Australia is an island continent located southeast of Asia and forming, with the nearby island of Tasmania, the Commonwealth of Australia.
The Commonwealth of Australia is made up of six states-New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia-and two territories-the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. The external dependencies of Australia are the Territory of Ashmore and Cartier Islands, the Australian Antarctic Territory, Christmas Island, the Cocos Islands (also called the Keeling Islands), the Coral Sea Islands, the Heard Island and McDonald Islands, and Norfolk Island.
The first people to live in Australia, called Aborigines, migrated there about 40,000 years ago. The continent remained relatively unknown by outsiders until the 17th century. The first European settlement by British convicts occurred in 1788 at Botany Bay in southeastern Australia. Australia grew as a group of British colonies during the 19th century, and in 1901 the colonies federated to form a unified independent nation.
Today, Australia is a federal parliamentary democracy, an independent self-governing state and a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The constitution of Australia, which became effective in 1901, is based on British parliamentary traditions, and includes elements of the United States system. The head of state is the British sovereign, and the head of government is the Australian prime minister, who is responsible to the Australian Parliament. All powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states. Australia is a founding member of the United Nations.
Australia is one of the world's flattest landmasses. The average elevation is about 300 m (about 1,000 ft). The interior, referred to as the outback, is predominantly a series of low plateaus, which are generally higher in the northeast. Low-lying coastal plains, averaging about 65 km (about 40 mi) in width, fringe the continent. In the east, southeast, and southwest, these plains are the most densely populated areas of Australia.
The coastline of Australia is generally regular, with few bays or capes. The largest inlets are the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north and the Great Australian Bight in the south. The several fine harbors include those of Sydney, Hobart, Port Lincoln, and Albany.
The climate of Australia varies greatly from region to region, but the continent is not generally subject to marked extremes of weather. The climate ranges from tropical in the north to temperate in the south. The tropical region, which includes about 40 percent of the total area of Australia, essentially has only two seasons: a hot, wet period with rains falling mainly in February and March, and a warm, dry interval characterized by the prevalence of southeastern winds. In central and northern Australia average summer temperatures range between 27° and 29°C (80° and 85°F).
The warm, temperate regions of southern Australia have four seasons, with cool winters and warm summers. Because Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, seasons there are the reverse of those in the Northern Hemisphere. January and February are the warmest months, with average temperatures varying between 18° and 21°C (65° and 70°F). June and July are the coldest months, with an average July temperature of about 10°C (about 50°F), except in the Australian Alps, where temperatures average 2°C (35°F). The eastern coastal lowlands receive rain in all seasons, although mainly in summer. The warm temperate western and southern coasts receive rain mainly in the winter months. Tasmania, lying in the cool temperate zone, receives heavy rainfall in summer and cyclonic storms in winter. Over the greater part of the lowlands, snow is unknown; however, in the mountains, particularly the Australian Alps in southern New South Wales and the northern part of Victoria, snowfall is occasionally heavy.
The continent of Australia has a distinctive flora that includes many species not found elsewhere. Of the 22,000 species of plants in Australia, more than 90 percent occur naturally there.
Australia's vegetation is predominantly evergreen, ranging from the dense bushland and eucalyptus forests of the coast, to mulga and mallee scrub and saltbush of the inland plains. The tropical northeastern belt, with its heavy rainfall and high temperatures, is heavily forested. Palms, ferns, and vines grow prolifically among the oaks, ash, cedar, brush box, and beeches. Mangroves line the mud flats and inlets of the low-lying northern coastline. The crimson waratah, golden-red banksias, and scarlet firewheel tree add color to the northern forests.
The animal kingdom of Australia is both unique and primitive. Seven families of mammals and four families of birds are classified as native to the country. About 70 percent of the birds, 88 percent of the reptiles, and 94 percent of the frogs are unique to Australia.
One aspect of Australia's mammal life is the absence of representatives of most of the orders found on other continents. However, the primitive, egg-laying mammals known as monotremes are found most abundantly in Australia. One of them, the platypus, a zoological curiosity, is an aquatic, furred mammal with a bill like that of a duck and with poisonous spurs. It lives in the streams of southeastern Australia. Another monotreme of Australia is the spiny anteater, or echidna.
