When the first Europeans arrived in Australia in 1788, they described skies black with birds and waters black with fish. They also encountered a new type of human – one that they considered savage and unlearned, an inferior to them in every way. Little did the first settlers realise that the huge profusion they witnessed in nature was closely connected to the expert land management of the Aboriginal people they considered inferior. These ‘savages’ had created a sustainable abundance of food that the settlers could only dream of. It is a picture which runs contrary to our stereotypical western viewpoint, even today.
“The abundance that Europeans encountered speaks for itself,” says professor Bill Gammage of the Australian National University, a historian and writer of several books on Aborigines.
“To achieve that I daresay Aboriginal society had a lot to learn. What we’re talking about is a fairly well perfected state by 1788.”
But how had Aborigines achieved this sustainable abundance and what lessons could we learn from them still?
Another thing early settlers noticed was that the Australian landscape resembled a well-managed park, with areas of grassland interspersed with patches of open woodland. Little did they know that it looked like a park because that was exactly how the Aborigines had designed it – the ultimate wildlife park or, as Gammage’s book describes it, ‘the biggest estate on earth’. The Aborigines had moulded the landscape to create, according to Gammage:
“Essentially a system to try and keep all life in balance by distributing vegetation on the land to make habitats which all species preferred.”
Management of the landscape was done on a species by species basis. So the nice European- style parks witnessed by the settlers would have been ideal habitat for kangaroos who like to eat fresh green grass, and also need patches of open woodland for shelter and to escape predators. And Aborigines didn’t just manage the land, they carefully controlled the population of all its inhabitants too.
“They’d have conservation reserves,” says Gammage, “they’d call them ‘totem places’ where it was forbidden to hunt or interfere with the habitat of particular plants and animals.”
Aborigines would also ban hunting particular species when they noticed a drop in numbers. This was not just astute management but an integral part of the Aboriginal respect for every living organism.
“Every species is a totem,” explains Gammage. “The only way it can be alive is if a creator ancestor created it, and that creator ancestor is the founder of the totem. So a human will represent a species and its habitat, and I mean every species.”
Each Aborigine is assigned a totem from birth and might pick up others by showing a special affinity with them. They become experts in the ways of their totems and are responsible for monitoring the health and wellbeing of those species and their habitats. And it’s not just the glamorous species that get this attention, Gammage has an Aboriginal friend in Central Australia whosetotemismaggots.
“It’s all part of the web of life,” he explains. “It’s a sort of 24- hour alertness to the wellbeing by each of these specialists to how their creatures are getting on.”
It was this skilled stewardship of the land and its inhabitants that made Aborigines immune to one of modern Australia’s biggest environmental problems – bush fires. Hundreds of people have died and thousands of homes have been destroyed by bush fires in the last hundred years, and the problem seems to be getting worse. It culminated in the 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ fires, Australia’s worst ever bush fire disaster, which killed 173 people and destroyed over a million acres of land.
Evidence suggests that Aborigines never suffered these kinds of disaster. According to professor Gammage:
“These bush fires couldn’t have existed before Europeans came in 1788. They can travel up to 180 miles per hour. No one could possibly outrun them and yet Aborigines did survive them. There are no big breaks from bush fires in their genealogies or anything like that.”
Ironically it was the Aborigines’ own expert use of fire which protected them from its most harmful effects. It was fire that Aborigines used to clear the land to provide the park-like landscapes that the settlers observed. And it was these same landscapes, with their patchwork of woodland and grassland, that acted as a giant natural fire break. In fact the Aborigines’ control over fire was so expert that it astonished the first Europeans and still surpasses our own.
“Their expertise is beyond what most non-Aboriginal people can imagine,” says Gammage. “There’s stories of them saying, ‘we’ll light a fire at this particular time and it’ll stop on the crest of that hill’, and they’d be right.”
So, like the first European settlers, do we still believe we are superior to the native inhabitants of Australia? Are we still arrogant enough to believe they have nothing to teach us?
Modern Australia suffers uncontrollable bush fires that kill dozens of people and destroy property every year. The Aborigines had total mastery over fires in nature. Meanwhile European settlers have presided over the extinction of no less than 30 land mammals since 1788 – over 10 per cent of Australia’s land mammal species. Aborigines not only protected Australian wildlife, but made it thrive so much the skies and waters were black with birds and fish. Not to mention the sustainability of their own culture which is thought to have endured for 40–60,000 years. By comparison our own society could be set to extinguish itself and all other life in merely a few centuries. We have undoubtedly been successful. But it’s not necessarily what Aborigines would recognise as success, and they might ultimately be right. As professor Gammage says:
“Aborigines were operating in a system where people were balanced against other species. We’ve let that get out of kilter and that’s a big challenge that I don’t think even the Aborigines could have handled.”
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