Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aboriginal People made Australia see Fire-stick Farmers

In his book1 Bill Gammage uses a variety of sources (1500 in the selective bibliography) in support of his proposal that prior to European settlement the entire land surface of Australia was managed as though it was a single giant estate, that the Australia of 1788 was made by the Aboriginal People. The entire population of the continent did their bit on a local scale to maintain the productivity of the land at a maximum, given the extremely erratic climate and in many places the varying degrees of aridity, and the extremely impoverished soils over most of the land. He has gathered many written reports of Europeans, including Captain Cook, who personally witnessed many parts of the country before if was affected by the spread of colonisation. He also has included paintings, sketches and photos of various areas as they were when first encountered by the colonists (or invaders, depending on whether your choice of weapon was a gun or spear).

At many places in Australia travellers in the early times after European settlement described the unexpected and unexplained scenes they found as having the appearance of a "gentleman's park". Those cited in the book are:

  • H.T. Ebsworth - New South Wales - Port Stephens
  • John Hudspeth - Tasmania - the Jericho Valley
  • Alexander Buchanan - the west side of the Murray below the Big Bend
  • John Glover - Tasmania - describing a scene he painted 'my harvest' from a hill above his farm.
  • John Michael Skipper - South Australia - Onkaparinga - describing the painting, the view south of Adelaide.
  • Edward Snell - Willunga.
  • William Light - Aldinga -  describing the painting 'View at Yankalillah'.
  • Martha Berkeley - Adelaide - describing the painting 'Mt Lofty from the Terrace'.
  • A recently arrived immigrant - Adelaide - early days of settlement.
  • John Fawkner - Melbourne.
  • John Lancey - Flemington hills north of Melbourne Swamp.
  • Sydney Parkinson - Bank's draughtsman on the Endeavour - describing the country seen on excursions along the east coast.
  • Charles Sturt - South Australia.
  • Thomas Walker - Omeo Plains
  • Joseph Maiden - Dorrigo - New South Wales.
  • Robert Dawson - New South Wales - Port Stephens.

One of the witnesses the author1 cites in his book is Captain James Cook as he sailed the Endeavor along the east coast of Australia. He noticed a remarkable thing that I have not seen remarked on in any books I have read. The trees 'had no underwood'. On the 1st of May he wrote 'made an excursion into the country which we found diversified with woods, lawns and marshes; the woods are free from underwood of any kind and the trees are at such a distance from one another that the whole country or at least a great part of it might be cultivated without being obliged to cut down a single tree'.

Joseph banks was also surprised  by  what he saw 'The country tho in general well enough clothed appeared in some places bare. It resembled in my imagination the back of a lean cow, covered in general with long hair, but nevertheless where the scraggy hip bones have stuck out further than they ought accidental rubs and knocks have entirely bared them of their share of covering.' According to Banks the hill tops were bare, though trees were present on lower slopes, though they 'were very large and stood separate from each other without the least underwood'. Banks' draughtsman, Sydney Parkinson, agreed with Banks 'The country looked very pleasant and fertile; and the trees quite free from underwood, appeared like plantations in a gentleman's park.'

As they travelled further north to the Whitsunday Islands, Cook noted 'land on both the Main and islands ... diversified with woods and Lawns that looked green and pleasant'. There, 100 years later G.S. Nares, a naval commander, named GN Grassy Island, because it was grass-covered and had a few trees on its summit. At the present about half the island is tree-covered. Nares saw other islands in the Whitsundays that were grassy, but they are now all wooded apart from where they have been cleared. Cook summed up of the Australian east coast on 23rd of August 'It was clothed with woods, long grass, shrubs, plants &ca. The mountains or hills are chequered with woods and lawns. Some of the hills are wholly covered with flourishing trees; others but thinly, and the few that are on them are small and the spots of Lawns or Savannahs are rocky and barren'. Cook spent 7 weeks at what is now Cooktown, as well as other landings along the east coast so his observations are not solely based on what he saw from the deck of the Endeavor as it passed north.

While camped by the Endeavour River, Cooktown, Cook wrote in his journal the he climbed Grassy Hill on the 19 June, getting clear views along the coast, seeing other grassy hills, calling them barren and stony, according to the author1 some are stony but none are barren. Cook wrote on 19 July 'I had an extensive view of the inland country which consisted of hills and vallies and large plains agreeably diversified with woods and lawns'. He also wrote of the diligence of the people made who them.

'I have observed that when they went from our tents upon the banks of the Endeavour River, we could trace them by the fire which they kindled on their way; and we imagined that these fires were intended in some way for the taking of the kangaroo .... .'

'hey produce fire with great facility, and spread it in a wonderful manner ... from the smallest spark they increase it with great speed and dexterity. We have often seen one of them run along the shore, to all appearance with nothing in his hand, who stooping down for a moment, at a distance of every fifty or a hundred yards, left fire behind him, as we could see first by the smoke, and then by the flame ... We had the curiosity to observe one of these planters of fire, when he set off, and we saw him wrap up a small spark in dry grass, which, when he had run a little way, having been fanned by the air that his motion produced, began to blaze; he then laid it down in a place convenient for his purpose, inclosing it in a quantity of grass, and so continued his course'.

