Teacher background information


Year 4 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Earth and space sciences

Earth’s surface changes over time as a result of natural processes and human activity (ACSSU075 - Scootle )

  • considering how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ fire management practices over tens of thousands of years have changed the distribution of flora and fauna in most regions of Australia (OI.3, OI.6)

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to consider the impact of human activity on the Australian continent through the fire management practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The flora and fauna on the surface of the Australian continent have changed over millennia as a result of human activity. Aboriginal Peoples first came to the Australian continent in the late Pleistocene and adapted to life on the unfamiliar Australian continent. While Australia’s First Peoples were adjusting to the new environment and employing scientific practices to gain information about previously unknown species of plant and animal life, the environment was also adjusting to the ecological pressures caused by the arrival of humans. The Australian environment had long adapted to the presence of fire prior to the arrival of humans. However, the arrival of humans altered these fire regimes, and ultimately Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples developed and implemented fire management practices that purposefully changed the distribution of flora and fauna in many environmentally diverse regions of Australia. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to consider these changes to the Earth’s surface over millennia and understand the impact of human involvement through fire-managed environmental changes.

An aspect of paleoecology, the study of past ecosystems, involves the analysis of fossil charcoal and pollen to reconstruct the vegetation and presence of fire in past landscapes. Such analyses of areas of the Australian continent provide the scientific evidence base used to postulate reasons for environmental changes and to reconstruct the Australian landscape over time. During the late Pleistocene the Australian continent was colder and drier than it is today, glaciers existed across the south east of mainland Australia and Tasmania, and sea levels were at their lowest. The large size and climatic diversity of Australia supported a wide range of vegetation. Rainforest vegetation predominated in parts of the Australian continent including the area to the east of the Great Dividing Ranges where rainfall was high and regular. Climatic variation in the late Pleistocene caused the continent to become drier; this resulted in the spread of sclerophyll vegetation to the west of the Great Dividing Range, where rainfall was lower and arid conditions prevailed.

The expansion of sclerophyll vegetation in relation to rainforest vegetation in many parts of the Australian continent, and associated increases in fossil charcoal indicating increased biomass burning, suggest that fire has been a part of the Australian landscape for more than 15 million years. Natural fire has long been a part of the Australian environment, triggered by lightning, volcanic activity or other initiators of combustion. The sclerophyll vegetation and seasonal arid conditions provided fuel that facilitated the maintenance of fire by these natural causes. Parallel increases in fossil charcoal and sclerophyll pollen suggests that the late Pleistocene fires further dried out the environment, favouring the spread of fire-adapted sclerophyll vegetation. Australian fauna has evolved along with fire. Some Australian species such as Eucalyptus spp. reproduce vegetatively after fire, re-sprouting from a dormant bud under the thick bark, while other species, such as Banksia spp., require fire, heat or smoke for seed germination.

The arrival of humans on the Australian continent more than 60,000 years ago further altered the habitat balance of ecosystems as flora and fauna adjusted to respond to the presence of human activity. Charcoal evidence in lakes and swamps in Australia suggests an increase in landscape burning approximately 40,000 years ago, coinciding with human activity. In north eastern and northern Australia charcoal records indicate an increase in landscape burning and vegetation change that may suggest evidence of Aboriginal Peoples’ fire management regimes. Frequent application of fire to the environment can result in permanent vegetation changes through alterations to the physical and chemical properties of the soil, changes to the moisture holding capacity of the soil, and an impact on species germination. Such environmental changes favour the growth of more open sclerophyll vegetation.

Fire regimes implemented by the Jirrbal Peoples in the Atherton Tablelands region of north Queensland about 45,000 years ago resulted in sustained replacement of drier rainforest vegetation with sclerophyll vegetation. The charcoal analysis of this region shows an increase in the presence of fire and an absence of significant climatic factors that could account for the change, leading researchers to interpret the vegetation change to be the result of Aboriginal fire management. Similarly, an increase in fire activity by the Gundangara and Ngunnawal Peoples of the Lake George region near Canberra, as evidenced in charcoal and pollen records, may have caused a shift from evergreen vegetation to eucalypt woodland.

