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Tansley review No.101 - The impact of Aboriginal landscape burning on the Australian biota
journal contributionposted on 2023-05-17, 05:59 authored by David BowmanDavid Bowman
One of the most complex and contentious issues in Australian ecology concerns the environmental impact of Aboriginal landscape burning. This issue is not only important for the development of a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics and evolution of the Australian biota, but is central to the formulation of appropriate strategies for the conservation of the nation's biodiversity. Ethnographic evidence leaves little doubt that Aboriginal burning played a central role in the maintenance of the landscapes subsequently colonized by Europeans. Both 19th century European colonists and anthropologists in the 20th century documented the indispensability of fire as a tool in traditional Aboriginal economies, which have aptly been described as 'fire-stick farming'. Aborigines used fire to achieve short-term outcomes such as providing favourable habitats for herbivores or increasing the local abundance of food plants, but it is not clear whether or not Aborigines had a predictive ecological knowledge of the long-term consequences of their use of fire. A large body of ecological evidence suggests that Aboriginal burning resulted in substantial changes in the geographic range and demographic structure of many vegetation types. Aboriginal burning was important in creating habitat mosaics that favoured the abundance of some mammal species and in the maintenance of infrequently burnt habitats upon which the survival of specialized fauna depends. Aboriginal fire regimes were probably critical for the maintenance of at least one species of tree (Callitris intratropica) in the monsoon tropics. The question of the original impact of humans on the Australian environment is fundamentally speculative because of vague, disputed time frames proposed for the waves of colonization and shifting settlement patterns of Aborigines in the late Quaternary period. There is an inherent circular argument concerning the cause and effect of climate change, vegetation change, and burning through the late Quaternary. Charcoal and pollen evidence from long sedimentary cores is ambiguous and cannot be used to demonstrate unequivocally the initial impact of Aboriginal people on the landscapes of Pleistocene Australia. The sparse available evidence does not support the hypotheses that Aboriginal burning was primarily responsible for the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna; was critical for the maintenance of habitats of small mammals that have become extinct following European colonization; initiated widespread accelerated soil erosion rates in either the Pleistocene or Holocene; or forced the evolutionary diversification of the Australian biota. Burning may have caused the extinction of some fire-sensitive species of plants and animals dependent upon infrequently burnt habitats, and it must have maintained structurally open vegetation such as grasslands and also extended the range of fire-adapted species, such as Eucalyptus, into environments climatically suitable for rain forest. Palaeoecological research concerning prior impacts of Aborigines must give way to focused studies of the role of different anthropogenic fire regimes in contemporary ecosystems that have not been destroyed by European colonization. Such research is crucial for comprehending the role of Aboriginal burning in the maintenance of Australia's unique, rich biodiversity.
Publication titleNew Phytologist
Department/SchoolSchool of Natural Sciences
Place of publicationUK