Australia is an island continent located southeast of Asia and forming, with the nearby island of Tasmania, the Commonwealth of Australia, a self-governing member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The continent is bounded on the north by the Timor Sea, the Arafura Sea, and the Torres Strait; on the east by the Coral Sea and the Tasman Sea; on the south by the Bass Strait and the Indian Ocean; and on the west by the Indian Ocean. The commonwealth extends for about about 2500 miles from east to west and for about 2300 miles from north to south. Its coastline measures some 22,826 miles. The area of the commonwealth is 2,966,150 square miles, and the area of the continent alone is 2,939,974 square miles, making Australia the smallest continent in the world, but the sixth largest country.
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 Territory of Cocos Islands, the Coral Sea Islands Territory, the Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands, and Norfolk Island.
The first Australians were the Aborigines. 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 3000 and 4000 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.
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, sometimes called tribes, 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 little immunity; social and cultural disruptions; and brutal mistreatment. By the 1920s, the Aboriginal population had declined to 60,000.
Until the 1960s the Aboriginal population was mainly rural. Over the next two decades Aborigines began moving in greater numbers to urban areas. In many country towns, Aboriginal families were viewed negatively as fringe dwellers. In the larger cities, small, but highly volatile, ghetto like concentrations caused the Aborigines to begin demanding greater political rights.
The Aborigines’ social and political status was so low that they were omitted from the official national censuses until 1971, following the overwhelming passage of a 1967 referendum that granted the government power to legislate for the Aborigines and to include them in the census count. At the 1991 census, 238,590 Australian residents were counted as Aborigines.
More than 70 percent of the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders 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. A shared desire to reassert their claim to land rights has united the widely separated communities, and Aboriginality is