The Commonwealth of Australia is both a sovereign country and the smallest continent in the world. It is surrounded by the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and is one of the highly developed nations of the world.
It is believed that the ancestors of indigenous Australians arrived there some 40,000 – 70,000 years ago. This was a time when the Sunda continental shelf (that makes up southeastern Asia) and the Sahul continental shelf (which makes up Australia) were close by and had not drifted apart. The ancestors of the Australian aborigines migrated out of Africa and made their way to Australia, India, Malaysia, Borneo, Papua New Guinea and Timor. It is still unclear how they made the crossing from Timor to Australia. It is possible that the two continental shelves were joined by a narrow land bridge. It is also possible that these ancient people crossed over from island to island before reaching Australia. The oldest human remains found in Australia (of Mungo Man) are believed to be about 40,000 years old.
In about 150 AD, Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy deduced the presence of a land in the southern hemisphere which he called Terra Australis Incognita roughly translates into the Unknown Southern Land. Despite this, for centuries European voyages took explorers past Australia without landing in the continent.
The French explorer, Binot Paulmyer, claimed to have made a landing in Australia in the year 1503. This claim, however, was later disproved and it seemed that Paulmyer had landed somewhere in Madagascar. Some believe that the first European sighting of Australia was by a Portuguese explorer, Cristovao de Mendonca, in the year 1522. There is not much evidence in support of this, though.
The first authenticated European discovery of Australia was made by a small Dutch vessel called Duyfken, captained by Willem Janszoon, in the year 1606. The Duyfken had set sail from Banten (Indonesia) to explore new trade routes. In February 1606, the vessel anchored off the Gulf of Carpentaria and crew members went ashore. They were attacked by unfriendly natives and lost about ten crew members on the attempts to explore the shore. Janszoon did not realize at the time that he had been the first European to set foot on Australian soil. He thought that he had landed somewhere in New Guinea.
The Duyfken was the first of many Dutch ships to land in Australia through the 17th century. In the year 1616, another Dutch ship called the Eendracht made its way from Indonesia to Australia. Captain Dirk Hartog landed on an island off the coast of West Australia (now named Dirk Hartog Island). Through the century other Dutch explorers made repeated landings in Australia. The Dutch named it New Holland. In the year 1688, William Dampier became the first person to first explore the north-western coast of Australia. He was the first Englishman to have set sight on the continent and went back to explore in 1699. He made an accurate account of the flora and fauna of the island and reported the existence of kangaroos.
James Cook, one of the best-known explorers of Australia, reached New Zealand in October 1769. He then sailed to south-eastern and eastern Australia. He claimed the region now known as New South Wales for Great Britain in 1770 and named it New South Wales.
By the late 1700s, Britain felt the need for a penal colony across the Pacific and Sir Joseph Banks accompanied Cook in 1770 to ascertain if Botany Bay is suitable for the purpose. When Botany Bay was deemed unsuitable, Captain Arthur Phillip landed near Sydney Cove on January 26th, 1788. This day is now commemorated as Australia Day. This new colony in Australia was then proclaimed the Colony of New South Wales on February 7, 1788.