Contemporary science acknowledges that vegetation changes that were the result of natural fire prior to the human occupation of Australia have been understood and utilised by Aboriginal Peoples for tens of thousands of years. There is a belief that these fire regimes were responsible for the Australian landscape that was documented at the time of early European exploration.

When Australia’s First Peoples arrived on the continent, the landscape was populated by megafauna, a group of large land animals that existed in the last 2.5 million years. In Australia, many species of megafauna became extinct approximately 46,000 years ago in the late Pleistocene. However, not all Australian megafauna is extinct; the red kangaroo, cassowary, emu and crocodiles are all species of megafauna that exist on the Australian continent today. The reason/s for the demise of many species of megafauna in Australia remains contested by scientists as research continues to investigate the cause/s of extinction. One hypothesis is that the burning of the landscape that altered the vegetation types, whether by Aboriginal Peoples or natural causes, diminished the food supply for the megafauna and led to their extinction. Other hypotheses include climate change that led to an increase in arid conditions and less surface water availability, anthropogenic pressures following the arrival of humans to the Australian continent, and various combinations of these theories.

Recent scientific research provided evidence that Aboriginal Australians co-existed with some extinct megafauna for at least 17,000 years and possibly up to 30,000 years. Fossil remains of the wombat-like marsupial Zygomaturus trilobus recovered from the lands of the Muthi Muthi, Nyiampaar and Barkindji Peoples of the Willandra Lakes region in far west New South Wales have been dated to 33,000 years ago, while the presence of humans in the region is dated to 50,000 years ago. Further association of megafauna and Aboriginal Peoples is evidenced by the depictions of the large marsupials in iconographic records. A painting of the large emu-like bird, Genyornis newtoni, is depicted in the caves of the Jawoyn Peoples in western Arnhem Land and a representation of a marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, is evident on the lands of the Wenamba and Gamberre Peoples in the Admiralty Gulf region of Western Australia. While recent scientific investigations associate fire with changes to both the plant and animal life on the Australian continent, the extent and significance of the impact is yet to be fully explained.

The current geological epoch, the Holocene, commenced approximately 12,000 years ago at the end of the last glacial period. At this time the climate changed, becoming wetter and warmer. Sea levels rose, inundating the coastal regions of the continent and isolating Tasmania from the mainland. Aboriginal Peoples’ records and contemporary science clearly demonstrate the longevity of the controlled and skilful application of fire to maintain the landscape. Carefully considered Aboriginal fire use is important in maintaining the function of ecosystems. Aboriginal fire regimes, including the application of frequent, low intensity fires, remove the woody understory of the landscape, prevent fuel accumulation, allow grasses and tubers to flourish, increase the productivity of important food resources such as cycads, and protect fire-sensitive vegetation. In Aboriginal fire regimes, fire is purposely applied in a mosaic pattern so that nearby unburnt areas of land can provide refuge for wildlife. This practice enhances habitat diversity.

The significance of ecosystem management through the continued fire management practices of Aboriginal Peoples is evidenced by the Dukaladjarranj Peoples of north-central Arnhem Land. The Dukaladjarranj Peoples have used fire regimes to manage the Country of which they have had unbroken custody, and this has ensured abundant and diverse plant and animal species. The scientific knowledge that underpins the continued application of long-practised fire regimes fulfils cultural obligations to the land and maintains healthy ecological distribution of native flora and fauna in the region.

