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The biggest estate on earth: how Aborigines made Australia

Aboriginal people worked hard to make plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable. By distributing plants and associating them in mosaics, then using these to lure and locate animals, Aborigines…

Indigenous Australians systematically burnt grasslands to reduce fuel and stop fires raging out of control. Flickr/pietroizzo

Aboriginal people worked hard to make plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable.

By distributing plants and associating them in mosaics, then using these to lure and locate animals, Aborigines made Australia as it was in 1788, when Europeans arrived.

Where it suited they worked with the country, accepting or consolidating its character, but if it didn’t suit they changed the country, sometimes dramatically, with fire or no fire.

“No fire” because a conscious decision not to burn also regulates plants and animals. They judged equally what to burn and what not, when, how often, and how hot. They cleared undergrowth, and they put grass on good soil, clearings in dense and open forest, and tree or scrub clumps in grassland.

A common management system can be recognised in enough dispersed places to say that the system was universal - that Australia was, as the title says, a single estate, and that in this sense Aborigines made Australia.

A history of observation

Observant travellers such as Edward Eyre, Ludwig Leichhardt and Thomas Mitchell reported what Rhys Jones later neatly called “fire-stick farming”: grass burnt in mosaics to reduce fuel and to bring on green pick to lure grazing animals.

From the late 1960s researchers like Duncan Merrilees, Ian Thomas and Eric Rolls revived this insight, and Sylvia Hallam showed conclusively that Aborigines managed southwest Australia intensively and systematically.

Ted Strehlow, Debbie Rose, Peter Sutton and others offered insights on Aboriginal belief and practice, especially in the centre and north where traditional management survives best.

I learnt too from seeing in the bush how plant responses to fire or no fire declared their history, and from how people like Alfred Howitt, Bill Jackson, Beth Gott, Peter Latz and Daphne Nash related this to Aboriginal management.

Building on these resources

Bushes and trees, as well as grass, were necessarily associated and distributed. Grass eaters seek shelter as well as feed, and feed-shelter associations (“templates”) must be carefully placed so as not to disrupt each other, as this would make target animals unpredictable and the system pointless.

Given how long eucalypts live, templates might take centuries to set up. Each needed several distinct fire regimes, continuously managed and integrated with neighbours, to maintain the necessary conditions for fire-stick farming.

This system could hardly have land boundaries. There could not be a place where it was practised, and next to it a place where it wasn’t. Australia was inevitably a single estate, albeit with many managers.

Two factors blended to entrench this, one ecological, the other religious. Ecologically, once you lay out country variably to suit all other species, you are committed to complex and long-term land management. Aboriginal religious philosophy explained and enforced this, chiefly via totems. All things were responsible for others of its totem and their habitats.

For example, emu people must care for emus and emu habitats, and emus must care for them. There was too a lesser but still strong responsibility to other totems and habitats, ensuring that all things were always under care.

Totems underwrote the ecological arrangement of Australia, creating an entire continent managed under the same Law for similar biodiverse purposes, no matter what the vegetation.

Despite vastly different plant communities, from spinifex to rainforest, from Tasmania to the Kimberleys, there were the same plant patterns – the same relationship between food or medicine plants and shelter plants.

Blinkered to the obvious

Why has it taken so long to see the obvious?

Put simply, farming peoples see differently. Like our draught horses, we wear the blinkers agriculture imposes. Australia is not like the northern Europe from which most early settlers came. Burn Australia’s perennials and they come back green; burn Europe’s annuals and they die.

Again, you can predictably lure and locate Australia’s animals because there were almost no predators, whereas Europe’s many predators scattered prey, so the notion of using fire to locate resources was foreign there.

But above all we don’t see because farmers don’t think like hunter-gatherers. For us “wilderness” lies just beyond our boundaries; for them wilderness does not exist. Fences on the ground make fences in the mind.

Until Europeans came, Australia had no wilderness, and no terra nullius.

Today, amid the wreck of what Aborigines made, there remain relics of their management. They depended not on chance, but on policy. They shaped Australia to ensure continuity, balance, abundance and predictability. All are now in doubt.

