Understanding plants and animals
The controlled application of fire by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people requires a deep knowledge of the environment, including vegetation communities, precipitation patterns, seasonal variability, weather and wind.
These local knowledge systems are complex and vary across the continent to alter the physical conditions of the environment through fire management to the productivity of plants, to distribute plants and animals to protect faunal communities and animal populations, and to increase their food production and harvesting returns. This systematic application of fire to manage the environment and resources1 continues in many areas today. Factors that are taken into account include the frequency of fire application (how long since the last burn), the extent of the land to be burnt, the season and intensity of the fire, which is influenced by factors such as wind and soil moisture2. This ancient science provides an opportunity to learn about Australian environments from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective.
Australia boasts a diverse range of unique animals and plants that have evolved in unique terrestrial, marine, riparian and estuarine environments and littorals, many of them managed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples using ancient knowledge systems and practices.
These knowledge systems accord special relationships between people and living beings, spiritual and ancestral beings and geographical places expressed in kinship and similar terms and celebrated in songs, ceremonies and dances. These cultural expressions of the coexistence of people with plants, animals and their habitats incorporate a deep understanding of the physical conditions living things require to grow and survive in these environments. Fire is a physical phenomenon with names in Indigenous languages for its many manifestations and it is also has spiritual, cultural and symbolic power. The use and management of fire was a continent-wide aspect of these knowledge systems until invasion and settlement disrupted Indigenous land relationships in many places. Despite this disruption, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to practice their traditional fire management to maintain or modify the physical conditions of the environment and to ensure continued and abundant supply of resources.
There is a wealth of evidence of the environmental knowledge and practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their deep understanding of the complex interactions within ecosystems, drawn from scientific studies and also contemporary practices such sustainable land management, flora and fauna management and the development of seasonal calendars that are used by Indigenous groups in many regions as part of their land use management. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s seasonal calendars demonstrate the intricate understanding of the physical conditions of the ecosystems and how seasonal changes influence the availability of resources in their country3.
Fire in land management
‘Fire-stick farming’ is a term applied to the traditional practice of some Aboriginal peoples that involves managed and controlled burning of landscape. This systematic application of fire to manage the environment and resources4 continues in many areas today. The controlled application of fire by Aboriginal people requires a deep knowledge of the environment, including vegetation communities, precipitation patterns, seasonal variability, weather and wind. These local knowledge systems are complex and vary across the continent. Factors that are taken into account include the frequency of fire application (how long since the last burn), the extent of the land to be burnt, the season and intensity of the fire, which is influenced by factors such as wind and soil moisture5. In the Torres Strait Islands, purposeful and appropriate burning is practiced to maintain or improve the environment, including helping plants regenerate6. One consequence of fire-stick farming is that ash is deposited on the soil, providing a rich source of nutrients that fertilises the area, and facilitates a rapid growth and regeneration of particular plants. Ash is a rich source of phosphorous, a nutrient essential for the growth and survival of many plants7. Fire can change the soil pH of an environment, which can influence the organisms that grow and survive in the ecosystem. The application of fire to an environment results in the soil becoming more alkaline and fosters the propagation of organisms that favour such conditions.
Fire-stick farming is a practice that demonstrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander understanding of the physical requirements for the growth, germination, fruiting and regeneration of particular species. Through regular controlled burning, ash is provided as a source of nutrients to those species and fertilizes the land, providing optimum soil chemistry to ensure an abundance of such resources.
Banksia spp are an example of a native Australian plant that requires fire for germination. Banksia spp. are an important plant for many Aboriginal peoples. The Gunditjmara peoples of southwest Victoria use the empty cones of Banksia as a filter to strain impurities from water8; the Noongar peoples in southern Western Australia use the Banksia cones to transport fire9; Aboriginal peoples in Victoria use the bark of the plant to construct tools such as digging sticks and to smooth other implements10; and the D’harawal peoples of the Sydney region use the nectar to sweeten drinks and to attract birds that can be easily hunted11. Banksia spp seeds are stored in the woody cones and rely on fire to be released. The cones are triggered to open during a fire, and release the seeds onto the ground where they can germinate in the ash-fertilised soil12. Aboriginal peoples understand the fire regime required for such events to be triggered, and carefully applied the appropriate fire regime based on season, weather, fire frequency and fire intensity.
Fire also stimulates the production of fruiting bodies of important edible fungi13. For example, Laccocephalum mylittae, commonly known as “native bread”, is a valued edible Australian fungus that increases the production of fruiting bodies after fire14. Many Aboriginal peoples, including the Palawa peoples of Tasmania15 and Noongar peoples of southern Western Australia,9 harvest the fungus soon after fires and consume the fruiting bodies either raw or cooked16.
Aboriginal traditional fire practitioners understand that adjusting the physical conditions of the environment through fire management promotes the productivity of plants such as cycads (Macrozamia communis) and yams. Cycads are an important food resource of many Aboriginal peoples, including the Bama peoples of tropical north Queensland and people of Yuin country of the south coast of New South Wales17. The application of fire on Yuin country improved productivity of cycads after fire treatment with approximately an 8-fold increase in kCal/m2 due to the increased proliferation of seeds18. The Djillong peoples of Wathaurong country in Victoria use the practice of fire-stick farming to fertilise the land prior to planting yams, a staple food resource of the community19. The yam harvest is promoted by tilling and aerating the soil prior to burning in a mosaic pattern, which enables the ash to penetrate through the soil and provide nutrients to the yam plantation.