These descriptions of the supposedly untended bush along the east coast, as well as other places described by explorers and others further inland, are indeed curious as the author1 suggests. Who would recognise any of these places at present, at least those that haven't been disturbed since the Aboriginal People were replaced in such areas, from the descriptions reported by people seeing the areas before white settlers had changed them. As there are so many similar descriptions, often by people such as Cook and some of the well known explorers who were noted for their keen observation and the accuracy of their reports, as the author suggests, how can they all be wrong?

It is known that the Aboriginal people all over Australia used fire to manage their land, burning in patches so there would always be food in the form or newly sprouted grass that the animals they hunted preferred, as well as cover for these animals around these patches of fresh food. See Fire-stick Farmers.

In many places around the continent white settlers and explorers noted the presence of grass 'lawns' where there are now trees, as well as open forests with no undergrowth that are now dense forests. When travelling south of Hobart Abel Tasman noted they saw land 'pretty generally covered with trees, standing so far apart, that they allow a passage everywhere ... unhindered by dense shrubbery or underwood'. This area is now dense forest, and the author1 asks why not then? There were dense forests in 1788, thick scrubs, impenetrable eucalypts, walls of rainforests, but as the author1 says 'this only sharpens the puzzle, for often they gave way abruptly to grass'.

The book is based on, according to the author1 , 3 facts about 1788:

  1. About 70 % of Australian plants require fire, or at least tolerate fire. Critical knowledge in the management of land in Australia was knowing which plants need fire, when to burn and how much to burn. With this knowledge decisions could be made as to which patches should be burnt and which not to burn, the result being that grazing animals could be attracted to places where the people wanted them to go by the provision of their preferred food and the type of shelter they required nearby.

  2. As there were no serious native predators the grazing animals could be shepherded  by the humans, their only real predator. Australia was the only continent on which such a  situation prevailed.

  3. There was no wildness. The beings from the Dreamtime had 'given the laws to the people', the laws including an ecological philosophy that was enforced by religious sanction, the people were compelled to care for all their country.

These ecological laws served them well, allowing them to live well, and sustainably, for unknown thousands of years since the ecological knowledge was accumulated and became the basis of managing some of the most difficult country in the world to survive in .

They were instructed  by their law to leave the world as they found it. Static means were not imposed by this 1788 practice. The same goal was achieved by many variations of the apparently conservative practices to suit the local erratic climate and their management was active rather than passive. An overriding concern of their management was to remain alert to the changing seasons and conditions and to maintain a balance of life.  A difference between the Aboriginal people of 1788 and the white colonists was their world view, believing themselves to be part of nature, not separate and with a God-given dominion over it. They believed that it was just as important to maintain all other animals and plants as to maintain their role in the environment, as all were equally part of it.

What appeared to the settlers as random burning that the Aboriginal People used to hunt was in fact part of the well-planned and precise management on a fine-grained local level. The author1 says burning must be predictable to be effective. They needed to plan where to burn and where not to burn and to space the burnt patches appropriately to achieve the desired goal. The burning pattern varied according to climate and vegetation type, different vegetation types requiring different burning patterns. The author1 suggests it is an impressive achievement to successfully manage such diverse material; 'making from it a single estate was a breathtaking leap of imagination'.

At least one of the settlers, Edward Curr, who had been born in Hobart in 1820 had an inkling of this achievement. He became a pioneer squatter and knew some of the Aboriginal people who had retained their old culture and values, and in the decades of their dispossession he studied them closely, as well as their country. He remained in Victoria for 42 years, after which he wrote 'it may perhaps be doubted that any section of the human race has exercised a greater influence on the physical condition of any large portion of the globe than the wandering savages of Australia'. According to the author1 he knew when he wrote this that it would strongly contradict the European beliefs about 'primitive' people to link 'wandering savages' with an unmatched impact on the land, deliberately defying  the European convention that nomadic people had little if any influence on the land. He suggests there are some scientists who are reluctant to accept that the Aboriginal People could have had such influence on the land, arguing or assuming that only nature made the landscape of 1788, possibly by lightning fires.

According to the author1 there is no evidence that lightning started most bushfires in 1788, 'nor that it could shape plant communities so curiously and invariably as to exclude human fire impacts. At the present estimates of fires started by lightning vary from 0.01 % in Tasmania to 30 % in Victoria, the author1 suggesting the figure for Victoria is overestimated when compared with 7-8 % for southern Australia, and the highest is for the north, 18 %. Western Queensland is the only part of Australia where it is believed by researchers that lighting is a major cause of fires, at 80 %. He suggests the number of lightning caused fires would have been even lower in 1788 because there were so many fires started by humans that there would have been little fuel on the ground to sustain lightning fires. He suggests that if the distribution pattern of plants was the result of lightning fires now as well at the time of first contact it should be the same then as now around towns and farms, but it isn't.

