The popular notion that Aborigines carried out widespread burning of the Australian landscape is a myth, research shows.
A study of charcoal records has found that the arrival of the first Australians about 50,000 years ago did not result in significantly greater fire activity across the continent.
An international team of scientists led by Scott Mooney, of the University of NSW, analysed results from more than 220 sites in Australasia dating back 70,000 years, the most comprehensive survey so far.
Dr Mooney said their findings challenged a widely held view that frequent use of fire by Aborigines had had a big impact on vegetation and the environment in prehistoric times. Instead, it was the arrival of European colonists more than 200 years ago that led to a substantial increase in fires, the study showed.
”We’ve put the firestick in the wrong hands,” Dr Mooney said. ”The firestick shouldn’t be in Aboriginal people’s hands. It’s really a European thing.”
He said there were often calls after big, destructive bushfires for authorities to carry out Aboriginal-like burnoffs – frequent, low intensity fires – to manage the landscape and prevent further conflagrations.
But this was not based on evidence. The new research showed that climate, not prehistoric people, had had the biggest impact on fire in Australia.
The message was that ”we’re really going to have problems in the future”, he said, referring to rising global temperatures.
Australia has some of the most fire prone landscapes on earth. To help determine the continent’s fire history, researchers have drilled bore holes into old swamp sediments.
They then worked out the charcoal content in different layers, radiocarbon dating them to determine their age.
Dr Mooney and his team of 18 scientists analysed results from 223 sites in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and some islands in the western Pacific. Their study, published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, shows that bushfire activity was high from about 70,000 to 28,000 years ago.
It decreased until about 18,000 years ago, around the time of the last glacial maximum, and then increased again, a pattern consistent with shifts between warm and cool climatic conditions.
”We found no evidence of a change in fire regimes at a continental scale at the time of Aboriginal colonisation,” Dr Mooney said. During the past 2000 years, burning activity was ”remarkably flat, except for the pronounced increase in fire in the past 200 years”.