European colonisation of the Australian continent resulted in changes of flora and fauna distribution caused by the suppression of Aboriginal Peoples’ fire-based agricultural practices and the clearance of vast tracts of lands for European agricultural practices. Research has shown that when long-held Aboriginal fire management practices were disrupted there were significant ecological effects. For example, the Leadbeater's possum, believed to have evolved about 20 million years ago, is now critically endangered. A wildfire that swept through the possums’ habitat in the central highlands region of Victoria caused massive population decline in an already endangered species. Wildfires can be the result of a loss of Aboriginal fire management regimes; carefully controlled fuel loads can prevent uncontrolled wildfires. Ecological changes in this region through the disruption of the necessary Aboriginal fire regimes have changed the habitat structure, reducing the availability of suitable habitats for mammals. Since European colonisation, 30 Australian land mammal species have become extinct. Although there is no single cause that can be attributed to these extinctions, the suppression or removal of Aboriginal fire regimes are thought to be a significant contributing factor.

Areas of Australia’s savanna regions provide further evidence of the impact of Aboriginal fire management practices. The lack of Aboriginal fire management has resulted in the decline of the cypress pine, an ethnobotanically important species that requires very specific fire management to sustain healthy populations. The cypress pine has long been used by the Tiwi Peoples medicinally and as an insect repellent. Fire ecologist Bowman’s evaluation of fire management in northern Australia that has affected the cypress pine led to the conclusion that “conservation of biodiversity in Northern Australia will hinge on land managers returning to fire regimes that approximate those used by Aboriginal people” (1995).

Similarly, on Saibai Island in the Torres Strait, the reinstatement of fire management practices is conducted to suit Saibai’s unique fire adapted habitats and regimes. These are carefully considered and respond directly to the unique habitat structure that exists as a result of fire regimes implemented long prior to colonisation. Saibai Elder, Mebai Warusam, has contributed to the body of knowledge for the reinstatement of effective fire regimes suitable to the vegetation of Saibai that differs from mainland Australia. Prior to colonisation, fires were purposefully set within a narrow seasonal window (September–October), were of greater intensity and covered larger areas than fires used on mainland Australia. It is now acknowledged that the habitats of Saibai are a product of this more intensive burning regime. Maintenance of these habitats, which support a diverse range of flora and fauna species, will depend on the reinstatement of burning practices that mimic those of the original fire practitioners.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to consider how the fire regimes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples over millennia have changed the distribution of flora and fauna on the Australian continent. The Earth’s surface changes as a result of human interaction, and in Australia, fire management practices implemented by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have influenced the diversity of vegetation and wildlife. Students can learn about the impact of human arrival on the Australian continent, the impact of fire (or removal of fire) on the environment for tens of thousands of years, and the resulting ecological changes. Students can also learn how current environmental fire management strategies are being informed by the long-held scientific knowledges of Australia’s first fire practitioners.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Australian Museum. (2019). Megafauna. Retrieved from https://australianmuseum.net.au/learn/australia-over-time/megafauna/

Bird, M., Hutley, L., Lawes, M., Lloyd, J., Luly, J., Ridd, P., . . . Wurster, C. (2013). Humans, megafauna and environmental change in tropical Australia. Journal of Quaternary Science, 28(5), 439-452.

Bowman, D. (1995). Why the skillful use of fire is critical for the management of biodiversity in Northern Australia. In Rose, D. B. (Ed.), Paper presented at Country in flames: Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia.

Bowman, D. M. J. S., & Panton, W. J. (1993). Decline of Callitris intratropica R. T. Baker & H. G. Smith in the Northern Territory: Implications for pre- and post-European colonization fire regimes. Journal of Biogeography, 20(4), 373-381.Bowman, D., & Prior, L. (2004).

Impact of Aboriginal landscape burning on woody vegetation in Eucalyptus tetrodonta savanna in Arnhem Land, northern Australia. Journal of Biogeography, 31(5), 807-817.

Bradstock, R. A., Williams, J. E. & Gill, M. A. (2002). Flammable Australia: The fire regimes and biodiversity of a continent. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brook, B. W., Bradshaw, C. J., Cooper, A., Johnson, C. N., Worthy, T. H., Bird, M., ... & Roberts, R. G. (2013). Lack of chronological support for stepwise prehuman extinctions of Australian megafauna. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(36), E3368.