Some researchers are beginning to believe that pre-contact fires were possibly important in distribution of plants, possibly explaining it. It was known by some, such as Thomas Mitchell and Ludwig Leichardt that the Aboriginal People burnt grass to attract the animals they hunted, though it wasn't until the 1960s that some began to believe that there was more system and purpose to the burning than merely random fires. The extensive degree to which the land had been changed by pre-contact fires has been shown by a number of people, from different perspectives, such as R.C. Ellis, Sylvia Hallam, Bill Jackson, Rhys Jones, Peter Latz, Duncan Merrilees, Eric Rolls, and Ian Thompson, are mentioned in the book, as well as others.

The people doing the burning worked with the country wherever possible to emphasise or mitigate its natural character, in some places nothing else being possible. There wasn't much they could do about mountains, rocks, rivers and most swamps, but they sometimes found a way, they dammed rivers and swamps, cut channels through watersheds. See Eel Harvesting. Fire was used to replace a plant community with a different one.

Their management involved controling which plants and animals flourished in the managed area. They managed their country for plants, knowing which plants grew where and which they needed to transplant and care for. They knew which plants were preferred by the animals they hunted and managed the land in such a way that the animals' favorite food was associated with the shelter they preferred and the safest scrub. By establishing a circuit of these places they were able to use one until either the animals moved on or the patch needed burning when they shifted their hunting to the next managed area, moving along in the circuit as necessary. This system made the whereabouts of their prey species predictable so that their hunting was not merely haphazard as is usually believed. This system of management made their food sources both predictable and abundant. They had the worst climatic and soil conditions of any continent but they not only survived, they maximised the productivity of their country to such an extent that they needed to spend only a few hours each day gathering food, leaving them plenty of time for a complex social and ceremonial/religious life.

This method of management differed from that of farmers in that the scale of land management in pre-contact Australia was on a much bigger scale, a particular clan spread the resources over a very wide area, that provided some insurance for the hard times such as the common and unpredictable droughts, that were often broken by flooding rain. They also formed alliances with other clans that could be hundreds of kilometres away where they could trade or where they could seek refuge in the worst of prolonged droughts. In central Australia rain is erratic and when it does come is often on limited areas, so that part of a clan's territory could receive rain while other parts remain drought stricken. In seasons that didn't suit farmers, such as droughts and floods, the managed system of the Aboriginal People was more predictable than farming. Under this system of management they had abundance, not just mere subsistence.

The author1 summed up the rules of Aboriginal management pre-contact:

  • 'Ensure that all life flourishes

  • Make plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable

  • Think universal, act local'

Though the local group in any region would have known and been familiar with the practices of only their neighbours and any other tribes they came in contact with along their trade routes, the same practice of using fire-sticks as the main tool for managing their local country was used all the tribes across Australia. This management was "coordinated" by the stories and rituals that had been handed down from the Dreamtime, not by a continent-wide deliberate scheme that all took part in.

Each local area was managed in basically the same way as each other, though with adjustments to suit the local area, based on local knowledge, as there was a great variety of environments occupied by the Aboriginal people in different parts of the continent

The author1 has listed a number of changes that have occurred since 1788.

  1. Water sources have been constricted by the compaction of the soil by the hooves of the settlers livestock and the speeding water.
  2. In pre-contact times there was more water to ameliorate droughts (more soaked into the soil), spread resources, allowing people to walk over more of Australia. They expected to be able to care for their country even in arid areas, and expected its plants and animals to be sustainable indefinitely.
  3. The Aboriginal People had management opportunities that were rare in Europe, as grass was widely available even in hard times. Grass could be burnt at almost any time, apart from the wet season, secure in the knowledge that it would re-shoot green. They knew they could expect the fresh grass to attract the herbivores and their predators, especially in summer. At the present this is a time where grass is scarce and what animals there are, are stressed. The presence of grass at all times allowed them to manage it in such as way as to help the animals they depended on for food to survive. It also made them abundant, convenient and predictable.
  4. Salinity is now spreading because of the removal of much of trees, saltbush and perennial grasses since first contact.
  5. Prior to European settlement the Aboriginal people used almost all plants for some purpose. The loss of many species since first contact masks the degree to which resources were connected and how widespread they were.

Gammage explained how this system of care for the environment provided the people with food sustainably.

The people were taught by the Dreaming why they must care for the world as it needed to be maintained and the land taught them how. They were taught by the first that maintaining their country was compulsory, the other made the maintenance rewarding in the form of the continued availability of food and materials for other uses. The groups, usually family groups, were small, said by John Oxley to be indicated by their abandoned camps to be about 6-8 individuals. Each group had its country to live in and care for, and every country was surrounded by other countries, none of which were dominant over any other countries, that resulted in a continuum of countries across the entire continent.

If the population a country went too low to adequately care for it there were people from other countries who were qualified to take care of it. In the north, at least, there were specialist managers who could advise on the use of fire to manage a country. Then there were elders in neighboring countries who could help, having a working knowledge of the country and its Dreamtime stories, often by dropping hints on what needed to be done.

There are many more quotes from the early colonists and explorers in the book.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Gammage, Bill, 2011, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aboriginal People made Australia, Allen & Unwin


How Aboriginal Australians Made Australia



Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 27/02/2012 

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