In the face of such doubt, so basic and so sweeping, can we really say we are managing our country? Can we really say we are Australian?

Bill Gammage is the author of The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Black Knight


    Australia's First Peoples practice 'cosmic' maintenance - not merely the ecosystem as understood in recent Western terms. Hence, this country (before the arrival of European forms of chaos) is better understood as an all-encompassing work of art.

    The farming mentality (with neolithic roots) is also the one which has dominated the Australian forms of government post 1788, with results which are becoming increasingly clear to even blind Freddy.

    Until we develop a new system, which provides space for First Peoples and their Ways as cultural partners in this country, the angel of history will continue to see the wreckage growing skyward here, and globally.

    The Australian life-challenge is unique. European master narratives need not apply.

  2. John Smith


    Hi Bill

    I've read the book, it's well worth everyone reading.

  3. Mark Carter

    logged in via Facebook

    I am sympathetic to one half of the premise given here: clearly Australia's ecology was intensively managed prior to settlement (or the productive parts anyway- many open desert areas were managed in a less intensive way for lack of population as much as anything). But its disappointing that Bill makes this the launchpad for some hackneyed 'us vs them','black vs white' rhetoric. The aboriginal people of today are not the same people who were managing the land 200 years ago, just as the 'white' australians…

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  4. James Henry Mason


    Bill. Thanks for keeping this historical knowledge 'in the news'. In light of recent events in WA, and previous disasters elsewhere in the country, it's about time the DEC/DSE & Gov't, started listening to Aboriginal people and how to burn off properly.
    Having worked in Aboriginal communities in NSW, QLD,NT and WA for 8 years now, I have witnessed much of the Aboriginal people's culture and their way of 'seeing' and doing things. My most recent project (finished this week) that I worked on was in…

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  5. Paul Richards
    Paul Richards is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Great overview of the sophisticated management of this continents ecosystems, prior to the introduction of the British agricultural system.

    With our knowledge repositories it is to humbling to realise that all this knowledge was carried by highly evolved tribal system with a valuable oral tradition. Obviously this tribal culture was rich in social capital with levels of cooperation that are enviable today.

    1. Black Knight


      In reply to Paul Richards

      Jon Altman says:
      "The nature of precolonial land tenure arrangements and social groupings suggests high restricted common property regimes (not ‘managed’ open access) and a high degree of political autonomy and mundane everyday punctuated by occasional regional gatherings, trade and warfare."

      This is a dogma of modern 20th century anthropology (cast in imperial measures) not something which has ever been established by means which take notions of a wider form of indigenous sovereignty seriously.

      It is a very narrow view which derives from the founding fathers of British anthropology in Australia, such as Radcliffe-Brown and Stanner, not from forms of representation grounded in genuine acts of cultural partnership with Australia's First Peoples.

      And so we move on to tackle the challenges of real life ...

  6. Bruce Moon



    I generally concur with your association between the fire management patterns of the past and that of recent times.

    However, I suggest there some 'values' you embed that warrant highlighting - and possibly (re)arranging.

    We have no evidence to suggest that 'fire stick farming' was either good or bad for the natural ecology. We only know that it was undertaken with typical results.

    We also don't know if Aboriginal communities made mistakes when igniting their countryside such that the community…

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Bruce Moon

      "We have no evidence to suggest that 'fire stick farming' was either good or bad for the natural ecology."

      With respect, the invocation of "natural" ecology is meaningless in the Australian context. With a landscape managed for so long, particularly with humans firmly ensconced in the ecologically vital role of top predator (having replaced previous top predators such as the marsupial lion?), the notion of an Australian ecology sans humans is pretty meaningless.

      It may be similarly worth noting that elephants function to maintain the relative low density of trees on African savannahs; would a "natural" Serengeti ecology be one without elephants?

  7. Arthur Bell

    logged in via email

    Mark Carter, some good points.

