Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Notes on Oz, aka Terra Australis
Australia is a prosperous developed country with a multicultural society.
It ranks highly in many international comparisons of national performance such as human development, quality of life, health care, life expectancy, public education, economic freedom and the protection of civil liberties and political rights.
Australian cities rank among the world's highest in terms of cultural offerings and quality of life.
For at least 40,000 years before European settlement in the late 18th century, the Australian mainland and Tasmania were inhabited by around 250 language groups of indigenous Australians. After sporadic visits by fishermen from the immediate north, and discovery by Dutch explorers in 1606, the eastern half of Australia was claimed by the British in 1770 and initially settled through penal transportation to the colony of New South Wales, founded on 26 January 1788.
The Indigenous Australian population, estimated at 350,000 at the time of European settlement, declined steeply for 150 years following settlement, mainly due to infectious disease. The "Stolen Generations" (removal of Aboriginal children from their families), which historians such as Henry Reynolds have argued could be considered genocide, may have contributed to the decline in the Indigenous population. Such interpretations of Aboriginal history are disputed by some conservative commentators, such as former Prime Minister John Howard, as exaggerated or fabricated for political or ideological reasons.
Australia is the flattest continent, with the oldest and least fertile soils; desert or semi-arid land commonly known as the outback makes up by far the largest portion of land.
The driest inhabited continent, only its south-east and south-west corners have a temperate climate. The population density, 2.8 inhabitants per square kilometre, is among the lowest in the world, although a large proportion of the population lives along the temperate south-eastern coastline.
Although most of Australia is semi-arid or desert, it includes a diverse range of habitats from alpine heaths to tropical rainforests, and is recognised as a megadiverse country.
Because of the continent's great age, extremely variable weather patterns, and long-term geographic isolation, much of Australia's biota is unique and diverse.
About 85% of flowering plants, 84% of mammals, more than 45% of birds, and 89% of in-shore, temperate-zone fish are endemic.
Australia has the greatest number of reptiles of any country, with 755 species.
Most of the estimated 22 million Australians are descended from colonial-era settlers and post-Federation immigrants from Europe, with almost 90% of the population being of European descent. For generations, the vast majority of immigrants came from the British Isles, and the people of Australia are still mainly of British or Irish ethnic origin.
In the 2006 Australian census, the most commonly nominated ancestry was Australian (37.13%), followed by English (31.65%), Irish (9.08%), Scottish (7.56%), Italian (4.29%), German (4.09%), Chinese (3.37%), and Greek (1.84%).