Aboriginal Burning Produces Local Biodiversity in Australia’s Desert


Fire Stick Farming2

According to a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, burning by Aboriginal hunters turns out to be a valuable resource management strategy. Many indigenous peoples have relied on burning small areas of land in the pursuit of daily subsistence. Rebecca Bliege Bird and colleagues from Stanford University recorded many months of foraging and landscape alterations by Martu hunters, a group of Australian Aboriginal people whose homelands are centred in a remote part of Australia’s Western Desert. The researchers linked contemporary Martu foraging and productivity to habitat modification. By burning patches of the spinifex grass that covers much of the region, hunters increased their success in encountering and capturing important prey, especially monitor lizards. The researchers then correlated foraging activities with habitat diversity measured in satellite imagery to show how hunting with fire created a very different landscape than that produced by natural lightning-ignited fires. The habitat was rearranged into smaller patches with more diverse vegetation, and in turn, these more-diverse habitats were associated with greater hunting productivity. The authors’ results have implications beyond contemporary questions of biodiversity: they imply that human influences were more likely to alter local habitats only in conjunction with more intensified indigenous economies, which were established quite recently (about 1,500 years ago) relative to the long human prehistory of arid Australia.

“THE ‘FIRE STICK FARMING’ HYPOTHESIS: AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL FORAGING STRATEGEIS, BIODIVERSITY AND ANTHROPOGENIC FIRE MOSAICS” by Rebecca Bliege Bird, Douglas W. Bird, Brian F. Codding, Christopher H. Parker, and James H. Jones. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. 105(39):14796-14801.

MEDIA CONTACTS: Rebecca Bliege Bird, Department of Anthropology, Bldg 50, 450 Serra Mall, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305; email: rbird@stanford.edu. OR: Douglas Bird, Department of Anthropology, Bldg 50, 450 Serra Mall, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305; email: dwbird@stanford.edu, tel (day): (650) 723-8839.

For more information, see http://monkeysuncle.stanford.edu/?p=161 and http://www.stanford.edu/~rbird/RBIRD/FireEcology.html.