Human Ecology

, Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 159-195

First online:

Aboriginal Resource Utilization and Fire Management Practice in Western Arnhem Land, Monsoonal Northern Australia: Notes for Prehistory, Lessons for the Future

  • Jeremy Russell-SmithAffiliated withCooperative Research Centre for Tropical Savannas, Bushfires Council NT
  • , Diane LucasAffiliated with
  • , Minnie GapindiAffiliated withGagadju Association
  • , Billy GunbunukaAffiliated withGagadju Association
  • , Nipper KapirigiAffiliated withGagadju Association
  • , George NamingumAffiliated withGagadju Association
  • , Kate LucasAffiliated withCooperative Research Centre for Tropical Savannas, Bushfires Council NT
  • , Pina GiulianiAffiliated withNorthern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences
  • , George ChaloupkaAffiliated withNorthern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences

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This paper considers traditional resources and fire management practices of Aboriginal people living in a near-coastal region of western Arnhem Land, monsoonal northern Australia. The data illustrate that before the arrival of Europeans freshwater floodplains and riverine habitats provided the major proportion of food resources over much of the seasonal cycle. By contrast, the extensive lowland woodlands and open forests, the sparser vegetation of the Arnhem Land escarpment and plateau, and the generally small patches of rain forest (“jungle”), provided relatively few resources, although jungle yams were of critical importance through the relatively lean wet season. The paper then considers burning as a management tool through the seasonal cycle. In broad terms, burning commenced in the early dry season and was applied systematically and purposefully over the landscape. Burning in the late dry season was undertaken with care, and resumed in earnest with the onset of the first storms of the new wet season, particularly on floodplains. These general patterns of resource use and fire management are shown to have applied widely over much of near-coastal northern Australia. The implications of these data for prehistory and for contemporary land management practices in the region, are considered. It is suggested that pre-European patterns of fire management in the region are likely to have been practiced only over the past few thousand years, given the development of abundant food resources in the late Holocene. It is shown that traditional burning practice offers a generally useful, conservative model for living in and managing a highly fire-prone savanna environment.

northern Australia Arnhem Land Australian Aborigine food resources yams fire management floodplains savanna monsoon rain forest