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Traditional practices in Caring for Country

Before 1788 Aboriginal people created a complex system of land management. There was no ‘pristine wilderness’, rather a patchwork of burnt and re-grown areas. Fire was their biggest ally.  

In using fire Aboriginal people could plan and predict plant growth and with it attract animals for hunting.

Joseph Lycett, Aborigines Using Fire to Hunt Kangaroos c. 1817

They converted the land to grasslands for the "maintenance" of animals, plants and fresh drinking water, according to Bill Gammage’s award-winning book The Biggest Estate on Earth.

Fire, grass, kangaroos, and human inhabitants, seems all dependent on each other for existence in Australia; for any one of these being wanting, the others could no longer continue. Fire is necessary to burn the grass, and form those open forests…But for this simple process, the Australian woods had probably continued as thick as a jungle as those of New Zealand or America…


Thomas Mitchell, Sydney, January 1847

Gammage explains that Aboriginal people not only thought of kangaroos when laying out their burn patterns, but also of possums, wombats, birds, insects, reptiles and plants. “Once you have started to lay out country to suit a species, you are on the way to an extraordinarily complex arrangement of the land, which you must maintain very carefully, and over many generations,” he says. Burn patterns also need to consider plant cycles.

The research draws some striking conclusions:


  • No uncontrolled fires. Uncontrolled fire could wipe out food sources –Aboriginal people had to prevent them or die. Evidence strongly suggests that no devastating fires occurred.


  • Aboriginal people were farmers.


  • Customised templates. Aboriginal people developed specific templates to suit the land, plants and animals. They knew which animal preferred what, eg kangaroos preferred short grass, native bees preferred desert bloodwood, etc. Managing the land with fire required them consider these dependencies.

  • No pristine wilderness. More trees grow in areas now known as national parks than did in 1788.

Crater of Mt Eccles, 1858, Eugene von Guerard

Mt Eccles National Park, 2011, Photo: Peter Whitehead

Bill Gammage discusses
'The Biggest Estate on Earth’

The Australian National University, December, 2011

Video by ANU TV

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