Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Fire-Stick Farmers                see Desert mammals and fire see The Biggest Estate on Earth

See also Indigenous knowledge combines with Western science to look after country

A lot of the vegetation that was encountered by the first Europeans in Australia was actually an Aboriginal artefact. The Aboriginal People had used their fire-sticks to change the vegetation of the continent to suit their requirements.

Fire had a number of functions in Aboriginal culture. One use was for signaling, the once well-known smoke signals in movies. Another was for clearing tracks through the bush and keeping poisonous snakes away from them, making it easier to move through the bush. This function of fire was used regularly to keep tracks clear in thick bush in the Blue Mountains and the dense tea-tree scrub in western Tasmania. It was also used to keep tracks clear though the tall tropical grasslands of Arnhem Land. All across the continent fire was used to flush animals from grass to make them easier to hunt.

It was also used to encourage the kangaroos and other prey animals to congregate on the areas of fresh vegetation sprouting on the areas they had burnt. Fire also encouraged the regrowth of eucalypt trees and edible plant food such as bracken, from which the roots, young leaves and shoots could be eaten. The ash from the burnt areas was a fertiliser for the regrowth as soon as it rained.

Extensive, regular burning altered the environment, increasing the area over which they could find food. One of the places where they had an enormous effect was on the west coast of Tasmania, converting the fire-sensitive rainforests of southern beech, Nothofagus, that was a relict of Gondwana, from mixed eucalypts and rainforest to scrub and eventually to heath and sedgeland. Since the end of burning in these cleared areas the rainforest is reclaiming its habitat.

In 1827 the explorer Henry Hellyer came across open grasslands among the rainforest in the highlands of northern Tasmania. He called them the Surrey Hills or Hampshire Hills after the countryside of England. The European colonists found that these grasslands were ideal for sheep, but they found that once the Aboriginal People had been moved from the area and the regular fires had stopped, sour grass and scrub replaced the open grassland and sheep farming ended about 1845. So the European agricultural experts lasted 18 years, the inferior Aboriginal People who lacked agriculture lasted many thousands of years on the same land.

The fire-stick methods of the Aboriginal People increased the amount and diversity of food available. The rainforest was not rich in food plants and animals. The heathland and wet scrub and grasslands that replaced it provided plenty of animals and food plants. Two of the staples of temperate Australia were grass trees and bracken. Bracken colonises burnt forest, so rapidly provided food after the burning. The pith at the centre of the grass tree was eaten by the Aboriginal People.

One the reasons fire-stick farming was so successful over such a vast range of environments is that the farmers adapted the fire regimes to suit individual areas.

Unlike the fire regime in Tasmania, where the rainforest was cleared by fire to allow food plants to grow, the Anbara from Arnhem Land use a variety of the burning regime that avoided the rainforest patches because they provided many food plants that were susceptible to fire, not regenerating after burning. Among the Anbara there are strong ritual prohibitions against burning: jungles that are the home of spirits that would blow smoke into the eyes of the fire lighters and blind them. Soon after the wet season fire breaks about 1 km wide are carefully burnt around these thickets. This protects the jungle thickets from the fires set to burn off the surrounding grasslands in the dry season, in June and August.

The Anbara say that fire is necessary to clean up the country, they regarded unburnt grassland as neglected. At least once every 3-4 years the grassland, eucalypt woodlands and savanna in their territory is burnt. The same pattern of regular, low intensity burns were carried out all over the continent prior to European colonisation. The result was that high-intensity fires that burnt the trees as well as the litter and dry grass were avoided, and the food supply was maintained.

It can now be seen as ironic that the same Aboriginal People, who were regarded by the white settlers as ignorant nomads, admired the Australian parklands and open woodlands that were actually created with the fire-sticks of the ignorant nomads.

Aboriginal People never put out their fires, camp fires were left burning, as were signal fires, those lit in sequence to indicate the direction travelled by humans or kangaroos, or hunting fires. They lit fires so apparently casually that they have been called 'peripatetic pyromaniacs'.

A mosaic pattern of burning was practiced in desert regions, in winter, parts of the area were burnt. In spinifex grasslands, the spinifex is burnt and the cleared land is colonised by other desert plants that provide more food than areas dominated by spinifex. One of the plant species that replaces spinifex under these conditions is the wild tomato. These are the most important fruits of the desert people, they are very nutritious, and are high in vitamin C, and they remain edible for long periods on the plant. Another plant that replaces the spinifex is the wild banana, its leaves, fruit and roots are all edible.

In Arnhem Land Aboriginal People are known to have aimed their fires in particular directions. In the Western Desert, the inhabitants were observed burning patches of grassland, and although they appeared to be lighting them randomly, the resulting fires never entered previously burnt areas that were producing food, so they were apparently not as random as they seemed.

It has taken 200 years for the fire-stick to be recognised as the agricultural instrument that it had been for up to 60,000 years or more before European colonisation.


People, fire, forest and water in Wungong: the landscape ecology of a West Australian water catchment

Sources & Further reading

  1. Mary E White, After the Greening, The Browning of Australia, Kangaroo Press, 1994
  2. Penny Van Oosterzee, 1993, The Centre - The Natural history of Australia's Desert Regions, Reed Australia.
  3. Flood, Josephine, 2004, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications.
  4. Gammage, Bill, 2011, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aboriginal People Made Australia, Allen & Unwin

Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 21/11/2014

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