The Commonwealth of Australia is a country, a continent, and an island. It lies completely in the southern hemisphere, southeast of the Asian landmass, between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The name Australia is derived from the Latin australis, meaning “southern.” As far back as the second century AD, legends hinted at the existence of an “unknown southern land” or terra australis incognita. While maps from the late 1400s show parts of the coastline, the land was not “officially” discovered by Europeans until the 17th century, when a series of expeditions were led by Dutch and Portuguese explorers.
Australia has been separated from other landmasses for millions of years. It is also the lowest, flattest, and aside from Antarctica, the driest of the continents. This long period of isolation combined with unusual terrain has enabled many unique geologic features, environments, plants, and animals to develop.
For millions of years, Australia was part of the super-continent of Pangea. As the continent broke apart and began drifting on the surface of the planet, Australia was part of the southern segment of Gondwana. Since severing its last connections with Antarctica and the island of Tasmania in the mid-Cenozoic (about 35 million years ago), Australia has been drifting toward southeast Asia at the rate of about 2 inches per year. Geologically speaking, Australia’s life span as a free-standing continent will be relatively brief.
Australia has been free of volcanoes, earthquakes, and other mountain-building forces longer than any other continent. Wind and rain have been eroding the surface for about 100 million years, making Australia’s dominant feature its flatness. The extreme state of erosion in Western Australia has exposed some of the Earth’s oldest rocks, dating back 4.3 billion years.
Unique Geologic Features
Uluru, the world’s largest single rock, is the most visited landmark in central Australia. Uluru is an Aboriginal word meaning “great pebble.” It is the largest of a group of about 30 similar dome-shaped rocks rising from the desert floor. These rocks are the remains of a buried mountain range and are collectively known as the Olgas. The Aboriginal name of the Olga Rocks is Kata Tjuta, which means “many heads.” Uluru’s size and color attract visitors from around the world. As the sun travels across the sky, the rock changes from brilliant red to a deep blue color. The Olgas are sacred to the Aborigines. Rock art found in caves on Uluru is thousands of years old. Sacred areas of the rock are off limits to all visitors, and one must ask permission before climbing marked trails. Kata Tjuta lies within Uluru National Park, which the government returned to its Aboriginal owners, the Anangu people, in 1985. Uluru was formerly called “Ayers Rock,” after Sir Henry Ayers, a former leader of South Australia, but the Aboriginal people prefer the original names for these sites be used.
The Great Barrier Reef is a 1,200-mile long coral reef running along the Queensland coast of northeast Australia. Coral is created from masses of small marine animals called polyps. As polyps die, they leave their skeletons behind, which form the mass of the reef. New polyps grow on the old, creating a rainbow of colors. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest structure created by living organisms in the world. Parts of it are millions of years old. The reef is home to hundreds of species of fish, mollusks, and other marine life.
Stromatolites are the oldest known fossils in the world, dating back more than 3 billion years. They are even more unusual in that the fossil form was found years before scientists found live specimens still developing. Stromatolites are formed by photosynthesizing cyannobacteria and other microbes that build “reefs” in the same way that coral grows. It is believed that cyannobacteria were most likely responsible for creating our oxygen atmosphere billions of years ago. These bacteria were the dominant life form on the planet for over 2 billion years. Today, they are almost extinct and live in very few locations around the world. One place living stromatolites can be found currently is in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area on Australia’s west coast. The extreme salinity of the seawater, limited water circulation, warm temperatures, and presence of calcium carbonate create an environment ideal for the growth of stromatolites. Predators of the microbes cannot survive in this environment, because it has twice the salinity of regular seawater, so the cyannobacteria can grow unchecked.
Australia is divided into three major zones. The Western Plateau covers almost two thirds of the continent and is mainly desert, with a few low mountains around the edge. The Central Lowlands are a monotonous, harsh area where most of the rivers and lakes are often dry. The Eastern Highlands is a narrow, fertile strip of land along the Eastern Coast divided from the rest of the country by the Great Dividing Range. Most of Australia’s population lives in this zone of good farming land, with a moderate climate and adequate rainfall.
Recent evidence suggests that the first settlers arriving in Australia 50,000 years ago set fires to clear the land for farming. These burning practices were widespread and could have triggered a cataclysmic change in the weather. The interior of Australia was much wetter 125,000 years ago. The last Ice Age changed the world’s weather, but when the glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago, monsoons returned, except for the Australian monsoon. While the Australian monsoon currently brings about 40 inches of rain to the rain forests of the north coast, only about 13 inches of rain annually reach the interior. This suggests that those large fires in the past eliminated the plant population, which decreased the exchange of water vapor with the atmosphere and greatly reduced cloud formation in the interior, resulting in far less rainfall. Fossil evidence indicates that animals living in the interior used to graze on grasses, bushes, and trees that could not survive there under current conditions. The fossil record also displays large charcoal deposits that were most likely caused by widespread fires, also conveniently dated to the time those early settlers arrived.
