According to a new research report, the arrival of humans in Australia had no significant impact on the frequency with which fire traversed the continent.
The report is the first to date charcoal deposits back some 70,000 years, making Australasia one of the best-documented regions of the world for the period between about 60,000 and 28,000 years ago.
Many people have held that the arrival of humans to Australia resulted in a fundamental shift to the vegetation and environment through the introduction of regular burnings. However, the research shows that overall fire activity predominantly reflects changes in climate from cool to warm, rather than the arrival of humans.
That being said, the arrival of European colonists after 1788 did, however, result in a substantial increase in fire activity.
“Ideas about prehistoric fire continue to influence debates concerning natural resource management, with suggestions that Aboriginal-like fire management – that is, frequent and low-intensity fires – could prevent some of the massive bushfires we have seen in modern times in Australia,” said palaeoecologist Dr Scott Mooney, of the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, lead author of the research paper published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.
“Yet when we correlate the archaeological evidence of increased human activity over the past 40,000 years with the composite charcoal record, we find no fundamental shift that could be associated with the colonization of Australia by Aboriginal people. While this may seem contrary to prior studies, it should be remembered that it is only very recently that enough charcoal records have become available at a continental scale to analyse them with robust statistical techniques.”
“Australia includes some of the most fire-prone landscapes on Earth and fire has major impacts on the native flora and fauna, on landscape stability and on the cycling of nutrients through soil and water.”
“Rather than prehistoric people, we found that the major driver of fire activity in Australasia has been shifts between warm and cool climatic periods.”