Most native mammals are marsupials, the young of which are nourished in an external marsupium, or abdominal pouch. The best-known marsupials of Australia are the kangaroos, which include about 50 species. The kangaroo is vegetarian and can be tamed. The large red or gray kangaroo may stand as high as 2 m (7 ft) and can leap up to 9 m (30 ft). The wallaby and kangaroo rat are smaller members of the kangaroo family. The phalangers are herbivorous marsupials that live in trees; they include the possum and the koala, a popular fur-bearing animal that is protected throughout Australia. Other well-known marsupials are the burrowing wombat, bandicoot, and pouched mouse. The carnivorous Tasmanian devil, principally a scavenger, is found only on the island of Tasmania.
The continent contains a variety of reptile life. It has two species of crocodiles, the smaller of which is found in inland fresh waters. The larger, fierce saurian crocodile of the northern coastal swamps and estuaries attains lengths of 6 m. There are more than 500 species of lizards, including the gecko, skink, and the giant goanna. About 100 species of venomous snakes are found in Australia. The taipan of the far north, the death adder, the tiger snake of southern Australia, the copperhead, and the black snake are the best known of the poisonous snakes.
The waters surrounding Australia support a wide variety of fish and aquatic mammals. Several species of whales are found in southern waters, and seals inhabit parts of the southern coast, the islands in Bass Strait, and Tasmania. The northern waters supply dugong, trepang, trochus, and pearl shell. Edible fish and shellfish are abundant, and the oyster, abalone, and crayfish of the warmer southern waters have been exploited commercially.
Australia is the home of 751 known species of birds, ranging from primitive types, such as the giant, flightless emu and cassowary, to highly developed species. The fan-tailed lyrebird has great powers of mimicry. The male bowerbirds build intricate and decorative playgrounds to attract females. The kookaburra, or laughing jackass, is noted for its raucous laughter. Many varieties of cockatoos and parrots are found; the budgerigar is a favorite of bird fanciers. The white cockatoo, a clever mimic, is a common feature of the Australian jungles. Black swans, spoonbills, herons, and ducks frequent inland waters. Smaller birds include wrens, finches, titmice, larks, and swallows. Gulls, terns, gannets, muttonbirds, albatrosses, and penguins are the most common seabirds.
Australia's flora includes many species not found elsewhere. Of the 22,000 species of plants in Australia, more than 90 percent occur naturally there.
The island's vegetation is predominantly evergreen, ranging from the dense bushland and eucalyptus forests of the coast, to mulga and mallee scrub and saltbush of the inland plains. The tropical northeastern belt, with its heavy rainfall and high temperatures, is heavily forested. Palms, ferns, and vines grow prolifically among the oaks, ash, cedar, brush box, and beeches. Mangroves line the mud flats and inlets of the low-lying northern coastline. The crimson waratah, golden-red banksias, and scarlet firewheel tree add color to northern forests.
The Aborigines were the first inhabitants of Australia. Most anthropologists believe they migrated to the continent at least 40,000 years ago, and that most of the continent was occupied 30,000 years ago. Although Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Arab seafarers may have landed in northern Australia well before ad 1500, Australia was essentially unknown in the West until the 17th century.
Aborigines have made mysterious and beautiful rock paintings for tens of thousands of years. This prehistoric rock painting depicts a large serpent and precisely drawn geometric shapes on a background of red ochre, a natural pigment. The meaning of such symbols from the past is not entirely clear, but Aborigines continue to make rock paintings today with similar themes.
Aboriginal folklore claims that the Aborigines were always in Australia. However, most anthropologists believe that the Aborigines migrated from Southeast Asia at least 40,000 years ago, probably during a period when low sea levels permitted the simplest forms of land and water travel. A rise in sea level subsequently made Tasmania an island and caused some cultural separation between its peoples and those on the mainland.
These original Australians were essentially hunter-gatherers without domesticated animals, other than the dingo, which was introduced by the Aborigines between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago. The Aborigines employed a type of "firestick farming" in which fire was used to clear areas so that fresh grazing grasses could grow, thereby attracting kangaroos and other game animals. Aborigines also may have harvested and dispersed selected seeds. Those widespread operations may have been responsible for extensive tracts of grassland. There is evidence of careful damming and redirection of streams and of swamp and lake outlets, possibly for fish farming.