Australia has no large densely forested areas. Plant growth generally consists of grasslands, shrubs, or open forests. Many plants are drought resistant to survive in the harsh, hot climate. Trees tend to have deep taproots to reach water far below the surface. Plant leaves and stems are often light colored or shiny to reflect the sun’s rays.
Vegetation in Australia is dominated by two groups of plants. Eucalypts (gum trees) and acacias (wattles) together have more than 1,000 species. Eucalyptus is an evergreen hardwood with tough, thick leaves that retain water. The tree is oily, which feeds wildfires. Lightning strikes frequently cause fires in such an arid environment. Acacias are economically valuable for their timber, their gum, and their edible seeds.
The Eastern Highlands have temperate and tropical rain forests. The temperate zones have seasonal fluctuations, and the tropical areas are always hot. The tropical rain forest areas are along the northern coast, close to the equator. The Central Lowlands and Western Plateau are desert or semidesert. The temperatures get extremely high during the day and cool very rapidly at night. Rainfall is almost nonexistent. The grasslands and savannas on the borders of the deserts are known as “the bush.” The central and western portions together are known as the “outback,” because they are “out back of” the Great Dividing Range.
Since European colonization, Australia has lost 70% of its native vegetation, 45% of its forest, and 75% of its rain forests. Loss of this native plant growth has resulted in the endangerment or extinction of dozens of animal species.
Australia is the home of many unique animals. Monotremes can only be found in Australia, and New Guinea to the immediate north. Monotremes are mammals that lay eggs but nurse their young with milk after hatching. The platypus and the echidna are currently the only monotremes in the world. The platypus is about 2 feet long, has dark brown fur, a bill like a duck, and webbed feet and a tail to help it swim. Plates on its bill help it crush worms, mollusks, crustaceans, and plants for food. They usually live near riverbanks in Eastern Australia. While they can move on land, they move awkwardly on their knuckles. The females lay eggs that hatch within 10 days and nurse their young for about 5 months. Echidnas are spiny anteaters. They have strong bodies with short legs and relatively large feet and claws. They dig up worms, ants, and termites to eat. The females also lay eggs that hatch within 10 days, but when the young hatch, they climb into their mother’s pouch for 6 to 8 more weeks. They nurse during that time. The echidna life span is over 50 years. Humans are the only mammals that live longer.
Marsupials are the animals most commonly associated with Australia. A few species of marsupial can be found in South America, but most make their homes only in Australia and Tasmania. Marsupials are mammals that give birth to underdeveloped young, which must then climb into a pouch on the mother to continue growing. Kangaroos, wallabies (small kangaroos), koala bears, wombats, possums, and bandicoots are the best-recognized plant-eating marsupials. Some marsupials are carnivorous. The Tasmanian tiger, a small, fierce hunter, is now believed to be extinct. The Tasmanian devil is an aggressive black badger-sized creature with a white stripe on its chest. It hunts small mammals and birds at night.
The dingo, considered the native dog of Australia, originated with dogs brought to the continent by traders 3000 to 4000 years ago and abandoned. Dingos were domesticated by Aboriginal people. They were used for hunting and guarding homes. Dingos do not bark, but communicate by howling.
Australia is home to over 700 species of bird. More than half of those are native. The largest birds, the emu and cassowary, are flightless. The emu is the second-largest bird in the world, after the African ostrich. One of the best-known Australian birds is the kookaburra. It is a member of the kingfisher family and has a distinctive loud cackling laugh.
Being an island nation, Australia has close contact with marine life. The Great Barrier Reef off the northeast coast is the largest coral reef in the world and is home to hundreds of exotic and colorful species. Australia is known for its sharks, especially Great Whites, but its coastal waters are also home to whales, giant sea turtles, dugongs (a type of seacow), and dolphins.
Reptiles can be found widely across Australia, including crocodiles, snakes, lizards, turtles, and tortoises. Australia has no alligators, but crocodiles are the largest living reptile in the country. They can be found only in the north. Saltwater crocodiles are the most dangerous to humans, while freshwater crocodiles are mostly harmless. There are about 110 species of snakes in Australia, and about half of them are venomous. The taipan and tiger snake are deadliest, but death adders, copperheads, and brown snakes can all be dangerous to humans. Goannas are lizards that can grow over 6 feet long and can be aggressive if disturbed. Australia is also home to some of the world’s deadliest spiders. The funnel-web spider’s bite can be fatal to humans, and these large, aggressive spiders will actually chase their prey (including humans) if disturbed.
