THE continent of Australia is not only by all odds the largest land-mass of the Oceanic area, but also presents in its physical characters the sharpest contrast to the remainder of the region. Continental in size, only a small section of its great extent possesses a tropical environment, the whole of its interior and most of its western portion being a vast and almost waterless desert. Instead of the conditions of life being easy and the food-supply abundant, as in the tropical islands, over great parts of its area the food-quest absorbed a large proportion of the energies of the inhabitants. In the desert the summer heat is terrible, while on the elevated plateaux and in the mountains of the south-east the winters are snowy, and the cold is often intense. The sad and almost shadeless forests of eucalyptus, acacia, and she-oak are in sharp contrast to the dense growths of the tropics, and the peculiar animal life, characterized by the abundance of marsupials and great struthious birds, sets it apart from most of the rest of the Pacific world. Moreover, Australia is to a large degree isolated from the remainder of the whole area in that only at the northern extremity of Queensland does it closely approach any of the surrounding lands, although its north-western coasts are not very remote, as Oceanic distances go, from eastern Indonesia.
The native peoples of Australia were in great measure as distinctive as its physical features, climate, flora, and fauna. Ranked in their culture among the lowest peoples of the world--wholly ignorant of agriculture, pottery, and domestic animals (except the dog), and over large portions of the area
without any knowledge or means of navigation--they possessed at the same time an extraordinarily complex social organization and an elaborate religious ceremonial. Although presenting a notable degree of uniformity throughout the continent, close study and comparison of the various tribes, particularly in regard to the languages spoken, has quite recently revealed 1 to us certain broad distinctions, which, although requiring more evidence before they can be accepted as entirely proved, suffice, to divide the aborigines into two contrasted groups (or three, if Tasmania is included). The first of these, which may be called the northern group, occupied that portion of the continent lying north of the twentieth parallel of south latitude, together with a large wedge-shaped area extending southward into the interior for nearly ten degrees farther. Throughout this area, comprising roughly one-third of the whole continent, the languages spoken fall into a large number of small, independent, unrelated stocks comparable to those of the Papuan tribes of New Guinea. Certain cultural and physical differences also seem to mark this northern group in contrast with the second, which occupied the whole of the remainder of the continent. The languages in this area, although separable into a number of groups, show such a degree of similarity that they must be regarded as related in some sense, although the precise extent is not yet clear. The Tasmanians would seem to have constituted a third group, although the fact that they have been extinct for many years renders our information in regard to them so fragmentary that definiteness on this point is almost impossible.
These three groups have been taken as evidence of three successive strata of people. Of these the Tasmanians represent the oldest and most primitive, and that which presumably once spread over the whole Australian continent. The second group is explained as due to a great wave of immigration from the north which swept over and absorbed, or in places exterminated, the Tasmanoid type. Latest in point of time is the
northern group, which, coming from the same general direction, dominated the whole north and drove a wedge deep into the central portion of the continent. That the racial history of Australia has, however, not been quite as simple as this has become more and more clear with increasing information; but reference to other factors and possibilities may best be postponed to the final discussion of Australian mythology.
Material on the mythology of the Australian natives is comparatively meagre. The rapid extinction of a large portion of the population before any adequate observations had been made, and the large areas, especially in the West, still remaining unexplored, leave us little more than fragments available for the continent itself; while for Tasmania we have almost literally nothing. Enough material, however, is at hand to present an outline of the main features of Australian mythology, and to indicate at least some of its relationships.