Colonising the landscape

Colonising the landscape

Prior to colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples used ‘fire-stick farming’ to manage the landscape for sustainable food production, but the events of colonisation resulted in profound changes in the landscape.

Indigenous people have lived in Australia more than 65,000 years ago, according to scientific evidence of human occupation1. To put this in perspective, this is ten times older than the ancient Egyptian pyramids. Then in 1788, the First Fleet arrived and from there on, scores of settlers arrived to take up residence, to clear and farm the land. The English settlers brought their own preconceived European cold-climate ideas of agriculture and landscape, and land ownership.

There was significant resistance to the colonisers2, in the early settlement of Sydney and as settlers spread throughout the country. But with the weaponry of the English, the smallpox epidemic, colonisation had far reaching consequences. Fire was used against colonisers in some instances, such as a group of Wiradjuri people burned to the ground multiple properties, one of which was built on a bora ring, as retribution after an entire family was killed for digging up a settler’s potatoes3. This led to a series of massacres, and these kinds of incidents are a common story throughout colonisation in Australia.

The land before colonisation

Aboriginal people4 closely managed the land and were not simply ‘hunter gatherers’; they used detailed burning plans in what is called ‘fire-stick farming’5. This method of land management was used to sustainably increase production of resources6. Regularly firing the land enhanced native grain production and deep soft soils that were so deeply ‘tilled’ that you couldn’t walk through, as described by early explorers such at Mitchell. There was even drying and storing of surplus grains for future use and flour grinding for bread and cakes7. This was prior to being compacted by hard-hoofed animals as the colonisers cleared the land and introduced sheep and cattle. Prior to this, daisy yams and many native grains were common produce.

Aboriginal fire regimes consciously and deliberately shaped grass, trees and scrub into patterns. Fire was used to burn the land using small ‘cool’ fires in small patches (mosaics) within the landscape8. This ensured only small areas were burnt at once, leaving more established vegetation for animals to use. These mosaics were organised so that people knew where the animals would be and could go hunt them. The mosaics also provided different stages of regrowth as a resource throughout the year9.

Early accounts from settlers and explorers often described the landscape as a “park”, in the English sense of the word., that is, sparsely treed with open grassy understorey, that allowed travel easy even by horse and cart. This was due to long-term use of burning regimes over season after season. Areas of dense forest were also protected from fire in some areas to maintain those animal species that require such habitats and for rainforest plant species10. In this way the land was carefully managed with areas of fire and areas of no fire. This is at odds with the ‘hunter-gatherer’ narrative that has in the past been applied to Aboriginal peoples.

Initial changes with colonisation

There were many key changes that began with colonisation. As settlements expanded and settlers moved out to begin farming, eventually most Aboriginal people were moved off their land. In addition, there were significant impacts from land clearing and hard-hooved animals which altered plant communities and favoured introduced exotic grasses11. At the same time, there was a drastic reduction in the Aboriginal population due to smallpox and other introduced diseases, against which the Aboriginal population had very little resistance, and thousands died in a very short time12.

This time of intense disturbance to the Aboriginal way of life led to a drastic decline in both the traditional knowledge of land management and the ability of Aboriginal peoples to carry out their land management practices. This coupled with the increase in infrastructure, such as fences, permanent houses, meant a significant reduction or cessation of the traditional fire regime.

In the southeast of Australia, summertime cold fronts bring strong winds to the dried-out forests and grasslands. If spring has been wet, the abundant plant growth only provides more fuel for late-summer fires. In New South Wales and southern Queensland, deep low-pressure systems off Tasmania bring strong north-westerly winds, creating severe bushfire seasons after dry winters and springs.13 Settlers wanted to protect their infrastructure and livestock, as both are costly and valuable and vulnerable to fire. As a result, fire management was effectively stopped allowing fuel loads to build up, over time leading to bigger more intense fires.

Long term impacts of colonisation

Over time, there has been a significant shift in landscape ecology. Biodiversity in Australia’s ecosystems has been declining dramatically, with Australia having the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world14. Land issues such as dryland salinity, over-extraction of water from rivers, and devastating bushfires have also escalated.

Native grains that were a staple for Aboriginal people were discarded in favour of European crops, despite being likely to be more climate-appropriate and pest tolerant than rice, cotton, other introduced and irrigated crops15. There has been a fundamental shift in diet for Aboriginal peoples, including a forced reliance on European foods and farming methods that are less healthy for people and damaging to the land. There is now very little native grassland, an overabundance of exotic pasture grass overrun by hard hooved animals, and there is more dense forest, and forest with thick understorey, providing fuel for bigger hotter fires that are dangerous and destructive.

