an open fire), floater (a meat pie floating in soup peas or gravy), and chook (chicken).
Bushtucker food is unique to Australia and is made up of dishes learned from the Aboriginal peoples. These recipes reflect the survival skills of the Aborigines passed from one generation to the next as community knowledge, and they doubtless enabled many Europeans to survive in the Outback. Bushtucker recipes include witjuti (or witchetty) grub and bunya nut soup (a soup that contains grubs found in live wood and the seeds of the bunya-bunya pine tree), pop moths (a combination of bogong moths popped with popcorn in macadamia nut oil), kangaroo tail soup, and mango balmain bugs (balmain are a small type of crayfish found in the waters around Sydney). Andrew Fielke’s quandong pie is said to be delicious. (Quandongs are fruit similar to peaches but not as sweet.)
Among the Europeans, Southeast Asian cuisine is very popular in Australia, as is Chinese, and restaurants serving both cuisines are common in the urban centers. Large cities also have many Indian, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants. Tea is a popular hot drink in Australia, although coffee consumption has soared during the past few decades. Beer, called “amber fluid,” is the most popular alcoholic drink. Meat is a major part of the Australian diet. Beef is the most popular meat, followed by lamb and mutton, poultry, and pork. Traditionally Australians have preferred plain food to spicy dishes, though the influx of Southeast Asian immigrants and the proliferation of their cuisines have had some effect on the national taste, particularly among the young. Meat is usually grilled or roasted and served with potatoes and a vegetable. Australia’s long, sunny summers and mild winters provide opportunities for picnics and barbecues (barbies) year-round. For a picnic a good possie (position) and an esky (cooler) for sangers or sango (sandwiches) and stubbies (beer) are essential.

As they get close to giving birth, Australian Aboriginal women are accompanied by elderly women during their daily chores. The women seldom rest before delivery; what is more, they often walk a mile or two after the infant is born. A newborn Aboriginal child has a light coppery complexion, and after a few hours it is smeared with grease and charcoal to keep its skin soft and protect it from exposure. There is great excitement among the village women and neighbors, who visit the mother and child as soon as the good news reaches them, bringing gifts of seeds or whatever else they may have. The baby is usually wrapped and carried in cajeput bark. (The cajeput is a tropical evergreen tree, of the myrtle family, with flowers similar to those of bottlebrush and a spongy bark.)

At the age of fourteen, Aboriginal boys are recognized as young men and are expected to be initiated into manhood by being circumcised. The Aborigines call circumcision buckley. The families of the boys meet at a designated spot, at a date and time determined by the phases of the Moon. When people have assembled the boys are seized by the elders, and cords of spun hair are fastened around their arms, while the coolardie is swung vigorously in front of them. (The coolardie is a flat, carved, wooden shield, with a hole at one end through which a cord of spun hair is fastened. The end of the hair is held in the hand, and when the shield is swung around, it makes a sound that resembles the roar of a bull.) The elders teach the novices all the ancient traditions in detail and what is expected of them on this occasion. The boys are given about three days to learn the chants and dances associated with the initiation. The novices are also taught hymns called “Nambey” and “Wallawollangoe,” which are to be sung on the day of circumcision. During this period they cannot converse with young women or children, and two men acting as guards escort them everywhere. Before the actual ceremony the guards gather as many people as possible for the ceremony and feast that follow.
Only initiated males may attend the actual ceremony. At the spot selected for the circumcision, the men prepare a couch of boughs near a flat stone. The operation is performed with a piece of yellow flint kept for the purpose by each family and known as the candemerrah. The parents do not operate on their own children. The operations are performed by the boys’ uncles or any one of their male tribal relatives. The youth are pinned down by four or five men, and the seasoned operators perform the task. After the ritual is over, everyone gathers to enjoy a feast, an essential feature of this ceremony. The guests are segregated into two groups: one includes only men and elderly women; the other is restricted to younger women and children, who are supposed to have their feast some distance away. The concluding ceremony is performed about a month later when the buckley has healed.