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Ann Fernholm

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Australia’s indigenous people used to tame nature with fire and produced a luscious grass for the wildlife

Australia stands in flames. This is largely due to extreme drought and heat, but that is not the whole picture. The bushy landscape that is now burning is also a result of colonization and that the knowledge the indigenous people of Australia had about how the land should be used has deteriorated.

In school books, people who live as hunters and gatherers have been portrayed as simple Stone Age people, who chase their prey with spears and collect nuts in the wild. During my month-long trip here in Australia, I have realized that this picture is not only incomplete, it’s incorrect.

On the one hand I have met people from the Yolngu people (we’ll return to that), and on the other hand I have read the book The Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, which has received a lot of attention in Australia. The book sheds light on how European colonizers have repeatedly  undermised indigenous peoples ability to farm the land and instead developed technical solutions to increase yields.

A more advanced society than we’ve understood

Bruce Pascoe bases the book on diaries and texts from the first settlers in Australia, who testify about elongated cultivated fields, haystacks and stocks of grain from native grasslands. The settlers describe villages with houses, traps for fishing, fields with yams and irrigation systems.

They also portray the landscape as open and lush, similar to back home in the UK. But when they brutally take over the lands and start using them with European methods, much is destroyed within a few years. The colonizers grow wheat, and release sheep and cattle on the great plains. The animals trample and graze the ground, which quickly loses its fertility.

The bushy landscape, which developed largely due to the settlers, contributes today as to why southern Australia is in flames. Australia’s indigenous people have used annual fires to tame nature. Halfway into the dry season, when the grass is still green, they light a fire. It burns dry shrubs that grow under the trees, but never gets so hot that it reaches the tree canopy.

The picture that Pascoe gives in the book was confirmed when I was up in Darwin. There they still burn the fields annually.

The fire gave way to the grass to grow

In the open eucalyptus forest that the fire creates, the grass thrives. It provided food for kangaroos, wallabies, emus, goannas and other edible animals that roamed freely through the forest. Then when the animals had eaten themselves fat, they were hunted.

According to Pascoe, one reason why they stopped burning bushes in southern Australia is that they put up miles with fences around their fields. These do not withstand fire. As a result, the forests have grown again, which together with the drought and the unusual heat contribute to today’s devastating fires.

A justification of the injustice

Australia’s indigenous peoples are one of the oldest peoples on earth. Of course, they developed smart methods for a stable food supply. But historians and archaeologists have in various ways painted over the evidence of this existence. Pascoe uses the thesis that they wanted to justify the colonization of Australia. If Aboriginal people were only primitive hunters, then the settlers would have had more right to take possession of the land than if the indigenious people were residents who already cultivated it.

The book provides a lot to reflect over how our imperialist European culture works. Add The Dark Emu, to your reading list, it’s interesting and relevant to the times!

This is a guest post. The opinions expressed are the writer’s own.

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