Clark, R. (1983). Pollen and charcoal evidence for the effects of Aboriginal burning on the vegetation of Australia. Archaeology in Oceania, 18(1), 32-37.

Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Tasmania. (2010). Fire management: Fire, flora and fauna. Retrieved from https://www.parks.tas.gov.au/file.aspx?id=6525

Flannery, T. (1990). Pleistocene faunal loss: Implications of the aftershock for Australia's past and future. Archaeology in Oceania, 25(2), 45-55.

Flannery, T. (2012). After the future: Australia's new extinction crisis. Quarterly Essay, (48), 1-80.

Gorecki, P., Horton, D., Stern, N., & Wright, R. (1984). Coexistence of humans and megafauna in Australia: Improved stratified evidence. Archaeology in Oceania, 19(3), 117-119.

Gunn, R. G., Douglas, L. C., & Whear, R. L. (2011). What bird is that? Identifying a probable painting of Genyornis newtoni in western Arnhem Land. Australian Archaeology, 73(1), 12.

Head, L. (1996). Rethinking the prehistory of hunter-gatherers, fire and vegetation change in northern Australia. The Holocene, 6(4), 481-487.

Hiscock, P. (2007). Archaeology of ancient Australia. London: Routledge.

Horton, D. R. (1982). The burning question: Aborigines, fire and Australian ecosystems. Mankind, 13(3), 237-252.

Johnson, C. (2016). Fire, people and ecosystem change in Pleistocene Australia. Australian Journal of Botany, 64(8), 643-651.

Jones, R. (1968). The geographical background to the arrival of man in Australia and Tasmania. Archaeology & Physical Anthropology in Oceania, 3(3), 186-215.

Jones, R. (1969). Fire-stick farming. Australian Natural History, 16, 224-226.

Kershaw, A. (1983). A Holocene pollen diagram from Lynch’s Crater, north-eastern Queensland, Australia. New Phytologist, 94(4), 669-682.

Kershaw, A. (1986). Climatic change and Aboriginal burning in north-east Australia during the last two glacial/interglacial cycles. Nature, 322(6074), 47-49.

Kershaw, P., van der Kaars, S., Moss, P. T., & Opdyke, B. N., Guichard, F. Rule, S. & Turney, Chris. (2006). Environmental change and the arrival of people in the Australian region. Before Farming, 1, 1-24.

Kohen, J. (1996). The impact of fire: An historical perspective. Retrieved from http://anpsa.org.au/APOL3/sep96-1.html

Lopes Dos Santos, R., De Deckker, P., Hopmans, E., Magee, J., Mets, A., Sinninghe Damsté, J., & Schouten, S. (2013). Abrupt vegetation change after the Late Quaternary megafaunal extinction in southeastern Australia. Nature Geoscience, 6(8), 627-631.

Lourandos, H. (1987). Pleistocene Australia: Peopling a continent. In O. Soffer (Ed.), The Pleistocene Old World Regional Perspectives (Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology). Boston, MA: Springer US.

Miller, G., Fogel, M., Magee, J., Gagan, M., Clarke, S., & Johnson, B. (2005). Ecosystem collapse in Pleistocene Australia and a human role in megafaunal extinction. Science, 309(5732), 287-290.

Miller, G. H., Magee, J. W., Johnson, B. J., Fogel, M. L., Spooner, N. A., McCulloch, M. T., & Ayliffe, L. K. (1999). Pleistocene extinction of Genyornis newtoni: Human impact on Australian megafauna. Science, 283(5399), 205-208.

Mooney, S. D., Harrison, S. P., Bartlein, P. J., Daniau, A. L., Stevenson, J., Brownlie, K. C., ... & Colhoun, E. (2011). Late Quaternary fire regimes of Australasia. Quaternary Science Reviews, 30(1-2), 28-46.

