Introduction to Australia, Oceania, and Antarctica
*This week we will look at everything left in the world, Australia, Antarctica, and the Pacific Islands often known as Oceania.

*Australia is the world’s smallest continent and the second (or perhaps third)-least populous.  It is also the only continent in the world to be entirely under the government of one country—which makes it the sixth largest country in the world and the largest in the region.  It covers 2,967,909 square miles and has 20.4 million people, making it the 52nd most populous country in the world.

*Australia is divided into six states and two territories (one of which is the Australian Capital Territory). 

*Australia takes its name from the Latin australis, meaning southern.  It was the next-to-last continent discovered, first reported by the Dutch in 1638.

*Antarctica is the fifth-smallest continent, larger than only Europe and Australia, and it is the least populous, with no permanent residents, and under a thousand researchers and other temporary residents.

*Its name simply means ‘the opposite of the arctic.’  ‘Artic’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘bear,’ because the Artic Circle lies beneath the constellations known as the Great Bear and the Little Bear.  It was the last continent to be found, with the first verified sighting dated to 1820 (although it was probably seen earlier).

*Today Antarctica is treated as neutral ground, although seven countries have claimed parts of it (which sometimes overlap) for themselves.

*Oceania is a name often given to the islands of the Pacific.  Once they were divided into Polynesia (many islands:  the Eastern Pacific), Melanesia (black islands:  New Guinea and a few things near it), and Micronesia (small islands:  between Polynesia and Melanesia).  The terms are not considered geologically accurate any more, and are not used as much as they once were, although all of them, particularly Polynesia, will still be encountered from time to time. 

*Sometimes Hawaii and even the Aleutian islands are considered part of Oceania.  They are usually treated as part of North America because they belong to the USA however.

*Oceania is sometimes regarded as a continental group in and of itself.  If so, it is the smallest continent by land area and the second least populous (beating only Antarctica).

*There are (by the textbook’s definition) 14 independent countries in this region, as well as possessions of many other countries, including the USA, UK, and France.

*Of the independent countries in the region, five are Commonwealth Realms:  Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.

*Three Oceanic nations are in association with the United States (meaning that they use the US Dollar, and are heavily dependent on the USA for financial aid and defence, but in most other ways act as independent countries).  These are the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau. 

*The region’s demographics are dominated by the three largest countries, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand, the only countries to have populations over one million people. 

*English is by far the most important language in the region, although French is also used on some islands. 

*Local languages are also significant in some areas, particularly in Papua New Guinea, where over 700 distinct local languages survive.  There is a language group called the Papuan Languages, which, for the most part, are not really related except for the fact that they are all found in more of less the same region (although there are sub-families of the Papuan group that are related).  Overall, however, the group is defined by the fact that its languages are not members of any other major family.

*Many of the other languages in the region are Austronesian Languages.

*Religiously, the region is predominantly Christian—over 80% of all people in the region are Christian.  30% are Catholic, 20% are Anglican, 28% are other forms of Protestants, and 2.6% are Eastern Orthodox.  1.3% of the people in the region are Hindu.  4.6% follow various local religions or other faiths.  13.6% describe themselves as non-religious.

*Throughout most of Oceania, the major economic activity is subsistence farming (which includes fishing).

*Australia and New Zealand are famous for commercial agriculture. 

*About 5% of Australians are involved in agriculture, mostly on vast ranches in the Outback called stations. 

*Over half of New Zealand’s land is used for agriculture, again mostly for grazing of sheep, cattle, and other livestock.  Farm animals outnumber people in New Zealand by over 25 to 1.

*The smaller islands of Oceania also export food products, mainly rare spices.

*Extractive industries are also important in this region.  Many islands still have rare woods, and the timber industry is important.  Some islands also have important mineral resources, although those were usually stripped away before decolonisation.

*Manufacturing is important in Australia and New Zealand, although their major industries are food processing, and they still have to import a great deal of their machinery and other high-tech equipment.  Most of the rest of the region is not particularly engaged in manufacturing at all.

*As in most developed countries, the majority of Australians and New Zealanders are employed today in service industries.  Service industries are also growing in some of the smaller island nations, many of which have long had tourist industries, and some of which are beginning to develop banking and other financial services as well.

*Overall, the region is very poor, although Australia and New Zealand are relatively wealthy and developed nations.  Australia has the 13th highest nominal GDP in the world (16th if adjusted for purchasing power) and New Zealand is 42nd (57th adjusted for purchasing power).

This page last updated 3 December, 2006.