The application of fire in these environments, to increase the production of food resources, demonstrates the long-held knowledge that Aboriginal peoples have of the physical conditions that particular species within their environment require for growth and survival.
Classroom activity - Science Year 6
In this classroom activity, students will investigate the effect of ash on the germination of native seeds. Ash provides particular nutrients and alters the soil chemistry that facilitates the germination of some native Australian plant species. Students will conduct a hands-on science inquiry to investigate the impact that ash can have on the germination of native seeds and connect this knowledge with their understanding of physical conditions for growth and survival of species.
This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:
- The growth and survival of living things are affected by physical conditions of their environment (ACSSU094)
- Scientific knowledge is used to solve problems and inform personal and community decisions (ACSHE100)
This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 6 in Science:
- explain how scientific knowledge helps us to solve problems and inform decisions and identify historical and cultural contributions
- follow procedures to develop investigable questions and design investigations into simple cause-and-effect relationships
- identify variables to be changed and measured and describe potential safety risks when planning methods
- collect, organise and interpret their data, identifying where improvements to their methods or research could improve the data
Activity - Seed germination
- Students will investigate the effect of ash on the germination of native seeds. Students should be provided with native seeds that do not require pre-treatment for germination. Seeds that have fast germination rates are preferred, so that students can obtain results of the experiment within appropriate timeframes. Banksia spp is a good example of a fast germinating native seed.20
- Students should collect native dry leaf litter from the school environment or home. The leaf litter can be placed in a fire-pit, BBQ, heatproof pot or other appropriate equipment for burning. With the students at a safe distance, the teacher can set fire to the leaf litter, and then allow it to completely burn and cool. Students can collect the cooled ash for use in the inquiry.
- Students should prepare two plastic petri dishes with moistened cotton wool, and place an equal number of native seeds into each of the petri dishes. Ash can be added to one of the petri dishes, keeping the second as an untreated control to compare the effects of germination. The seeds should be kept in a warm area in the classroom and monitored daily for germination. Students will evaluate the effectiveness of ash as a fertiliser by comparing the germination rate of ash-treated seeds with the seeds that did not receive ash-treatment.
- What are the common fire-dependent Australian native flora species that are impacted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional fire practices?
- What are the common fire-sensitive Australian native flora species that are impacted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional fire practices?
- How do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use fire to promote and distribute plants and animals across ecoregions or landscapes?
- How do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use fire to create the right conditions for fire-dependent and fire-sensitive species of flora?
- Under what conditions do particular seeds germinate?
- What is the role of ash in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fire traditions that are used to manage flora and fauna communities in their country?
1 Petty, A. (2012). Introduction to Fire-Stick Farming. Fire Ecology, 8(3), 1–2. https://doi.org/10.4996/fireecology.0803001
2 Jones, R. (2012). Fire-Stick Farming. Fire Ecology. 8(3), 3-8.
4 Petty, A. (2012). Introduction to Fire-Stick Farming. Fire Ecology, 8(3), 1–2. https://doi.org/10.4996/fireecology.0803001
5 Jones, R. (2012). Fire-Stick Farming. Fire Ecology. 8(3), 3-8.
6 Torres Strait Regional Authority. (n.d.). Land and Sea Management Strategy for Torres Strait 2016-2036. Retrieved from http://www.tsra.gov.au/news-and-resources/publications/land-and-sea-management-strategy-for-torres-strait-2016-2036
7 Australian Government. Australia’s Chief Scientist. (n.d.). Are we flushing phosphorus and the future of farming? Retrieved from https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/2010/10/are-we-flushing-phosphorus-and-the-future-of-farming/
8 Dawson, 1881. Australian Aborigines – the language and customs of several tribes of Aborigines in the Western district of Victoria
9 Clarke, P. A. (2012). Australian plants as Aboriginal Tools. Dural: Rosenberg Publishing.
10 Smyth, R. (1878). The aborigines of Victoria : With notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania, compiled from various sources for the Government of Victoria. Melbourne: Govt. Print.
11 North Head Sanctuary Foundation. (n.d.) Aboriginal Use of Plants. Retrieved from http://www.northheadsanctuaryfoundation.org.au/background/Aboriginal.htm
12 Land for Wildlife. (2016). Fire, Flora and Fungi. Retrieved from https://www.lfwseq.org.au/notes/
13 Mcmullan-Fisher, S., May, T., Robinson, R., Bell, T., Lebel, T., Catcheside, P., & York, A. (2011). Fungi and fire in Australian ecosystems: A review of current knowledge, management implications and future directions. Australian Journal Of Botany, 59(1), 70-90.
14 Robinson.R. (2007). Laccocephalum mylittae - Native Bread. The Government of Western Australia. Department of Environment and Conservation.
15 Tasmanian Government. Aboriginal Heritage Tasmania. Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment. (n.d.) Aboriginal Diet.
16 Australian National Botanical Gardens (2013). Aboriginal Use of Fungi. Retrieved from: https://www.anbg.gov.au/fungi/aboriginal.html
17 Asmussen, B. (2009). Another burning question: hunter-gatherer exploitation of Macrozamia spp. Archaeology in Oceania. 44 (3), 142-149.
18 Beaton, J. M. (1982). Fire and Water: Aspects of Australian Aboriginal Management of Cycads. Archaeology in Oceania, 17(1), 51–58. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1834-4453.1982.tb00038.x
19 Djillong. (2019). Land cultivation. Retrieved from http://www.djillong.net.au/traditions/land-cultivation.html
20 See Gardening Australia Fact Sheet on germinating native seeds: https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/germinating-native-seeds/9432212
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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.