Australia is the world's sixth-largest country by area and lies between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It is made up of the Australian mainland, the island of Tasmania, and several smaller islands. The capital is Canberra, but the cities of Sydney and Melbourne are the economic and cultural centers.
At least 65,000 years ago, the first Aboriginal population migrated to the island by land bridges and sea-crossings from Southeast Asia and established robust semipermanent settlements. The first British colonialists, led by Captain Arthur Phillip, arrived in 1788.
In 1901, the six previously self-governing colonies of Australia united to form the Commonwealth of Australia, still a dominion of the British Empire. When the Commonwealth was formed, the government held a flag design competition, which brought in thousands of submissions. The winning design is still in use today. It includes a blue background with the Union Jack and five white stars in the shape of the Southern Cross constellation. The sixth star is a seven-pointed Commonwealth Star, which represents the six Australian states and the Northern Territory.
Australia's geographic isolation from other continents has resulted in a unique plant and animal life. About 85% of flowering plants, 84% of mammals, and more than 45% of birds are endemic. Australia also has the greatest number of reptiles of any country, with 755 species. Australia is home to many marsupials, such as kangaroos, koalas, and wallabies, as well as the world's only egg-laying mammals, the platypus and echidna. The Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Queensland, is the largest mass of coral in the world.
Until World War II, Australian culture was primarily influenced by Anglo-Celtic culture, as the Aboriginal population was small and persecuted and exclusivist immigration policies maintained cultural homogeneity. In the second half of the 20th century, however, immigration rules were relaxed and an increasing number of people immigrated from eastern Asia, the Middle East, and continental European countries.
Barbecues are common Australian pastimes and meat is ubiquitous in Australian cuisine. Vegemite, a salty, dark-brown yeast extract, has long been a staple of the Australian diet. Australian culture has benefited from state art subsidies, resulting in prominent art galleries, museums, and performing arts centers such as the Sydney Opera House. Sports also play an important role in the lives of many Australians. Cricket, surfing, Australian football, tennis, golf, and rugby are some of the most popular sports.