25 Jun 2010, 5:41pm
Restoring cultural landscapes Saving Forests
by admin

Anthropogenic Fire in Tasmania

At what is seemingly the end of the world sits the island of Tasmania. It is 150 miles south of Australia, separated by the Bass Strait, and thought by some to be the epitome of pristine, untouched nature. Not counting the modern cities, towns, farms, etc., of course.

As remote as it is, however, Tasmania has been home to humanity for at least 35,000 years. In fact, until the world’s ocean rose after the Wisconsin Glaciation some 10,000 years ago, Tasmania was a peninsula connected to mainland Australia.

The Palawa people (Tasmania aborigines, [here]) were first decimated by old-world diseases and then rounded up and exiled to Flinders Island in the 1830’s. But before those unfortunate events, they managed to survive in isolation for millennia with stone age tools.

And as SOSF readers know, the principal stone age survival tool, going back into hoary antiquity to our proto-human ancestors a million years or more removed, has been fire.

Every culture on Earth has used fire to alter their environments for various survival-enhancement purposes, and the Palawa were no different. A wonderful essay about pre-Contact anthropogenic fire in Tasmania is:

Gammage, Bill. 2008. Plain Facts: Tasmania under Aboriginal Management. Landscape Research, Vol. 33, No. 2, 241 – 254, April 2008.

now posted in the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: History of Western Landscapes [here].

Yes, I know, Tasmania is hardly “western”. But the history is similar and instructive.

Professor Bill (William Leonard) Gammage is a visiting fellow in the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, studying Aboriginal attitudes to land and land management from a historical perspective. His books include ‘The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War’ (1974), ‘The Sky Travellers. Journeys in New Guinea 1938-39′ (1998), and ‘Narrandera Shire’ (1986) [here].

So he knows how to write, and what’s more, his essay has great pictures, too! The Abstract:

Almost all researchers now accept that Australia’s Aborigines were managing their country with the broad-scale use of fire when Europeans arrived. In respect to Tasmania, this article goes further, arguing that fire was not merely broad-scale, but applied variably and precisely, to make, then connect, a complex range of useful ecosystems. The article also argues that Aboriginal land management must be seen in cultural as well as ecological terms.

In SOSF lingo, that means Tasmania was a vintage cultural landscape intentionally modified into an anthropogenic mosaic by intelligent torch bearing humans.

When Europeans arrived, the Aborigines of Tasmania were managing their land by using fire to arrange its vegetation. They did so to ensure that all species flourished as the Law required, to make resources abundant, convenient and predictable, and to make the land an integrated domain. …

In the northwest, Henry Hellyer thought the Surrey Hills “resemble English enclosures in many respects, being bounded by brooks between each, with belts of beautiful shrubs in every vale… the Hampshire Hills… appear even more park like than the Surrey Hills, and are handsomely clumped with trees.”19 …

Tasmanians also made edges by leaving clumps (copses) on plains. …

Clumps were maintained, not merely left after cool burns, although they may have begun that way. …

People also wedged forest into plain so that no matter how the wind lay they could approach prey undetected. …

This landscape is shaped to make game accessible. A skillful burning regime, and not that on Mill’s Plains, has kept the forest dense and the grass open. …

It is unlikely that fires were lit just to hunt. That would tax a delicate artefact. More probably, when season and wind decreed a time to burn, people hunted as well. If they spread enough edges around their country they could usually burn and hunt somewhere, and if they planned burning cycles (as they did on the mainland) they could shepherd game from one plain to the next. …

Tasmanians (and mainlanders) used plains by patch-burning them, making mosaics of fresh grass to concentrate feed, and trees or old grass to shelter game and hunters. …

Where patches were burnt determined where feed and thus game was: patches made hunting predictable. Predictability is commonly the critical advantage farmers claim over hunters, yet Tasmanian hunters went expecting to find game—more like gathering. With patches spaced over many miles, their resources were more drought, flood and fire evading, more certain, than those of farmers. Perhaps this is why farmers trade and store food whereas except in harsh parts of Australia Aborigines did not. …

Grass and eucalypt are there because generations of fire kept rainforest back. …

Gammage tells it like it was.

Modern Tasmania, however, reflects its British roots rather than its 35,000-year-old Palawa roots. Modern Tasmanians hearken to a royalist heritage of land control by a ruling class and exclusion of the lower classes. That distinctly European system is nothing like (and is indeed inimical to) the free and democratic Palawa history and heritage that shaped their island.

The Euro-conceit is manifested in a variety of conflicting (schizophrenic) ways. First, collective guilt was assumed by the 1997 Statement of Apology issued by the Tasmanian Parliament and the 2006 offer of financial compensation to 40 or so Tasmanian Aborigine descendants for the Stolen Generations [here].

Second and more typical is the “popular” demand for wilderness preservation where there has been no wilderness for tens of thousands of years [here].

On one hand modern Tasmanians grudgingly acknowledge the guilt of their fathers for the truly horrific genocidal actions that took place, yet on the other hand they deny the existence and humanity of their fathers’ victims.

