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A Fossil Continent
by [?]

If an intelligent Australian colonist were suddenly to be translated backward from Collins Street, Melbourne, into the flourishing woods of the secondary geological period–say about the precise moment of time when the English chalk downs were slowly accumulating, speck by speck, on the silent floor of some long-forgotten Mediterranean–the intelligent colonist would look around him with a sweet smile of cheerful recognition, and say to himself in some surprise, ‘Why, this is just like Australia.’ The animals, the trees, the plants, the insects, would all more or less vividly remind him of those he had left behind him in his happy home of the southern seas and the nineteenth century. The sun would have moved back on the dial of ages for a few million summers or so, indefinitely (in geology we refuse to be bound by dates), and would have landed him at last, to his immense astonishment, pretty much at the exact point whence he first started.

In other words, with a few needful qualifications, to be made hereafter, Australia is, so to speak, a fossil continent, a country still in its secondary age, a surviving fragment of the primitive world of the chalk period or earlier ages. Isolated from all the remainder of the earth about the beginning of the tertiary epoch, long before the mammoth and the mastodon had yet dreamt of appearing upon the stage of existence, long before the first shadowy ancestor of the horse had turned tail on nature’s rough draft of the still undeveloped and unspecialised lion, long before the extinct dinotheriums and gigantic Irish elks and colossal giraffes of late tertiary times had even begun to run their race on the broad plains of Europe and America, the Australian continent found itself at an early period of its development cut off entirely from all social intercourse with the remainder of our planet, and turned upon itself, like the German philosopher, to evolve its own plants and animals out of its own inner consciousness. The natural consequence was that progress in Australia has been absurdly slow, and that the country as a whole has fallen most woefully behind the times in all matters pertaining to the existence of life upon its surface. Everybody knows that Australia as a whole is a very peculiar and original continent; its peculiarity, however, consists, at bottom, for the most part in the fact that it still remains at very nearly the same early point of development which Europe had attained a couple of million years ago or thereabouts. “Advance, Australia,” says the national motto; and, indeed, it is quite time nowadays that Australia should advance; for, so far, she has been left out of the running for some four mundane ages or so at a rough computation.

Example, says the wisdom of our ancestors, is better than precept; so perhaps, if I take a single example to start with, I shall make the principle I wish to illustrate a trifle clearer to the European comprehension. In Australia, when Cook or Van Diemen first visited it, there were no horses, cows, or sheep; no rabbits, weasels, or cats; no indigenous quadrupeds of any sort except the pouched mammals or marsupials, familiarly typified to every one of us by the mamma kangaroo in Regent’s Park, who carries the baby kangaroos about with her, neatly deposited in the sac or pouch which nature has provided for them instead of a cradle. To this rough generalisation, to be sure, two special exceptions must needs be made; namely, the noble Australian black-fellow himself, and the dingo or wild dog whose ancestors no doubt came to the country in the same ship with him, as the brown rat came to England with George I. of blessed memory. But of these two solitary representatives of the later and higher Asiatic fauna ‘more anon’; for the present we may regard it as approximately true that aboriginal and unsophisticated Australia in the lump was wholly given over, on its first discovery, to kangaroos, phalangers, dasyures, wombats, and other quaint marsupial animals, with names as strange and clumsy as their forms.