    "But its disappointing that Bill makes this the launchpad for some hackneyed 'us vs them','black vs white' rhetoric"

    Even though Bill declared "no conflict of interest"
    he would in fact, be influenced by ANU co-academic and
    “Board Member” of the “Aboriginal Victim Industry” ( AVI ) Jon Altman.

    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Jon Altman

      Gday Prof Altman, perhaps the process of optimisation that Prof Gammage describes is less the result of "deliberate" ie conscious, willful, manipulations, and more the outcome of a self-organising optimisation process that took place on a larger scale than individual decision-makers.

      In other words, I'm wondering if Australia wasn't optimised by and for Aborigines much as the collective actions of individual ants serve to optimise outcomes for the colony.

      Even if what I'm suggesting has any merit, the field studies you conducted would not have detected it because the phenomenon would requires a relatively large "pristine" (ie undisrupted) landscape, with ecological connectivity over very large areas in order to observe any such "emergent" process.

    2. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Jon Altman

      Hi Jon,

      I realise this is down the track just a tad, but your comment while aware of Aboriginal cultural underpinnings I think discounts the resilience and efficacy of story-lines, which transcends time.

      Bill, and I declare he is a cousin of mine from the same old Riverina stock, just so you know, for his part rather tells the same story in his own way.

      What matters is not what ontological discordance might emerge between some Aboriginal sense of being against some European settler sense…

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  8. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    Bruce has said: "We have no evidence to suggest that 'fire stick farming' was either good or bad for the natural ecology. We only know that it was undertaken with typical results".
    I haven't read Bill's book but I'm familiar with much of Sylvia Hallam's work and with David Ward's more controversial work on grasstrees/balga/blackboys. Nowhere in what I've read to date do any authors suggest that Aboriginal fire regimes were good or bad. Instead, they make the obvious statement that settlers in 1788…

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  9. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    Robert Lewis says: "Gammage urges us to revert to Aboriginal management practices - but he shows that they were deliberately designed to support a tiny population, and are largely irrelevant to Australian agricultural and pastoral production today, except for understanding bushfire management." I haven't read Bill's book - it's my Christmas reading - but, having been interested in Aboriginal use of fire for some time, in a practical sense, his urgings to revert to Aboriginal management practices can only apply in those parts of the Australian landscape where post-1788 changes are reversible and, even then, they should be reversed only where we will see biodiversity or other benefits arising from their implementation.
    As mentioned in my earlier post, I'm involved in managing natural lands in SW WA and the use of Aboriginal fire regimes appears to offer the only holistic solution to the many complex issues associated with managing natural bushland in my part of the world.

  10. Bob Buick

    retired free thinker

    I cannot get excited with the modern revision of aborigines developing Australia. There were very few of them throughout the continent numbering only in the 100,000 and scattered around the water holes and rivers. They now call themselves a nation when they were clans and there is an anthropological divergence between them across the continent. Remember that there is questions to when there travellers first arrived some say 40,000, I lean to 12,000 for the modern aborigine.
    Geology and fossils report that lightning (fire) shaped this land and I would suggest that mankind noted what the fire did and made searching for food like fauna and flora easier so they used fire to assist them, they were not the initiator of fire farming like this article states.

    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Bob Buick

      Gday Bob,

      1. there are estimates elsewhere of 300,000, rather than 100,000; large numbers of people were killed by transmissible diseases well in advance of actual European contact.

      2. Presence in Australia of people from 40,000 years ago is well-supported by archaeology. Back then, sea levels were much lower (Ice Age), so length of ocean crossing would have been less.

      What then occurred is adaptation, perhaps resulting in what you call the 'modern aborigine' around the end of the last Ice Age (12,000 years ago).

  11. Eddy Schmid


    Came across this book entirely by accident, thought it could be a good read, and boy, did I enjoy it, WOW !
    Thank youvery much Bill, excellent work, and I've discovered I can no longer go bushwalking and look at the surrounding bush in the same way ever again. Good work.
    I find it quiet weird, that folks should seek to minimise, under mine or denigrate your writtings in this instance.
    I'm sure that if these detractors have facts on hand to contradict your writtings, they wouldn't hesitate to put them in writting .