Australia

Australia is a great island of the Sea, one of the greatest, so great that many geographers consider it a continent all by itself, ranking it with Africa, the Americas, Antarctica and Eurasia. It rests upon a vast undersea tectonic plate, together with with many other islands large and small, comprising a grouping called Oceania, independent from all of the other continents.

Australia is more independent than Europe from Asia, Africa from Eurasia, or the Americas from each other. Europe and Asia are so obviously one landmass that, many geographers, perhaps the best, or the most logical anyways, have adopted the term Eurasia, a blend of the ancient terms for Europe and Asia. Africa had been conjoined with Eurasia at the Red Sea isthmus since time immemorial. 1 It is only been since 1869, just a moment ago in geological time, that the completion of the Suez canal provided Africa with complete water borders from all other land masses. So with the Americas, North and South joined by the isthmus of Panama, not separated until the engineer’s canal in 1914. Many archaeologists have looked upon the narrow straight of water separating the Americas from Eurasia, just 50 miles wide today, as an isthmus, and bridge in older times when the sea level was lower and the continental shelves above sea level. Peoples traversed this way and that over this bridge, and, so, were the Americas populated, they say. But even then, Australia was separate, independent, different.

The uniqueness of Australia has been noted since at least the emergence of the modern era half a millennium ago. Magellan’s crew, the first circumnavigators, reported striking differences in the animal and plant life of the region. Subsequent explorations confirmed and expanded upon the differences. The great 19th century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, collaborator with Charles Darwin, documented the differences and published a map demarcating the habitat boundaries of differing species. A clear line emerged between the Asiatic mainland and associated islands, and the Australian mainland and associated islands. This has become known as The Wallace Line, easily the most famous in biogeography, botany and zoology. The flora and fauna on the Asian side are plainly different than the flora and fauna on the Australian side.

Australia has been separate from other continental landmasses for fifty million years; whereas Asia and America were joined by a land bridge at the Bering straight just ten thousand years ago. The present Bering straight is about 50 miles wide at its narrowest and 300 feet deep at its shallowest. The well known glaciation cycle2 in which ice expands its coverage over the earth and then retracts, has a corresponding lowering of sea levels worldwide followed by a rising sea levels. It is agreed by most geologists that 10,000 years ago, sea levels were 300 to 400 feet lower than they are at present, easily exposing a vast land bridge from Asia to America. During the associated centuries fauna fowl and flora routinely traversed back and forth between the continents. Many believe that native Americans first arrived at this time from Asia thereafter populating the Americas as far South as Argentina and Chile.

The science of plate tectonics developed in the 20th century, revealed a line in the lithosphere, deep beneath the ocean waters, which corresponded with the Wallace Line reported decades before. Geologists have discovered that the rocky shell of the Earth, the crust, the lithosphere, is composed of several massive elements, or plates, that jostle and shift and slide upon the inner Earth. It is the boundaries of these tectonic plates, where they slide and scrape against one another or butt up against one another, one plunging under the other, that we have most of our earthquakes and volcanic activity. Australia resides somewhat centered upon the Australian plate3 such that with all its scraping and butting, nevertheless there remained a separation of deep waters encircling the land. 50 million years it’s been, geologists estimate, since there was any kind of land bridge between Australia and another continent. For 50 million years the flora and fauna of Australia followed a different evolutionary path than their nearest neighbors in Asia. The demarcation today is known as The Wallace Line.

“Australia” is a borrowed, some might even say, even pilfered, name. The word was pulled from the term Terra Australis,4 a name used for a thousand years before Christopher Columbus sailed “the ocean blue”. It was used to describe a hypothetical unknown5 land mass, South of the equator, sufficient to counter balance their landmass North of the equator.6 One example of this, among many, is a 5th century map by Macrobius, on which Terra Australis is drawn and labeled. The presence of this land on that map was not intended to represent a land actually discovered and explored, but one whose existence was anticipated based upon the best thought of the day. It, and similar old maps, can be found online and in various Atlases. The hypothesis is a bright window into the mind of the ancients. A strong grasp on the astronomical concept of the equator, and the brilliant deduction of the spherical shape of the earth, combined with a philosophical concept of a necessary balance in the world. They deduced there must be a great continent in the southern hemisphere to counter balance the land which they knew in the northern hemisphere. This they called Terra Australis, The Land of the South.

During the Age of Discovery, when colonizing was popular, it became customary to name a newly discovered land after an old land, tickling the sovereign’s fancy, and simultaneously linking the new to the old and covering the old by the new.7 And thus came New England, New Spain, New Scotland or Nova Scotia and many others, and, New Holland, which was the name in general use for Australia for two hundred years, from the mid 1600s to the mid 1800s.

It was claimed for Holland in 1644 but never colonized by Holland who were rather occupied in the Caribbean region. By mid 1700s British colonies were growing on the island known as New Holland. By the 1800s, when it was plainly a British colony, the search began for a more suitable name. We don’t know how many were considered, but at some point someone suggests the name reserved for Terra Australis. The name Australia was pleasing, and soon began to be used in governmental correspondence and in time by the world at larger, leaving the greater island yet further South, the yet undiscovered but anticipated polar region without a name. Its discovery and naming is a story told elsewhere.

Ans so were the origins of present day Australia. Borrowed or pilfered, predicted or prophesied, few dispute the country wears the name, Australia, well.

Footnotes

  1. Legends suggest that Africa was additionally joined to Europe at Gibraltar within humanity’s memory, but that is a story for elsewhere.
  2. Timeline of glaciation
  3. plate tectonics map
  4. from Online Etymology Dictionary, Australia | Origin and Meaning, “from Latin Terra Australis (16c.), from australis “southern” + -ia. A hypothetical southern continent, known as terra australis incognita, had been proposed since 2c. Dutch explorers called the newfound continent New Holland; the current name was suggested 1814 by Matthew Flinders as an improvement over Terra Australis “as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the name of the other great portions of the earth” [“Voyage to Terra Australis”]. In 1817 Gov. Lachlan Macquarie, having read Flinders’ suggestion, began using it in official correspondence. The ultimate source is Latin auster “south wind,” hence, “the south country” (see austral).”
  5. and often called Terra Australis incognita
  6. “The Greek philosopher Aristotle introduced (deduced) the idea that the earth had to be balanced: the northern mass (Arctic) must have a southern counterpart. “ Terra Australis princeton.edu
  7. see how many are named New this or New that in this List of former European colonies – Wikipedia