Moser, S. (1992). Visions of the Australian Pleistocene: Prehistoric life at Lake Mungo and Kutikina. Australian Archaeology, 35(1), iv-10.

O’Connell, J., & Alien, J. (2012). Forum the restaurant at the end of the universe: Modelling the colonisation of Sahui. Australian Archaeology, 74(1), 5-31.

Petty, A. (2012). Introduction to fire-stick farming. Fire Ecology, 8(3), 1-2.

Pyne, S. (1998). Burning bush: A fire history of Australia. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Romanin, L., Hopf, F., Haberle, S., & Bowman, D. (2016). Fire regime and vegetation change in the transition from Aboriginal to European land management in a Tasmanian eucalypt savanna. Australian Journal of Botany, 64(5), 427-440.

Rule, S., Brook, B., Haberle, S., Turney, C., Kershaw, A., & Johnson, C. (2012). The aftermath of megafaunal extinction: Ecosystem transformation in Pleistocene Australia. Science, 335(6075), 1483-1486.

Singh, G., Opdyke, N., & Bowler, J. (1981). Late Cainozoic stratigraphy, palaeomagnetic chronology and vegetational history from Lake George, N.S.W. Journal of the Geological Society of Australia, 28(3-4), 435-452.

Stahle, L. N., Chin, H., Haberle, S., & Whitlock, C. (2017). Late-glacial and Holocene records of fire and vegetation from Cradle Mountain National Park, Tasmania, Australia. Quaternary Science Reviews, 177, 57-77.

Torres Strait Regional Authority. (2013). Profile for ecological fire management of Saibai Island. Retrieved from http://www.tsra.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/5884/TSRA-Saibai-Proposed-Fire-Management-v1.pdf

Turney, C. S. M., Kershaw, A. P., Moss, P., Bird, M. I., Fifield, L. K., Cresswell, R. G., ... & Zhou, Y. (2001). Redating the onset of burning at Lynch's Crater (North Queensland): Implications for human settlement in Australia. Journal of Quaternary Science, 16(8), 767-771.

Vanderwal, R., & Fullagar, R. (1989). Engraved "Diprotodon" tooth from the Spring Creek locality, Victoria. Archaeology in Oceania, 24(1), 13-16.

Westaway, M., Olley, J., & Grün, R. (2017). At least 17,000 years of coexistence: Modern humans and megafauna at the Willandra Lakes, south-eastern Australia. Quaternary Science Reviews, 157, 206-211.

Westaway, M., Olley, J. & Grun, R. (2017, January 12). Aboriginal Australians co-existed with the megafauna for at least 17,000 years. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/aboriginal-australians-co-existed-with-the-megafauna-for-at-least-17-000-years-70589

Woinarski, J. C. Z., Burbidge, A. H., & Harrison, P. L. (2015). Ongoing unravelling of a continental fauna: Decline and extinction of Australian mammals since European settlement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(15), 4531-4540.

Wroe, S., Field, J. H., Archer, M., Grayson, D. K., Price, G. J., Louys, J., . . . Mooney, S. D. (2013). Climate change frames debate over the extinction of megafauna in Sahul (Pleistocene Australia-New Guinea). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(22), 8777-8781.

Wroe, S., Field, J. H., Archer, M., Grayson, D. K., Price, G. J., Louys, J. . . . Mooney, S. D. (2013). Reply to Brook et al: No empirical evidence for human overkill of megafauna in Sahul. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(36), E3369.

Yibarbuk, D., Whitehead, P. J., Russell‐Smith, J., Jackson, D., Godjuwa, C., Fisher, A., ... & Bowman, D. M. J. S. (2001). Fire ecology and Aboriginal land management in central Arnhem Land, northern Australia: A tradition of ecosystem management. Journal of Biogeography, 28(3), 325-343.

Zylstra, P. (2006). Fire history of the Australian Alps: Prehistory to 2003. Canberra, A.C.T.: Department of the Environment and Water Resources.