Firestick farming How the indigenous Australians used fire to change their environment
- Farming as we now associate the word has been around for about 7 to 10 thousand years and..
- when we think of farming we imagine a farmer planting seeds and later harvesting the crops
- or maybe having cattle that they can allow to graze
- and using that cattle later either for meat or milk or wool.
- But there's actually a different type of farming that predates
- this association with what we can call traditional form of farming.
- And it predates it by several tens of thousands of years
- and we believe it started with the original inhabitants of Australia.
- And what they did is, and this is why we call it farming,
- because if you think about farming in the most general sense
- is really humans using technology to manipulate their environment
- so it becomes more suitable for humans
- and more suitable for things that humans might want to eat
- or get milk from or ... or whatever.
- And this type of farming is called firestick farming.
- And I think you can already imagine what it might involve.
- It involves using fire which is really a form of technology
- or can be a form of technology,
- using fire to make the environment more suitable for human activity.
- And so what the original Australians did, the indigenous Australians,
- or sometimes we refer to them as the Aboriginal Australians.
- If you're wondering where the word Aboriginal comes from,
- you might recognise some parts of it:
- original - you know what that means, the first things
- the things that were there from the beginning,
- and then you have "ab", which is Latin for "from".
- So this is literally "from the beginning",
- so when we say Aboriginal Australians we're really
- kind of saying that they were there from the beginning.
- And so what they would do is that we believe if you go back 50-60,000 years
- before the first Aboriginal Australians settled Australia,
- Australia had much more forest. It still has forest,
- this is a modern picture of an Australian forest,
- but what they did is that they set up controlled burns.
- And what these controlled burns did is that
- they cleared away a lot of forest,
- they cleared away a lot of the brush that's at the bottom over here,
- and it made it much more suitable for grassland to develop.
- And the reason why they liked grassland -
- so let's make a little cycle here of what they did.
- So they have controlled burns, controlled fires
- those controlled fires helped promote grassland
- and then once you have grassland that made the environment
- more suitable for animals that the original human settlers could essentially live off of,
- that they could hunt, that they could potentially eat their meat,
- for example things like ... kangaroos
- and these supported the human population
- which obviously would then do the controlled burns.
- And you see here we could have started off with something like this,
- someone provides a controlled burn,
- and they were actually pretty scientifical about how they did it.
- They wouldn't just go with the end of summer
- when everything was hot and ready to just blow up
- and to start a fire that they couldn't control.
- They would often do these is seasons knowing that
- they had a certain level of moisture in the air, it wasn't too hot
- and to a large degree by doing these controlled burns,
- not only did it provide an environment
- that was suitable for things like kangaroos
- some type of thing that humans could eat,
- but it also prevented major fires.
- And you still see forest rangers doing this type of thing.
- There is some reason to believe that what the original Australians did
- on some level was more nuanced and more fine too
- than even what we do in a modern sense of controlled burns.
- So these controlled fires also prevented major, uncontrollable fires.
- Because what happens if you don't have these controlled fires,
- then you have brush building up year after year after year,
- you have stuff building up,
- and then when the fires do occure, they're not going to occure,
- they're less likely, the uncontrollable fires
- are less likely to start during the winter
- when the air is cool, when there might be some moisture,
- they're more likely to ocure in the dry seasons.
- So you have all this stuff built up, and then when the fire does happen,
- it happens in the driest season and then when it happens
- with all the stuff built up in the driest season
- it just becomes uncontrollable.
- One of the several by-products of this firestick farming
- we believe is a lot of the grassland in Australia now
- might have been more forested befor even when the first European settlers
- came in the late 1700s, they were kind of surprised
- when they went into what is now Sydney Harbour
- and they said:'Wow, look at all the grassland here,
- it almost looks like a park space!'
- And then they would like their sheep graze there
- and they were surprised, because they have driven out the original inhabitants,
- and then they were surprised when forest just started to grow up in that grassland.
- It was because the original Australians were actually controlling that forest growth
- to make it more inhabitable for things like kangaroos
- and then when the English settlers came
- they started to have their sheep grazing in those grasslands.
- And also it was responsible for the disappearance,
- we think of many major, or better mega-fauna.
- So really large animal that inhabited Australia for millions of years
- until humans showed up. And this is one of them, if you just to need to look at them.
- This is called Diprotodon optatum, or the giant wombat.
- And there are fossils of the giant wombat around 40-50,000 years ago,
- but they disappeared with humans showing up.
- And there're multiple ways we can think about why they disappeared.
- They might have, and this is probably the case,
- they might have been more dependent on the forest habitat,
- or this was a more favorable habitat for them than the grasslands,
- maybe because they ate leaves that were higher up.
- Or another thing is once the forest habitat goes away
- they were actually also easier to hunt down,
- or either way to think about it they might have just been hunted by humans.
- But we do see with humans coming to the Australian continent
- you start to see the disappearance, and this is not the only one,
- there were several major species of megafauna,
- of super-large animals that disappeared at that time period.
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