Aboriginals: Fire & Environment

Aboriginal Australians have lived in Australia for at least 40,000 years.[1] Primary sources on their own are unsuitable to provide valuable insight about Aboriginal attitudes towards the environment and how they shaped, managed and protected it. Secondary sources are necessary to develop our understanding on this matter. These sources establish that Aboriginals had a deep connection with the landscape and nature. Because of this, they utilised fire extensively as a tool to systematically shape the land, as well as to protect and manipulate its flora and fauna. Burning was used to suit the local plants, animals and people. As such, fire was a friend rather than an enemy, and was central to how they lived.[2] Due to language and cultural differences, there are few primary sources archived from an Aboriginal perspective. Therefore, the sources used to understand their behaviour are of European production. Most of these were made after 1788, and they assumed that similar Aboriginal behaviour had continued for thousands of years previous to when they had witnessed it. It also means that it is difficult to reconstruct with certainty the particulars of aboriginal fire management.[3] This essay will focus on Australian Aboriginal attitudes and actions towards the environment before the settlement of Australia, in 1788. This is inspected from the perspective of the use of fire. 

Attitudes

Primary sources do not explicitly tell us much regarding Aboriginal attitudes towards their environment. Instead it is the implicit information which can be affirmed by secondary sources that proves more useful. Most primary sources are derived from European explorers and thus provide a more descriptive recount. One message primary sources tell us is that Aboriginals viewed fire as an ally.[4] In a journal entry (1848), British explorer Thomas Mitchell noted that the natives had “adjusted with admirable fitness to the few resources afforded” in such a “wild” country.[5]  To achieve this, he said that “fire, grass, kangaroos and human inhabitants seem all dependent on each other for existence.” Implicit is the view that Aboriginals viewed the environment with great respect because they needed to interact with their harsh surroundings to survive. It indicates that the natives could effectively manipulate the land to suit their needs, especially with fire.

Furthermore, in Joseph Lycett’s watercolour painting titled “Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos” (1817), by portraying the interplay between fire, kangaroos and human it tells us that they had respect of the relationship between the fauna and themselves as well as a keen ability of how to use fire to their advantage. It also portrays them as “masters” rather than “passive slaves” of the environment, challenging how they were different to how most hunter-gatherer societies were viewed.[6]  

However, secondary sources are needed to construct a more complete understanding. These sources affirm that Aboriginals viewed their environment as one of interdependence. Bill Gammage argued that intimate Aboriginal knowledge of the local environment was key to fire management.[7] For example, Aboriginals would watch white-ants carry eggs to a high place to know when it was going to rain and therefore when to start burning.[8] This illustrates the interdependence between the natives and the environment. Likewise, Aborigines had to exploit food resources without depleting them.[9] As such fire became a tool they used to shape the land to maintain these resources.

Fire was viewed as more than a tool. It was used to ward off evil spirits[10] and to protect critical places key to Aboriginal life and economy.[11] Smoke became a signal that everything was well on that land.[12] Further proof of the importance of fire in their community was evidenced by their language. The Natives had single words for phrases such as “unburnt ground, but ready for burning” or “well burnt country, good to hunt on.”[13] Their nomadic lifestyles led to an ingrained loyalty and attachment to country and in this case, an alliance with fire.[14] These attitudes towards their environment directly links to how and why they transformed the land with fire. Under their watch, they could tame fire to “complete docility, instead of ungovernable fury.”[15] 

Management

Primary sources are more useful when investigating how Aboriginals have shaped and managed the land with fire. Most native groups used fire to manipulate the environment to enhance their hunter-gatherer landscapes.[16] The ecological transformation of Australia’s landscape was man made, not natural.[17] Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (1844) noted that “long strips of lately burnt grass were frequently observed” in an effort by the locals to attract game to particular spots.[18] This nationwide “systematic management”[19]  was core to the relationship between the natives and the environment, and allowed them to shape the country.[20]

Such a claim is supported by Lycett’s painting where an aboriginal hunter is throwing a spear at a fleeing kangaroo, with smoke billowing from bushes in the background.[21] And it was further articulated by Thomas Mitchell who said that fire was necessary to create green crops which would attract the kangaroos, so they could be hunted.[22] Furthermore, Alfred Howitt’s report told us that annual bushfires acted as a check against annoying and potentially devastating insect life.[23] Secondary resources sustain this. Stephen Payne said that natives would forage through ash for goannas and snakes, and when fresh young herbage growth appeared, macropods, emus and other game would be tempted to leave their bushes to swarm the area to feed.[24] Making them easy hunting with their spears. This systematic ability to precisely grow plants and therefore attract animals meant that they did not need to hunt or gather speculatively.[25] All was located as fire had put it.[26] Additionally, it meant that Australian biota had developed to an anthropogenic Aboriginal fire regime.[27] However, Bill Gammage noted that burning to “drive game, rather than lure it” was uncommon.[28] This to a small extent challenges and disrepute’s Lycett’s painting as it portrays hunting by driving kangaroos out of the bush as a common method.

