An introduction

In 1975, Western Australian archaeologist Sylvia Hallam published Fire and Hearth: an excellent overview of the historical and archaeological evidence of Aboriginal use of fire to modify and manipulate the environment in southwestern Australia. Hallam’s argument boiled down to one simple, but important statement:

“The land the English settled was not as God made it. It was as the Aborigines made it.”

Most non-Indigenous people to whom I’ve spoken hold the belief that at the time of European arrival, Aboriginal Australia was made up of scattered groups of nomadic hunters and gatherers; people who left almost no ‘ecological footprint’ and managed to survive in the harsh, sometimes hostile Australian environment. But how true is that assumption? Many Australians have heard of ‘firestick farming‘, a term coined by Rhys Jones to describe the deliberate, systematic use of fire by Aboriginal people to create landscape-scale changes in plant and animal communities. Recently, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth has rekindled public discussion about the extent to which Aboriginal activities impacted on Australia’s landscape and ecosystems.

Joseph Lycett's 1817 painting shows Aboriginal men using fire to burn vegetation and flush out kangaroos

Joseph Lycett’s 1817 painting shows Aboriginal men using fire to burn vegetation and flush out kangaroos [Image source]

The ways in which ecosystems operate are complex. But when we consider the roles of humans in these systems, we introduce a group of actors who have their own agendas, perceptions, and behavioural practices – like ‘firestick farming’, or planting and tending gardens. My PhD research examines the ways in which these cultural aspects influence (and are influenced by) environments. Using archaeological and palaeoecological evidence, this research explores the nature and extent of Aboriginal resource management and manipulation in the coastal plain north of Perth.

This blog is where I’ll share my research and field experiences. If you have any questions or suggestions, I’d love to hear from you!


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