Is Australia a young country?

By Chris Hall

Australia is a young country. It is a common assertion made by international visitors to the Australian continent; In fact, many Australians make the same claim. It seems to be commonly accepted common sense. But is it true? Is Australia a young country? Once you dig, even a little bit, it quickly becomes obvious that Australia and its history is more complex and deeper than it looks at first glance. But often when people start to talk about the history of a country, divergent concepts are blended to create arguments that contradict themselves.

In order to compare apples with apples, we can break up the history of a country into a number of easily comparable sections. Then we can put countries side by side and see which one existed first. We can look at a country's history from almost unlimited angles, but let's work from these common perspectives on the matter.

  • The current state / political structure

  • Human structures, such as buildings and farms

  • Human habitation

There are other ways, and feel free to comment below if you think one deserves a mention. For now, let's get started with the first one.

The current political structure

Perhaps this is the easiest category to analyse. We can identify the current, continuous political structure and the date it was established. If an area changes structure significantly, then it will not be considered to be continuous. Significant changes include things like changing from a monarchy or empire to a republic, or if there is a successful revolution or war which disposes of the pre-existing state system or political structure. 

So, how does Australia measure? The current political structure of this country is the Commonwealth of Australia and it was established in 1901. Of course, this year is not the beginning of history on the Australian continent, but just the year the political entity called Australia was created. So how does this compare to other countries? Compared to most of the world, Australia is older. Most European, Asian and African countries were formed after Australia. India was founded in 1947, South Korea in 1948 and China in 1949. The French Fifth Republic was formed in 1958, Germany in 1990, and Italy 1946. Canada only received its full independence as a sovereign nation in 1982. So next time you meet your Canadian friend test them on this, and see the shock in their eyes. And while the Ottoman empire ruled a large part of the globe for 632 years, it ceased to exist in 1922. In a part of its former territory, the nation state Turkey emerged, thanks largely to Kemal Atatürk. Even the Chilean and Brazilian governments are younger than the Australian Federal government thanks to a number military coups and government takeovers in the South American nations.

So when we look at the 'oldness' of a country's current political structure, are there any countries older than Australia? Yes of course there are. For example, the United States of America began its journey as country in 1776. Since then it has had a continuous and independent political structure until today, even surviving a devastating civil war. The Netherlands became a constitutional monarchy in 1848 and managed to survive the threat of German occupation in the Second World War. Norway can also be added to this list of countries that are older than Australia in this context with its current constitution being in place since 1814.

Human structures

Maybe looking at the political structures of the country is a little too restrictive. Many people try and prove the 'oldness' of a country by pointing to old buildings. You may hear people make claims that Italy is an old country because it has the Colosseum in Rome. Or that France has medieval castles therefore it's old. Or that Japan is old because it has the ancient Imperial Palace in Kyoto which was rebuilt in 1855 after being destroyed by fire (again). These arguments might make for a great pub conversation but do they stack up to any logical analysis?

Are there any buildings or ruins in Australia that people can point to and say are older than buildings or ruins in other countries? As it turns out, there are! Structures like dwellings and farms, including stone houses and dam walls. And they are much older than many in Europe and Asia. Recently there has been a lot of discussion about farms and structures around Lake Condah, Victoria. There is increasing evidence of thousands of years of humans living a sedentary life in this area. And they built structure that go with such a life, such as farms that could feed up to 10,000 people. This is not a new “discovery”. In 1841, on an expedition to the area, George Robinson of the Victorian government commented that in the area there was "an immense piece of ground trenched and banked" that covered about 6 hectares and that this complex was "purposefully constructed for catching eels." Among this farming complex, various stone structures, such as traps and channels, are at least 6600 years old, while some sections of the farm have been dated to around 6000BC. As well as these inland farms, the ruins of ancient coastal fisheries dot the coastlines of Australia. Some coastal communities, such as the Yolŋu society, even had links to global trade networks for well before the British First Fleet landed on the continent. By the mid 1850s, around 900 tonnes of dried trepang was shipped out of Arnhem Land each year, with markets in Beijing being the ultimate destination for the delicacy. Another impressive Australian archeological find has recently been discovered Rosemary Island where foundations for buildings have been found which date back to the end of the last ice age.

How does the oldness of the above structures in Australia compare to structures from around the world? European medieval castles don't even come close. The Colosseum in Rome was only built in 70AD so that is no where near as old. While much larger and more impressive than the structures in Australia, the oldest know Egyptian Pyramids were only built around 4630 ago, well after the eel farms in Australia were in use. Indonesia could give Australia a run for its money as one area in West Java has pyramids reportedly aged anywhere from 9000 to 20,000 years old. So Australia has older structures or ruins. Though, is pointing at old buildings and ruins a good way to argue that a country is old?

Human habitation

Perhaps you'd like to argue which country is older based on the amount of time humans have been living on the area that a certain country now claims. Until very recently, it was generally agreed that humans originated in Africa and that humans first migrated out of Africa about 60,000 years ago. However that date needs to be updated as archeological evidence shows that humans have lived in Northern Australia for at least 65,000 years. And by around 50,000 years ago they had reached the Southern half of the Australian continent, about 20,000 years before the first humans reached Europe and 35,000 years before they reached the America. Check out the video below for an overview of early human migration. It is quite nice, despite needing updating.

Final thoughts.

What does all this tell us? Perhaps history, and in particular national histories, are not as simple as they may look at first glance. Perhaps Australian history is much more complex than many people give it credit for. So next time someone tells you that Australia is a young country, ask them what they mean exactly. Of course there any other categories that we can use to compare the age of countries. Perhaps one angle is to consider the history of peoples or cultures. However, migration during historical times creates difficulties when making claims about this. Humans migrate for many reasons including factors regarding trade, war, love and natural resources. If an Italian person can prove their family had lived in Rome for 4 or 5 generations, does that mean that they can be certain their ancestors were there when Julius Caesar was murdered? Maybe you would prefer to use geology or geography as your frame of reference, maybe something else. Feel free to comment below with your ideas.