1. Prehistory to European invasion (50,000 years ago to 1788)
Australia has been inhabited by humans for a long time. It is disputed how long exactly but it's considered to be between about 70,000 to 40,000 years ago. Indigenous Australians are one of the oldest continuing cultures in the world. They first migrated across land bridges from South East Asia yet are not related to other Asian or Polynesian groups. The lower sea levels during the period meant the Australian continent extended to include New Guinea and some of the Indonesian archipelago. People first arrived in Tasmania which was connected to the mainland at that time 40,000 years ago.
There is no one aboriginal culture, there are similarities but it is not a single entity. Indigenous Australians make up hundreds of societies and language groups on mainland Australia and also count the Torres Strait Island people north of Cape York, who have a Papuan like culture. In the late 18th century there was between 350 to 750 distinct indigenous languages. Today there are fewer than 200. All but 20 are considered to be endangered.
Prior to European contact there was around half a million Indigenous people in Australia. Their societies and lifestyles varied from region to region and a bulk of them inhabited similar areas as the modern population: eastern and south eastern Australia and the Murray River Basin.
They refer to the pre-European times and their creation myths as the Dreaming or Dream Time. Though a hunter-gatherer society, it was complex society which was perfectly sustainable in their environment. One such example is the practice of burn offs. Australia is riddled with huge bush fires; a devastating example is the one in late 2003 which damaged Canberra. Indigenous people would made controlled burn offs of the underbrush to prevent larger fires.
An interesting piece of trivia is Nimbin in Northern New South Wales, known as Australia's drug capital is said to be the final resting place of the Rainbow Serpent. In most creation myths the Rainbow Serpent created the land around it as it traveled. Aboriginal mythology and cultural customs are complex tribal kinships. When Europeans came they were misunderstood and were persecuted because of it. Myths also reflect a time when they would have existed with Australia's now extinct Megafauna. The Bunyip is an example of a mythic beast.
Indigenous Australia traded and had contact with the outside world. Many would be surprised to know Islam has been known there as early as the 17th century. The people in northern Australia traded with the Makassans and other groups which today make up Indonesia. The Dingo is evidence of continuing contact with their northern neighbours. The Dingo is not native to Australia; it was first introduced around 5,000 years ago. The closest genetic connection is the wild dogs of Thailand. Contact went both ways because these dogs have been found with Kangaroo ticks. It would be incorrect to label the Indigenous Australian society as an unchanging Stone Age people because they culturally changed and adapted through the impacts of the Ice Age, trade and other wild climatic variations Australia has felt over the millennia.
It is disputed when the first European discoveries of Australia took place and by whom, the Portuguese, Spanish and French. Though not widely accepted, some believe the Chinese explorer Zheng He mapped the west coast of Australia in 1421. The earliest undisputed sighting of Australia was in 1606 by the Dutch through the Torres Straight and Cape York area. There was one landfall but after an attack by natives they abandoned the expedition. In 1616 the Dutch landed again on Dirk Hartog Island in Western Australia and left behind a pewter plate to mark the sight. The Dutch charted the coastline extensively. The original name for the island State of Tasmania was Van Dieman's Land. The Dutch name for Australia was New Holland.
The Dutch ship, the Batavia was shipwrecked on her maiden voyage on a reef off the West Australian coast in 1629. This resulted in a mutiny and later a massacre followed when the Dutch hunted the mutineers down. Two sailors were marooned on the Australian coast but never were seen again. Interestingly later British settlers in the area would report seeing light skinned aborigines. It is possible they could have been adopted into the local clans, or it was the result of later European contact.
The first Englishman to visit of Australia was William Dampier in 1688 and again in 1699. He was the first European to report the Kangaroo. Most well known explorer was Captain James Cook. He was sent to map around Tahiti but went on to map New Zealand in 1769, and first sighted the eastern Australian coast in 1770. He claimed the entire east coast of Australia for Britain and named it New South Wales in August 1770. He identified Botany Bay as an appropriate place to establish a settlement.
Interestingly it was because of America that Australia was colonized. In simple terms after the revolt of the Thirteen Colonies in North America, Britain needed a new place to send the scum. The British Government decided in 1786 to send convicts to New South Wales, which would now serve as a penal colony. It was organized by Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, and the obvious name sake for the future city. Eleven ships known today as the First Fleet set out in 1787 with around 1400 people. It was commanded by Captain (later Admiral) Arthur Phillip who would become first Governor of New South Wales.
When the fleet arrived in eastern Australia it was decided Botany Bay was no longer appropriate and choose the site now known as Sydney Cove. Australia Day on January 26 marks the landing and settlement of the first fleet in today's Sydney. Indigenous Australians mark this day as Invasion Day and the beginning of the end of their millennia old culture.