Australia: History And Why It Was Founded As A Penal Colony

A kangaroo hops through the outback landscape June 7, 2005 near Marree, Australia. (Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

While it stands today as one of the most diverse nations on Earth, the Australian continent was isolated from the rest of the world for the majority of its history. How did this relatively young country come to be, and just how did people from all over the globe find themselves on a giant island in the middle of the ocean?

Before Australia

Back before Google Maps—specifically, 15th-century Europe—people could only speculate on what may or may not have existed on the far south side of the globe, but they had their suspicions of a "hidden" continent. Some even made hypothetical maps of this mythic "Southland," or as they say in Latin, Terra Australis.

It turned out they were right, except about the part of it being undiscovered. Anthropologists believe the Aboriginal people were some of the first, if not the first, people to leave Africa some 70,000 years ago, making their way into Asia and down what is now Indonesia before exploring the smaller islands by boat. Once they reached New Guinea, they likely crossed a land bridge to Australia, which was later flooded as sea levels began to rise. Ancient cave paintings on the continent even depict giant kangaroos and birds, animals that went extinct around 40,000 years ago, suggesting Aboriginal Australians arrived early enough to witness Pleistocene megafauna. While more or less isolated, they must have had some contact with the outside world, as dingoes weren't introduced to the country until 4,000 years ago.