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Fire-stick farming was the practice of Indigenous Australians who regularly used fire to burn vegetation to facilitate hunting and to change the composition of plant and animal species in an area. Fire-stick farming had the long-term effect of turning dry forest into savannah, increasing the population of nonspecific grass-eating species like the kangaroo. One theory of the extinction of Australian megafauna implicates the ecological disturbance caused by fire-stick farming.
In the resultant sclerophyll forests, fire-stick farming maintained an open canopy and allowed germination of understory plants necessary for increasing the carrying capacity of the local environment for browsing and grazing marsupials.
Aboriginal people may have been able to aim the burning of the scrub to avoid growing areas. There may have been a ritual taboo against burning certain areas of jungle.
Human influence on fire regime challenged
A 2011 research paper has questioned whether Indigenous Australians carried out widespread burning of the Australian landscape. A study of charcoal records from more than 220 sites in Australasia dating back 70,000 years has found that the arrival of the first inhabitants about 50,000 years ago did not result in significantly greater fire activity across the continent. The arrival of European colonists after 1788, however, resulted in a substantial increase in fire activity.
The study shows higher bushfire activity from about 70,000 to 28,000 years ago. It decreased until about 18,000 years ago, around the time of the last glacial maximum, and then increased again, a pattern consistent with shifts between warm and cool climatic conditions. This suggests that fire in Australasia predominantly reflects climate, with colder periods characterized by less and warmer intervals by more biomass burning.
Some researchers like David Horton from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, suggest that "Aboriginal use of fire had little impact on the environment and ... the patterns of distribution of plants and animals which obtained 200 years ago would have been essentially the same whether or not Aborigines had previously been living here." (Horton, 1982). Horton probably underestimates the effect that Aboriginal people have had on Australian environment. Aboriginal burning generally took place at appropriate times of the year, and when weather conditions were right. This ensured that there was a low intensity burn, and therefore little danger of a crown fire developing. Traditional burning patterns maximised the species diversity in any particular area, because burning tended to leave a mosaic of vegetation which had been burned at different times.
This regular firing favoured not only fire-tolerant or fire-resistant plants, but also encouraged those animals which were favoured by more open country. On this basis, it is clear that Aboriginal burning, in many areas at least, did affect the "natural" ecosystem, producing a range of vegetation associations which would maximise productivity in terms of the food requirements of the Aborigines. Jones goes so far as to say that "through firing over thousands of years, Aboriginal man has managed to extend his natural habitat zone" (Jones, 1969).
Aboriginal burning has been blamed for a variety of environmental changes, not the least of which is the extinction of the Australian megafauna, a diverse range of large animals which populated Pleistocene Australia. Kershaw (1986), among others, has argued that Aboriginal burning may well have modified the vegetation to the extent that the food resources of the megafauna were diminished, and as a consequence the largely herbivorous megafauna became extinct. Indeed, Kershaw is one of a small but growing group of palynologists who suggest that the arrival of Aborigines may have occurred more than 100,000 years ago, fire-stick in hand, eager to burn the virgin landscape. He suggests that their burning caused the sequences of vegetation changes which he detects through the late Pleistocene. The first to propose such an early arrival for Aborigines was Gurdip Singh from the Australian National University, who found evidence in his pollen cores from Lake George indicating that Aborigines began burning in the lake catchment around 120,000 years ago (Singh and Geisler, 1985).
Flannery (1990) believes that the megafauna were hunted to extinction by Aborigines soon after they arrived. He argues that with the rapid extinction of the megafauna, virtually all of which were herbivorous, a great deal of vegetation was left uneaten, increasing the standing crop of fuel. As a consequence, fires became larger and hotter than before, causing the reduction of fire-sensitive plants to the advantage of those which were fire-resistant or indeed fire-dependant. Flannery suggests that Aborigines then began to burn more frequently in order to maintain a high species diversity and to reduce the effect of high intensity fires on medium-sized animals and perhaps some plants. He argues that twentieth century Australian mammal extinctions are largely the result of the cessation of Aboriginal "firestick farming".
Most of these theories implicates Aboriginal use of fire as a component of the changes to both plant and animal communities within Australia during the last 50,000 years. Clearly, Aboriginal people had some effect, but the significance of that effect is far from clear. It seems likely that the introduction of the intensive use of fire as a tool did indeed follow, but was not directly a consequence of, the extinction of the megafauna. If, as has been suggested, the megafauna remained in some areas until the Holocene, then we should be looking for evidence within the last 10,000 years for changes induced by new Aboriginal burning patterns (Wright, 1986).
The other factor which few of these researchers have considered is the likelihood that Aboriginal population density increased rapidly and dramatically over the last 5-10,000 years (Mulvaney and White, 1987). An increase in Aboriginal burning frequency may have been associated with the introduction or invention of new technologies which allowed Aboriginal people to concentrate on those large resources which were previously so difficult to capture - kangaroos and large wallabies. Fire was initially used to promote and retain the environments which were most suitable for these animals, and fire was subsequently used for maximising the productivity of these areas after the massive Aboriginal population increase which occurred during the late Holocene, probably because of the greater access to this abundant resource.
The stone technology which Aboriginal people had been using with little modification for over 40,000 years diversified and specialised in the last 5,000 years. Spear barbs and tips peaked about 2,000 years ago, and then completely disappeared from the archaeological record in southeastern Australia. They were replaced by technologies associated with the exploitation of smaller animals - shell fish hooks and bone points along the coast for fishing, axes for hunting possums across the woodlands, and adzes for sharpening digging sticks along the banks of the larger rivers where the yams were abundant. The intensive and regular use of fire was an essential component of this late Holocene shift in resource base (Kohen, 1986). The evidence suggests that Aboriginal burning may well have affected Australian vegetation, but that by far the greatest effect has occurred over the last 5,000 years.
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