Native Australians are called Aborigines. Aborigine comes from the Latin ab origine, which means “from the beginning.” Australian natives do not call themselves Aborigines. Europeans coined the name upon arriving on the continent and finding it inhabited. Aborigines refer to themselves by their tribal names.
There are two groups of indigenous people in Australia; Australian Aborigines and Torres Straight Islanders. The Torres Straight Islanders were seafarers who inhabited the small islands in the Torres Straight, which separates Australia from Papua New Guinea to the north. In recent decades, migration from the Torres Straight has been extensive, and most Torres Straight Islanders now live in Australia.
The first Australians appear to have traveled to the continent by raft or boat from Asia at least 40,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. At that time, the sea level was much lower, leaving far narrower bands of water to cross. While the water was narrower, it was still too far across to see land. It has been speculated that smoke from large brush fires may have encouraged those first settlers to explore.
Nomadic tribes of hunters and gatherers roamed the continent freely, each group having its own language and customs. As the Ice Age ended, the ice melted, the seas rose, and Australia became isolated. The inland lakes dried up, the temperatures rose, and the deserts formed. As the land grew increasingly inhospitable over thousands of years, the Aboriginal people adapted and learned to thrive. They hunted and fished, and gathered fruits, nuts, roots, fungi, and insects. They grew skilled at finding water where there appeared to be none. They were also traders, with trade routes crossing the country. They traded ochre, which is a pigment for painting, boomerangs, shells, stones, tools, and more.
There are approximately 500 recorded tribes of Aborigines. They lived in clans, or family groups. Each clan also incorporated several species of animal, one of which was selected as the totem for that tribe. Each clan had a territory, which included a sacred location where their spirits would return after they die. These places were carefully protected so they wouldn’t anger their ancestors. Myths and rituals played a strong role in Aboriginal culture. A rich oral history derives from the Dreaming, or Dreamtime. The Dreaming tells of the creation of the land and people, and stories told today still involve mythic creatures from the Dreaming. Aspects of the Dreamtime are depicted in art found on rock walls dating back thousands of years. The paintings are abstract, incorporating many codes and symbols understood by Aborigines to relate ancestral stories.
The British were the first Europeans to colonize Australia. In 1770, Captain James Cook claimed the land for Great Britain. The first settlement, Port Jackson, was established in a promising harbor called Sydney Harbor, on the southeast coast. This settlement grew into the city of Sydney. From 1788 to 1852, England used Australia as a penal colony to free space in overcrowded British prisons. More than 160,000 men, women, and children were sent to New South Wales as convicts. After release, few prisoners returned to England. Most established themselves in Australia as farmers or tradesmen.
Australia, if thought about at all in the West, was portrayed as a wild land suitable only for convicts or adventurers. This attitude would change. On January 12, 1836, Charles Darwin sailed into Sydney Cove on the Beagle. He was concluding his 5-year study of natural history around the globe and developing his theories about natural selection and its evolutionary role. Darwin made brief forays into New South Wales, sailed on to the island of Tasmania, and concluded his visit on King George’s Sound on the southwest shore. He sailed onward from Australia on March 14, 1836. Although he made a brief 2-month visit and remained on the southern coast, Darwin’s work stimulated scholarly interest in Australia. To honor his work, the city of Palmerston on the “Top End” (the coast of the Northern Territory) was renamed “Darwin” in 1911.
As the British colonized Australia, they did not recognize Aboriginal ownership of the land. As Aborigines began to resist the settlers moving into their territory, colonists simply massacred native groups. Tribes were forced to live on reservations in the most hostile areas of the country or on religious missions.
In recent years, the Australian government has begun to acknowledge many decades of mistreatment. A department was established within the government to address Aboriginal affairs. Laws have been passed to return land to its original owners. Aboriginal art is now recognized and in demand worldwide. Painting, storytelling, and folk music are increasingly appreciated. Despite these gains, however, Aborigines are still the most disadvantaged citizens economically.
A history of egalitarianism has made an increasingly diverse population grow with a minimal amount of tension or conflict. Today, Australia is one of the most culturally diverse nations on the planet. Trade and tourism have been a boon to the economy. Australia is a vibrant young nation that has adapted well to rapid change. The country’s greatest challenge, perhaps, will be to meet the demands of the future without losing the traditions that built the nation.
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