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Fire in the Forests? Exploring the Human-Ecological History of Australia’s First Frontier

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In his landmark book The Biggest Estate on Earth, historian Bill Gammage argues that before the arrival of white settlers, the whole Australian continent was a manicured cultural landscape, shaped and maintained by precise, deliberate and repeated fires. In Aboriginal hands, fire made the entire country ‘beautiful and comfortable’, and so Australia was one vast ‘estate’, a giant ‘park’, a series of ‘farms without fences’. These words imply that Aboriginal rights to land are closely tied to universal fire regimes. Gammage’s book has been well-received and celebrated. But it has also polarised debates on fire regimes, especially the extent to which fire really did shape every corner of the continent, and the related assertion that contemporary ecologies are the result of the cessation of fire since 1788.

This paper integrates ethnographic history and archaeology with geography, soil science and ecology in order to set Gammage’s model against a particular ecological zone – the dense River-flat Forests that once lined Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury-Nepean River in New South Wales, Australia. Dyarubbin was occupied by Aboriginal people for perhaps 50,000 years, and from 1794 it became the site of the first major settler farming frontier. Paying attention to the local and the particular, this paper asks: was this fiercely contested country a tidy mosaic of open forests, water and grasslands created by cultural fire? Was Aboriginal burning here extensive or limited? What aspects of human and ecological history might be obscured by the universalising model in which cultural fire dominates above all other factors? Did the Aboriginal landscape in turn shape the settler one, and what were the consequences for land and people?

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Keywords: Aboriginal history; Australian history; River-flat Forest; fire; history of rivers

Appeared or available online: 14 May 2018

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