In addition, Beth Gott points out that the mosaic burning pattern that Aboriginals used was advantageous for all.[29] For example, most plant species that flowered within a year after a fire were herbaceous, which Aborigines depended on for food. Thus, regular burning and maintaining the land at an “arrested stage of fire recovery” was necessary for food supply.[30] This secondary source shows a clear interrelationship with the environment and how Aboriginal people shaped it. 

Additionally, Thomas Mitchell[31] and Alfred Howitt[32] told us that Aboriginals used fire to clear underwood to keep forests open. This helped with transportation and largened the habitat of kangaroos. Figure 1 provides evidence on openness of the ground after an Aboriginal fire.[33] Mitchell suggested that without this process, the woods would have become a jungle as thick as in New Zealand or America.[34] Furthermore, fire had the capacity to “roll back rainforest into scleroforest and revert scleroforest to grasses.”[35] However, Thomas Mitchell was an explorer/surveyor and not an ecologist. Therefore, such a claim does not hold much authority. Likewise, his journal suffered from some further limitations. For example, he blamed the introduction of cattle for the “extirpation” of the native race by “limiting their means of existence.”[36] He omitted the massacres his colonising forces committed against the natives as a factor. This diminishes the usefulness of this primary source as a whole. Overall, primary sources give insight as to how fire was a powerful tool used to mould and manage the land.[37]

Figure 1: The bush immediately after an Aboriginal fire, North-Eastern Arnhem Land, 1967. (Rhys Jones, “Fire-Stick Farming”, 224 (Photo: Nicholas Peterson))

Protection

Aboriginals have also used fire to protect the environment. Under Aboriginal care there were no known deadly wild bushfires. Patches of country remained at different stages of fire recovery and controlled fire averted uncontrolled ones.[38] It thereby protected the survival of all creatures and plants in Australia. In addition, Gammage explained that “over 70% of Australian plant species tolerate fire” and many needed it to germinate.[39] Cool fires could restrict fuel and create refuges for vulnerable species.[40] Hot fires however cleaned the country and encouraged regeneration.[41] For example, it was necessary to burn the Callitris tree before it took “possession of the soil, to the exclusion of other plants”.[42] They burned different types of land at separate intervals. For example, kangaroo grass every two to three years, mulga once a decade and rainforests almost never.[43] Similarly, some animals only survive small fires whilst other needed frequent fire. For example, the mainland tammar wallabies needed melaleuca burnt very hot about every 30 years.[44] Since such an array of animals survived under Aboriginal fire regimes, it must have been positive and protective towards the environment.

Sources

There are however opposing viewpoints to the sources discussed above. Primarily, Ian Lunt attacks Bill Gammage’s “over imaginative” big-picture narrative on how fire was used in all of Australia.[45] He also disapproves of Thomas Mitchell’s overly general description of the interdependence between human, fire and nature.  He criticises Gammage’s “non-spatial” research method, and insists that locality matters with ecological observations. Additionally, he cites Silcock’s investigation[46] which concluded that “counter to prevailing paradigms…sparse observations of fire suggest that burning was infrequent” and spatially restricted.[47] This work also challenged the notion that “most of Australia was regularly burning”.[48] Also, there remains a shallow understanding of native practices, which is perhaps due to a lack of informative primary sources from an Aboriginal view. Overall this debate is helpful to question the prevailing assumptions created by the primary and secondary sources explored earlier.

Conclusion

Primary sources have been able to convey some useful information regarding Aboriginal attitudes to their environment and how fire has shaped and protected that environment. However, on their own we learn little. This essay has explored native attitudes to their environment by developing primary sources with knowledge from secondary ones. Likewise, the extent of how Aboriginals have moulded and taken care of their land, flora, and fauna is touched upon by primary sources but ultimately requires secondary sources to give a fuller understanding.

References

Gammage, Bill., “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” Australian Historical Studies, 42, 2 (2011): 277-88.  

Gott, Beth., “Aboriginal Fire Management in South-Eastern Australia: Aims and Frequency,” Journal of Biogeography 30,7 (2005): 1203-208, URL: http://faculty.fortlewis.edu/korb_j/global%20fire/aboriginal%20fire%20management%20australia.pdf

Howitt, Alfred., “The Eucalypts of Gippsland,” Transactions, Royal Society of Victoria, 2,1 (1890): 109-113.

