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The "Fire Stick Farming" Hypothesis: Austrailian Aboriginal Foraging Strategies, Biodiversity, and Anthropogenic Fire Mosaics


Aboriginal burning in Australia has long been assumed to be a “resource
management” strategy, but no quantitative tests of this hypothesis have
ever been conducted. We combine ethnographic observations of
contemporary Aboriginal hunting and burning with satellite image
analysis of anthropogenic and natural landscape structure to demonstrate
the processes through which Aboriginal burning shapes arid-zone
vegetational diversity. Anthropogenic landscapes contain a greater
diversity of successional stages than landscapes under a lightning fire
regime, and differences are of scale, not of kind. Landscape scale is
directly linked to foraging for small, burrowed prey (monitor lizards),
which is a specialty of Aboriginal women. The maintenance of small-scale
habitat mosaics increases small-animal hunting productivity. These
results have implications for understanding the unique biodiversity of
the Australian continent, through time and space. In particular,
anthropogenic influences on the habitat structure of paleolandscapes are
likely to be spatially localized and linked to less mobile,
“broad-spectrum” foraging economies.