Large, intense fires are damaging and can even kill “fire tolerant” species such as Eucalyptus in addition to reducing biodiversity. When large fires burn out of control they have potential to kill a lot of wildlife, with no refuges to escape to and fires moving too fast to escape. This puts extra pressure on species that are already struggling with extreme weather in a long-term low rainfall environment such as in the north of Victoria, e.g. bandicoots, quolls, swamp rats and native heath mice16. This is because there are large areas with no refuge mosaics left for plant and animal species to repopulate from. In addition, wildfires caused damage to property and many people have lost their lives, such as the Black Saturday bushfires of Victoria.

Classroom activity - Humanities and Social Sciences (History) Year 9

In this classroom activity, students will investigate how the landscape has changed since colonisation, including how fire was used in the past and the long term impacts of changes on the landscape.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content description from the Australian Curriculum:

  • The extension of settlement, including the effects of contact (intended and unintended) between European settlers in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (ACDSEH020)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 9 in Humanities and Social Sciences (History):

  • analyse the causes and effects of events and developments and make judgments about their importance
  • explain the motives and actions of people at the time
  • explain the significance of these events and developments over the short and long term

Activity 1 – Time Machine

Suggested timing for activity: 30 mins up to one lesson

Required resources: notebook, pens

  • Visit website
  • Explore the different layers and scenarios and how they change with time/colonisation
  • Discuss how fire in the landscape would have gradually changed with time since colonisation
  • How would this alteration in fire and landscape have affected both settlers’ way of life and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ way of life?
  • Does this give you any new insights or perspectives on how or why the landscape has changed?
  • Which areas experienced the most change first, geographically? Which parts of Australia were not affected until many years later? How has this affected Aboriginal culture?
  • Research significant fire events since colonisation
    • Draw a timeline of changes that map out the gradual reduction of regular burning and the increase in bigger more destructive fires
    • Discuss present-day challenges with regards to fire in the landscape e.g. climate change, water extraction, introduced species.

Activity 2 – Mind-mapping changes

Suggested timing for activity: One lesson

Required resources: Notebook or art paper, coloured pens and/or pencils

  • Watch documentary First Footsteps (Episode 4) and/or First Australians (Episode 1):
  • Consider the effects of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with regards to fire management.
  • Categorise which of these impacts were short term and which were long term
  • Make a mind-map of the changes to the landscape specifically referencing fire in the landscape and changes with colonisation, and showing links between different issues and events. Identify which impacts were intended or unintended, or both.
  • Inquiry-based questions for discussion:
    • What was the purpose of the English in coming to this place?
    • How did Aboriginal peoples receive them?
    • What were the new farming practices and what commodities?
    • How were these different to the old ways of fire-stick farming and native foods?
    • Why did Aboriginal people use fire against the colonisers (First Australians Episode 1)?
    • How has the landscape changed from colonisation to now? Consider your local area.
    • What effects did these changes have on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their health and way of life?


1 Super Nomads – 50,000 to 30,000 years ago. (2013) First Footprints. Retrieved from:

2 They Have Come to Stay (2012) First Australians. Retrieved from:

3 They Have Come to Stay (2012) op. cit.

4 Note: this resource refers primarily to Aboriginal land management and how colonisation unfolded; Torres Strait Islanders had their own land management practices and colonisation experiences.

5 Pascoe, B. (2014) Dark Emu. Chapter 5: Fire. Pp. 115-123.

6 The Biggest Estate – 9,000 years ago to 1788 (2013) First Footprints. Retrieved from:

7 Bruce Pascoe on the complex question of Aboriginal agriculture (2016) Retrieved from:

8 Gammage, B. (2015) The biggest estate on earth ABC News. Retrieved from:

9 The Biggest Estate – 9,000 years ago to 1788 (2013) First Footprints. Retrieved from:

10 Gammage, B. (2015) op. cit.

11 Hughes D’Aeth (2018) Friday essay: Dark Emu and the blindness of Australian agriculture. Retrieved from:

12 They Have Come to Stay (2012) op. cit.

13 Wilkie, B. (2015) This continent of smoke. Retrieved from:

14 Kilvert, N. (2017) Australia among seven nations responsible for more than 50 per cent of global biodiversity loss. Retrieved from:

15 Pascoe, B. (2014) op. cit.

16 Wilkie, B. (2015) op. cit.

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.