Jones, Rhys. “Fire-stick farming”, Australian Natural History, 16,7 (1969): 224-28, URL: http://fireecologyjournal.org/docs/Journal/pdf/Volume08/Issue03/001.pdf)

Joseph Lycett, “Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos,” 1817. Watercolour painting. Source: NLA. http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-138501179/view.

Leichhardt, Ludwig, Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia: from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years 1844-1845, London, T&W Boone, 1847.

Lunt, Ian. Ian Lunt’s Ecological Research Site. “Location Location Location: The Future of Environmental History,”. Posted on 17 February, 2013. Accessed on 20 September, 2017, https://ianluntecology.com/2013/02/17/location-location-location-the-future-of-environmental-history/.

McNiven, Ian. “Australasia and the Pacific” in Benjamin, Craig, ed. The Cambridge World History: Volume 4, A World with States, Empires and Networks 1200 BCE–900 CE. Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 603-629.

Mitchell, Thomas L. Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia in Search of a Route from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria, 1848.         

Pyne, Stephen J. Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia. New York, N.Y., Holt, 1991, pp. 121-135. 

Silcock, J. L., T. P. Piddocke, and R. J. Fensham. “Illuminating the dawn of pastoralism: evaluating the record of European explorers to inform landscape change.” Biological Conservation 159 (2013): 321-331.


[1] Beth Gott, “Aboriginal Fire Management in South-Eastern Australia: Aims and Frequency,” Journal of Biogeography 30,7 (2005): 1203, URL: http://faculty.fortlewis.edu/korb_j/global%20fire/aboriginal%20fire%20management%20australia.pdf

[2] Bill Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” Australian Historical Studies, 42, 2 (2011): 278.

[3] Stephen J. Pyne, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia (New York: Holt, 1991), 121.

[4] Ludwig Leichhardt, Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia: from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years 1844-1845, (London: T&W Boone, 1847).

[5] Thomas L. Mitchell, Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia in Search of a Route from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria, 1848.         

[6] Rhys Jones, “Fire-stick farming”, Australian Natural History, 16,7 (1969): 226, URL: http://fireecologyjournal.org/docs/Journal/pdf/Volume08/Issue03/001.pdf)

[7] Leichhardt, Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia: from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years 1844-1845.

[8] Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” 281.

[9] Gott, “Aboriginal Fire Management in South-Eastern Australia: Aims and Frequency,” 1203.

[10] Pyne, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, 129.

[11] Pyne, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, 126.

[12] Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” 287.

[13] Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” 287.

[14] Pyne, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, 134.

[15] Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” 280.

[16] Ian McNiven, “Australasia and the Pacific” in Benjamin, Craig, ed. The Cambridge World History: Volume 4, A World with States, Empires and Networks 1200 BCE–900 CE. (England: Cambridge University Press, 2015): 603-629.

[17] Leichhardt, Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia: from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years 1844-1845.

[18] Ibid.  

[19] Leichhardt, Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia: from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years 1844-1845.

[20] Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” 284.

[21] Lycett, “Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos.”

[22] Thomas L. Mitchell, Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia in Search of a Route from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

[23] Alfred Howitt, “The Eucalypts of Gippsland,” Transactions, Royal Society of Victoria, 2,1 (1890): 109.

[24] Pyne, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, 123.

[25] Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” 287.

[26] Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” 278.

[27] Rhys Jones, “Fire-stick farming”, 224.

[28] Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” 285.

[29] Gott, “Aboriginal Fire Management in South-Eastern Australia: Aims and Frequency,” 1295.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Thomas L. Mitchell, Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia in Search of a Route from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

[32] Alfred Howitt, “The Eucalypts of Gippsland,” 109-113.

[33] Rhys Jones, “Fire-stick farming”, 228.

[34] Thomas L. Mitchell, Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia in Search of a Route from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

[35] Pyne, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, 128.

[36] Thomas L. Mitchell, Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia in Search of a Route from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

[37] Gott, “Aboriginal Fire Management in South-Eastern Australia: Aims and Frequency,” 1203.

[38] Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” 278.

[39] Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” 278.

[40] Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” 280.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Pyne, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, 133.

[43] Gammage, “Fire in 1788: The Closest Ally,” 280.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ian Lunt, Ian Lunt’s Ecological Research Site. “Location Location Location: The Future of Environmental History,”. Posted on 17 February, 2013. Accessed on 20 September, 2017, https://ianluntecology.com/2013/02/17/location-location-location-the-future-of-environmental-history/.

[46] This included nearly 4500 observations between 1844 and 1919.

[47] J. L. Silcock, T. P. Piddocke, and R. J. Fensham. “Illuminating the dawn of pastoralism: evaluating the record of European explorers to inform landscape change.” Biological Conservation, 159 (2013): 321.

[48] Silcock, Piddocke and Fensham. “Illuminating the dawn of pastoralism: evaluating the record of European explorers to inform landscape change,” 329.