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10.4: The Patterns of Human Settlement in Australia and the Pacific

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    Much of the physical landscape of Oceania has been directly shaped by human activity and settlement. Although Australia today is known for its origin as a British prison colony, the continent was inhabited long before Europeans arrived. The indigenous people of Australia are known as Aborigines and comprise a number of different ethnolinguistic and cultural groups. Most researchers believe the first aboriginal groups arrived in Australia between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago when sea levels were lower and land bridges and relatively short sea crossings separated Australia, Tasmania, and Papua New Guinea from mainland Southeast Asia.

    It took thousands more years and advances in ocean transportation and navigation for the rest of the Pacific islands to be settled (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Humans gradually made their way to the islands of Melanesia, to Fiji by 900 BCE then east and north. The far-reaches of Polynesia, including Hawaii and Easter Island, were not populated until much later due to the long distances separating them from other landmasses. New Zealand, though, was one of the last to be settled, with Eastern Polynesians not arriving on the islands until around 1250 CE. These groups developed their own ethnic and cultural identity known as the Maori.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of Human Migrations Across the Pacific Islands (© David Eccles, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

    Life would change dramatically for the people of Oceania with the arrival of Europeans. The Dutch first made landfall in Australia in 1606 CE but simply explored and mapped the area and did not establish a settlement. In the late 18th century, the British established their first Australian settlement in what would later become the city of Sydney with the intention of creating an overseas penal colony. However, many of the prisoners sent to Australia were not hardened criminals who needed to be separated from the British Isles by an expansive ocean. Many were accused of petty crimes like theft and even children who had committed crimes were shipped to Australia. Today, around 20 percent of Australians are the descendants of these imprisoned settlers.

    European settlement of Australia challenged aboriginal land and water resources, but it was disease that had the most devastating effect on the indigenous population. At the time of British colonization, there were likely between 315,000 and 750,000 Aborigines in Australia. By the start of World War II, diseases like smallpox and measles reduced their numbers to just 74,000.

    New Zealand was originally claimed by the British as a colony of Australia, but then became its own colony in the mid-19th century. Around the same time, representatives of Britain as well as Maori leaders signed the Treaty of Waitangi. This treaty granted British colonists sovereignty over the governing of New Zealand but gave the Maori the rights to their tribal lands and resources and made them British subjects.

    Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, European and Japanese colonial expeditions claimed most of the Pacific islands. Some islands were seen as strategic military bases. Others, such as France’s colony of New Caledonia, were transformed into overseas prison colonies following the British model. Still others were occupied for their resources and trade opportunities. In the decades following World War II, a number of islands achieved independence. Australia slowly increased its autonomy throughout the early 20th century, officially dissolving from British control in 1942. New Zealand gained independence from Britain in 1947. In the 1970s and 1980s, another wave of independence occurred, with Fiji, Tonga, and a number of other states gaining independence.

    Others were not granted independence and a number of Pacific islands remain colonies today. Hawaii was made a US state in 1959 largely against the wishes of its indigenous population. Guam became a strategic US Naval base in the Spanish-American War and later in World War II and remains a US territory today. Its residents are US citizens but cannot vote in elections. The vast majority of the world’s remaining colonies today are islands because of their strategic locations and resource potential, particularly after the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Map of Non-Self-Governing Territories, 2012 (Derived from UN Map of Non-Self Governing Territories, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

    Although Australia and New Zealand gained independence relatively early compared to many of the other areas of Oceania, these countries have experienced lingering issues related to their indigenous populations. For Australian Aboriginals, there were two historical issues they sought to address: the government admission of mistreatment and ownership over tribal lands. Previously, the Australian government ruled that Australia prior to British arrival was considered terra nullius, or nobody’s land, and thus there was no regard for indigenous rights to land or resources. In 1992, however, Australia’s high court ruled that land policy was invalid. By this time, Australia’s Northern Territory was already considered aboriginal land, but later courts found that over three-quarters of the land in Australia could be subject to aboriginal claims, even though Aborigines comprised only 3 percent of the population of Australia. In 2008, the prime minister of Australia issued a formal apology to the Aboriginal people of Australia on behalf of the government.

    One challenge to these perhaps promising legal developments, however, is that private enterprise is prohibited on aboriginal land. Even building a home is seen as a violation of the current guidelines. Thus, many Aborigines became land-rich as a result of the government’s decision, but still remained poor. Unemployment, alcohol abuse, food security, and land reform continue to be significant issues for Australian Aborigines. Today, there are over 500,000 Aboriginal Australians and almost one-third now live in Australia’s major cities.

    The Maori of New Zealand make up a much larger portion of the country’s population at around 15 percent. The Maori have generally kept their traditional cultural and linguistic traditions while partially integrating into more western New Zealand society. Compared to other groups in New Zealand, the Maori have lower life expectancies and average incomes, and make up around 50 percent of New Zealand’s prison population.

    Economically, Australia and the Pacific islands have struggled with what could be called the “tyranny of distance,” the fact that this region remains so far and so isolated from the other world regions. Most of the economies of these countries are based on exports, but these exports must be shipped, adding on to the cost of production. Anything that is not made locally must also be shipped in and some countries have promoted import-substitution industries, a strategy to replace foreign imports with domestic production of goods. Australia remains relatively unique among more developed countries in that its economy is based heavily on the export of commodities. Geography plays a key role in Australia’s export-oriented economy. The country is relatively large and has a significant amount of natural resources. Its domestic population compared to its size and resource base is quite small, at only 24.6 million people as of 2017, so it is able to export the resources it doesn’t need domestically. The country is the global leader in coal exports and has the second-largest diamond mine in the world.

    Across the smaller islands of the Pacific, geography has also played a key role in economic development. These countries are often very small with only limited natural resources. They are also remote, only connected by long shipping routes to other world regions. Many rely on trade to Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and the United States for both export income and imported goods. Often, residents of the Pacific islands speak Pidgin English, a simplified form of English used by speakers of different languages for trade, in addition to their native tongue. Tourism has become a significant source of income for some countries of the Pacific, especially for the islands of Fiji. Despite some economic successes, these are also some of the world’s most vulnerable countries in terms of global changes in climate and the coming decades could see significant changes in the human landscape as a result.


    the term for the indigenous people of Australia


    the term for the indigenous people of New Zealand

    Import-substitution industries:

    a strategy to replace foreign imports with domestic production of goods

    Pidgin English:

    a simplified form of English used by speakers of different languages for trade, in addition to their native tongue

    This page titled 10.4: The Patterns of Human Settlement in Australia and the Pacific is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Caitlin Finlayson.

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