New research puts paid to the belief that Aboriginal people used fire on a large scale to control vegetation across Australia.
The research team, who published their findings in the latest edition of the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, examined charcoal records dating back 70,000 years at 223 sites across Australasia.
Lead researcher Dr Scott Mooney, from the University of New South Wales, says the research shows Aborigines were using fire at a local scale, but not with the major impact that some people have previously thought.
He says the research suggests people have “imagined the past”.
“There is a lot of historic information that [Aboriginal Australians] used fire. People ran with that idea and imagined that [they] were using fire very frequently and very extensively in the landscape,” Dr Mooney said.
“I personally think they were probably using fire much more selectively around their campsites and where it worked for resources.”
Dr Mooney says fire activity “definitely” changed when European colonisation occurred around 200 years ago.
“The fire sticks are definitely in the colonisers’ hands, not the original inhabitants,” he said.
According to Dr Mooney, the idea that Aboriginal people were burning off large swathes of the continent may be based on observations made by early explorers and settlers.
“We took one historic observation, which could have been biased or could have been just a small snapshot in time, and we imagined that back through time for 40,000 or 50,000 years,” he said.
Dr Mooney does not believe the research will change current land management practices in Australia, such as hazard reduction burns, but he adds we need to rid ourselves of the notion that we can control fire.
“After big fires we often get commentators suggesting that we reintroduce some Aboriginal-style fire management and it suggests that we know something about the past,” he said.
“This work shows that fire is much more dynamic in the landscape when it is responding to climate rather than people.”