Although the Aborigines were nomadic or seminomadic, their sense of place was exceptionally strong and they had an intimate knowledge of their home landscapes. A growing historical record points to the existence of some permanent or semipermanent stone villages. The most recent 3,000 years of Aboriginal history were characterized by accelerating changes based on the use of stone tools, the exploitation of new resources, the growth of the population, and the establishment of long-distance trading.
By the time of the first notable European settlement in 1788, Aboriginal people had developed cultural traits and ecological knowledge that showed an impressive adaptation to Australia's challenging environments. They also had developed many complex variations between regional and even local communities. The total Aboriginal population at that time was about 300,000. More than 200 distinct languages existed at the beginning of the 19th century. Bilingualism and multilingualism were common characteristics in several hundred Aboriginal groups. These groups were linguistically defined and territorially based.
During the first century of white settlement, there were dramatic declines in the Aboriginal population in all parts of the country. The declines resulted from the introduction of diseases for which the Aborigines had no immunity; social and cultural disruptions; brutal mistreatment; and reprisals for acts of organized resistance.
Until the 1960s the Aboriginal population was mainly rural. Over the next two decades Aborigines began moving in greater numbers to urban areas. In fact, the Aborigines' social and political status was so low that they were omitted from the official national censuses until 1971.
More than 70 percent of the Aborigines live in urban areas. Traditional ways of life are still maintained in small enclaves in the more remote locations, especially in the north and center of the continent. Every region of the country is represented by its own Aboriginal land council, and most regions run cultural centers and festivals.
The Commonwealth of Australia comprises six states and two territories. The states and their capitals are New South Wales (Sydney), Victoria (Melbourne), Queensland (Brisbane), South Australia (Adelaide), Western Australia (Perth), and Tasmania (Hobart). The territories and their chief cities are the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra) and the Northern Territory (Darwin).
The major cities of Australia are Sydney, a seaport and commercial center; Melbourne, a cultural center; Brisbane, a seaport; Perth, a seaport on the western coast; and Adelaide, an agricultural center. Canberra is the national capital.
"Custom, then, is the great guide of human life," wrote Scottish philosopher David Hume. Knowing the customs of a country is, in effect, a guide to understanding the soul of that country and its people.
Initially, the way of life in Australia substantially reflected the heritage of the British settlers. Customs were modified as the settlers adapted to the new country and its exceptionally fine climate. A culture evolved that, although based on the British tradition, is unique to Australia.
Popular culture is dominated by an emphasis on leisure activities and outdoor recreation. Great pleasure is taken in traditional backyard barbecues, bush picnics, and a wide range of organized sports, including soccer, Australian Rules football, cricket, tennis, baseball, basketball, volleyball, netball (a game similar to basketball, played by women), athletics, cycling, boating, swimming, horseback riding, and horse racing. Fishing and gardening are popular as well.
Australian fashion generally follows Western styles of dress, but is distinctive for the lightweight, colorful casual wear that reflects the absence of harsh winters. Food and drink preferences are influenced by global fashions, but also mirror the rise of ethnic diversity and the country's capacity to produce most kinds of food, wine, and other beverages in abundance.
Tourism grew rapidly in the late 20th century, and it now represents one of the most dynamic sectors in the Australian economy.
The strong growth in domestic tourism has tapped the expanding range of attractions in each state and territory-amusement and theme parks, zoos, art galleries and museums, certain mines and factories, national parks, historic sites, and wineries. Some of the most popular attractions are Queensland's spectacular Great Barrier Reef, the Northern Territory's Kakadu National Park, and the famous beach resorts in the Brisbane, Cairns, and Sydney regions.
Australia has about 913,000 km of roads. The capital cities are connected by bus services. A comprehensive network of airline service links major cities and even remote settlements. Because of the long distances between cities and the country's ideal flying conditions, Australians are especially accustomed to air travel. International airports are located near each of the mainland capitals and near Cairns and Townsville. Coastal and transoceanic shipping is vital to the Australian economy. Major ports include Melbourne, Sydney, and Fremantle, in Western Australia.