The anthropogenic fire that created the park-like mosaic which so impressed and pleased the first Euro invaders was profoundly human. Yet that ancient human stewardship is denied (and/or rejected) by the modern residents.

To their own detriment and risk, I might add. Without traditional stewardship, fuels accumulate in Tasmania as they do elsewhere. And eventually, those built-up fuels explode into catastrophic fires.

On January 13, 1939, so-called Black Friday, fires swept across South Australia and Tasmania. Stephen Pyne wrote in Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia [here]:

The 1939 holocaust signified a systemic breakdown in Australian fire practices and precepts and immediately established itself as the standard for disaster, the worst-case scenario against which every subsequent fire would be measured.

Until 1967, that is, when the Black Tuesday (February 7, 1967) fires [here] burned over 1,000 square miles in Tasmania, destroying 1,300 homes, 400 businesses, 128 major buildings, 80 bridges, and killing 62 people as well as 62,000 farm animals.

The Black Tuesday fires were urban as well as rural. Much of Hobart was torched. The aftermath looked like a war had taken place. It was (as Pyne puts it) a Tasmanian Götterdämmerung.

In 1983 75 Australians died in the Ash Wednesday bushfires. Then in February of 2009 (Black Saturday) close to 200 people were killed and more than 2,000 homes incinerated by wildfires that ravaged the state of Victoria. Some posts about the 2009 fires are [here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here].

Rather than addressing the fuel problem square on, Tasmanians seem hell bent on burning themselves up on some sort of collective suicide pyre. All because they can’t admit that Tasmania was home to human beings for millenia and not a pristine Eden placed on Earth by God for the nationalistic pride and myth-based yearnings of the current Euro-centric, guilt-ridden residents.

Sound familiar?

Maybe if we study the Tasmanians, remote from us as they are, we might by accident see ourselves in the Tasmanian mirror.

We too are in the midst of a fire crisis of historic proportion. We too suffer from Euro-centric cultural blindness and mythologies. We too live in an ancient land where the First Residents practiced landscape-scale stewardship using fire. We too are prideful and arrogant, with a cultural subtext of collective guilt.

Tasmania has something to teach us, both positive lessons and cautionary tales. Man is not separate from nature, whether we wish to be or not. Nor are we newcomers to the landscape. Nature misses us. We need a little more empathy with our surroundings. We need to take responsibility, not hand it off to generations past and future. We are the Caretakers, not visitors to a wilderness planet. This is home. We need to treat it like such.

25 Jun 2010, 10:43pm
by Bob Zybach


This is an excellent essay and analysis of the key points Gammage makes. You’ve also tied it in very well with the problems we are currently experiencing in the western US.

I hope you’ve sent him a link to this page; I for one, would be extremely interested in any additional thoughts he might have on these matters.

26 Jun 2010, 12:01am
by Mike

I have sent him a link. We’ll have to see whether he wants to join the discussion.

Dr. Gammage studies a number of history topics. Another work of his in the environmental sciences is:

Gammage, Bill. 2009. Galahs. Australian Historical Studies, 40: 3, 275 — 293 [here]

Abstract: When Europeans arrived in Australia, galahs were typically inland birds, quite sparsely distributed. Now they range from coast to coast, and are common. Why did this change occur? Why didn’t it occur earlier? I argue that because galahs feed on the ground they found Australia’s dominant inland grasses too tall to get at the seed, so relied on an agency to shorten them: Aboriginal grain cropping before contact, introduced stock after it.

The galah, or Australian pink cockatoo (Eolophus roseicapilla, formerly Cacatua roseicapilla), is a common and widespread bird in Australia today. It has been crossbred with other cockatoos for pets, see Wiki [here].

But when Australia was first explored by European naturalists in the early 1800’s, galahs were rare. Gammage hypothesizes that their rarity was due to Aboriginal land management practices that limited galah populations. When those practices ended (due to Euro disease and conquest of the Aborigines) and new practices were substituted, the galah populations irrupted (expanded rapidly).

Another new and interesting article on a similar subject is:

Bernd Herrmann And William I. Woods. 2010. Neither Biblical Plague Nor Pristine Myth: A Lesson From Central European Sparrows. The Geographical Review 100 (2): 176–186, April 2010 [here]

Abstract: The historical superabundance of passenger pigeons in North America and of house sparrows in Central Europe is anthropogenic; that is, the result of human actions, in these cases with unintended consequences. In this article we concentrate on the superabundance of sparrows in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and outline the reasons for it. Both the passenger pigeon and the sparrow examples serve as ideal types for misplaced understanding of historical numbers of individuals as indicators of assumed pristine natural situations. Both examples reflect severe human impacts on the metapopulations of the bird species. Historical data on abundance can be misleading when they are used as guides in current conservation efforts. Selections of “right” numbers are arbitrary, because no points of reference exist in natural systems.

26 Jun 2010, 1:12pm
by YPmule

But if we try and emulate the Ancestors and burn, you go to jail:

Oregon ranchers indicted for setting fires over 24-year period


Reply: Also reported at W.I.S.E. Forest, Fire, and Wildlife News [here]. 8)



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