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Aboriginal Foraging, Firestick 'Farming' and Ecosystem dynamics in the Western Desert of Australia

October 30, 2008
Rebecca Bird

Department of Anthropology,
Stanford University

Aboriginal burning in Australia has long been assumed a "resource management" strategy, but no quantitative tests of this hypothesis have ever been conducted. Our ethnographic observations of contemporary Aboriginal hunting and burning and satellite image analysis of anthropogenic and "natural" landscape structure demonstrates the processes through which Aboriginal burning shapes arid zone vegetational diversity. Anthropogenic landscapes contain a greater diversity of successional stages than landscapes under a lightning fire regime and differences are of scale, not of kind. Landscape scale is directly linked to foraging for small, burrowed prey (monitor lizards), which is a specialty of Aboriginal women. The maintenance of small-scale habitat mosaics has two effects on subsistence resources: where habitats are more diverse, lizard hunting returns are higher and hill kangaroo populations denser. These results suggest that the complex adaptive structure of anthropogenic fire mosaics is the product of a coevolutionary relationship between human foragers and their prey.  Resource management here thus may be better modeled as an emergent phenomenon, the product of cumulative individual foraging decisions designed to increase the productivity of hunting lizards in the cool winter months.


Related readings:

Bliege Bird, R., D.W. Bird, B, F. Codding, J. Holland Jones, C. Parker
(2008) Anthropogenic fire mosaics, biodiversity and Australian Aboriginal foraging strategies: a test of the "Fire Stick Farming"
hypothesis. Proc Nat Acad Sci (in press).

Bird, D.W., R. Bliege Bird, and C.H. Parker. (2005) Aboriginal burning regimes and hunting strategies in Australia's Western Desert.  Human Ecology 33: 443-464.

 *Vancouver location: MMC 204

Bliege Bird & Bird CA '08.pdf829.79 KB
BliegeBird_etal_2008-PNAS.pdf438.82 KB