Australian Journal of Botany Australian Journal of Botany Society
Southern hemisphere botanical ecosystems
RESEARCH FRONT

A framework for testing the influence of Aboriginal burning on grassy ecosystems in lowland, mesic south–eastern Australia

Paul W. Foreman
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Vic. 3086, Australia. Email: P.Foreman@latrobe.edu.au

Australian Journal of Botany 64(8) 626-642 https://doi.org/10.1071/BT16081
Submitted: 20 April 2016  Accepted: 17 October 2016   Published: 15 November 2016

Abstract

The complex interactions among climate, soils, fire and humans in the biogeography of natural grasslands has long been debated in Australia. On the one hand, ecological models assume the primacy of climate and soils. On the other, Aboriginal burning is hypothesised to have altered the entire continent since before the last glacial maximum. The present paper develops a framework to test for the ‘fingerprint’ of Aboriginal burning in lowland, mesic grassy ecosystems of south-eastern Australia, using ecological theory, and the ethno-historical record. It is clear that fire-stick farming was used to promote staple roots in south-eastern Australia and, in some instances, it has been shown to influence grassland–woodland boundaries. The framework comprises the following three evidence lines: (1) archival benchmarking and palaeoecology; (2) phytoecology; and (3) ethnology and archaeology. That fire-stick farming was likely instrumental in grassland formation and maintenance must be supported by evidence that shows that ‘natural’ grasslands exist in climatically–edaphically unexpected places, that fine-scale patterns and dynamics are at least partly due to fire and that the fire regime has been influenced by Aboriginal burning. Application of the framework indicated that widespread Aboriginal burning for staple foods likely extended the area of temperate grasslands and influenced their structure and function.

Additional keywords: ethno-historical record, grassland–woodland boundaries.


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