Scorched Earth


Scorched Earth

Stephen K Ewings 2001

Scorched Earth

Image (modified) – Bushfire Council of The Northern Territory

The English expression ‘scorched earth’ is synonymous with devastation, appearing ironic when early European Australians wrote poetically of ‘the land of sweeping plains’, which unbeknownst to them was largely fashioned by human fires. The title of this article, Scorched Earth derives from ideas in Giles writing and is of course his views on the use of fire by Aboriginal farmers is not shared by myself. Through the careful regulated use of mosaic burning there was no ‘scorched earth’ but the creation of a farmed or socialised landscape. While some researchers (Horton 1982) argue singularly for climatic change in forging the Australian landscape, Lewis (1982) and Singh et al (1981) suggest ‘Aboriginal burning’ was an important agent in faunal and floristic change.

Current palynological studies point to a general trend of recurring dry phases from mid-Miocene to Pleistocene transforming rainforest into dry schlerophyll, with concomitant increases in natural fires, caused by lightning (Kemp 1981, Haberle et al 1999).  However, a substantial increase or ‘charcoal spike’, obtained from pollen records at Lynch’s Crater, northeast Queensland occurs ‘around 38,000 years ago, and is roughly coincident with the earliest authenticated remains of Aborigines’ (Pyne 1997). Further south at Lake George in Victoria, charcoal deposition in samples of lacustrine clay suggest increases in fire activity from 128,00 BP continuing through to the Holocene (Singh et al 1981).

As a result of these, and other studies (sediment cores from continental shelf north-west Australia), Lewis (1982) draws the conclusion that there was, ‘pan-Australian use of fire across a great diversity of environmental zones and regional habitats’. Ethnographic and historical accounts place fire as an important component in Aboriginal life, with almost every aspect incorporating its usage. The table below is derived from published historical or ethnographic literature, and whilst all elements are not necessarily pan-Australian in practice, it serves to illustrate the potent cultural influence of fire and potential for impact upon the landscape.

Table 1. Use of Fire in Aboriginal Cultures

Domestic – snake and mosquito repellant; focus of family unit; cooking; ashes used in poultices; cauterizing wounds.

Social – fire represented in ‘dynamic figures’ paintings; direct communication – signal fires; indirect-communication of whereabouts – smoke; ash used with pituri drug; clearing pathways through vegetation

Ritual – ash for ceremonial cleaning; ceremonial fires; smoke cleansing; burial (Mungo remains partially burnt)

Hunting/Collecting – flush/drive out game; attract animals to re-growth; clear competing vegetation; clear ground litter; improve visibility; root (Typha) cultivation by burning leaves; increase cycad production

Specialised – burning phases selective and systematic, for instance:

  • in North Australia annual firing, or at least 1 in 3 years
  • controlled burns
  • patterned to manipulate designated microenvironments
  • large, low intensity fires on grasslands
  • knowledge of flora and fauna species habitats
  • knowledge of fire dynamics in various vegetation
  • knowledge of seasonal constraints/rainfall
  • regionally modified
  • firing regime entrusted to specific community members
  • heat treating stone raw materials
  • fire hardening wooden implements
  • production of resin (keti)
  • tree felling

Problematic to the ‘socialised landscape’ view, based on ethnography and extrapolation into prehistory, is the issue of cultural practice and continuity over spans of time. Lesley Head (1994) argues strongly that an Aboriginal ethic of using fire to ‘clean up the country’, is a deep seated and long-standing tradition. Generally, the perception of Australia as a socialized landscape is derived from three planes of evidence, that is, ethnographical accounts, supported by direct evidence from plaeoclimatology and palynological studies, strengthened by historical documentation. The latter comes in many forms, such as Ernest Giles (1889) pyrphobic comment regarding Aboriginals as living ‘on fire instead of water’, and the cultural impact of fire around Sydney, described in 1770 by Joseph Banks (Flannery 1994).

The real question it seems, is not whether Aboriginal firing changed the landscape, but to what extent, where, and how chronologically did these events occur. What is lacking is an overlay of the evidence planes at specific regional levels. Refining investigative processes into these questions will contribute to longitudinal studies of Aboriginal firing regimes and may in turn provide more clues to patterns of colonisation in Australia.

Scorched Earth References

Bushfires Council of the Northern Territory, Fire Management Strategy,  (accessed 31st Sept 2001)

Flannery, T. 1994, The Future Eaters, Reed New Holland, Australia

Flood, J. 1997, Rock Art of The Dreamtime: Images of Ancient Australia, Angus and Roberston

Giles, E. 1889, Australia Twice Traversed, London, republished 1979, Doubleday.

Haberle, S.G., Hope, G.S. and Van der Kaars, S. (1999) ‘Long-term Record of Fire from Indonesia and New Guinea’, Palaeoclimate Implications of Fire records from the Proceedings of Australian Bushfire Conference, Albury July 1999, Charles Sturt University, (accessed 1st August 2001)

Head, L. 1994, ‘Landscapes socialized by fire: Post-contact changes in Aboriginal fire use in northern Australia, and implications for prehistory’, Archaeology in Oceania, vol. 29, No.4, pp.172-81.

Horton, D.R. 1982, ‘The burning question: Aborigines, fire and Australian ecosystems, Mankind, Vol.3., No.3., pp.237-51

Kemp, E.M. 1981, ‘Pre-Quaternary Fire in Australia’, in Fire and The Australian Biota, ed. A.M. Gill, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra.

Kohen, J. 1995 Aboriginal Environmental Impacts, chpt.4 Fire and Australian Vegetation, University of NSW Press, Sydney.

Lewis, H.T. 1982, ‘Fire technology and Resource Management in Aboriginal North America and Australia’, in Resource Managers: North American and Australian Hunter-Gathers, eds. Nancy Williams and Eugene Hunn, Westview Press, Colorado.

Pyne, S.J. 1997, World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth, University of Washington Press, New York.

Pyne, S.J. 1998, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, University of Washington Press, New York.

Singh, G., Kershaw, A.P., and Clark, R. 1981, ‘Quaternary Vegetation and Fire History in Australia’, in Fire and The Australian Biota,  ed. A.M. Gill, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra.

Smith, R., Browne, C., Craig, R., Adams, J. and Steber, M. (2001) Satellite Monitoring of Bush Fires in North Western Australia, Remote Sensing Services, Department of Land Administration, Western Australia, (accessed 31 July 2001).



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