Environmental knowledge and land management

Staying alive in the desert

Of all the environments that Indigenous people live in, perhaps the most difficult to survive in is the desert environment. Deserts usually have average annual rainfall of 250 mm or less. They support a community of distinctive plants and animals specially adapted to the harsh environment.

There are few rivers in the desert and the water flows in them infrequently. Drainage in these catchments is internal – water flowing in the rivers disappears either into the ground or by evaporation. Waterholes or billabongs are the last places for permanent water and are essential for the survival of the native fishes. Soaks for water could be dug in the riverbed.

Before the colonisation of Australia, Indigenous peoples occupied almost all of arid Australia. Although many of the groups moved into communities during the 1900s, most still have spiritual connections with their lands and they now make use of modern technologies such as cars and light aircraft to revisit their traditional lands.

Traditional life was nomadic; most Aboriginal groups moved around their clan estates, usually following a pattern of availability of food resources. In the desert, resources are more widely distributed, so to western eyes there often seemed to be no pattern at all in their movements. However, availability of water was the basis of peoples’ movement. Their knowledge of the landscape and good navigation skills meant the people were usually able to move to adequate water, as well as learning its location through stories and song.

Permanent water could often be found in rockpools, and the Aboriginals were more likely to stay at these places longer and carried out their ceremonial life, perhaps with neighbouring clans. The chasms in the ranges around Alice Springs were such meeting places. Elsewhere rockpools were not as obvious, and some of them are simply cavities in the rock. Sometimes the people reduced water loss by evaporation, perhaps simply by placing a large stone over the opening. Eventually the demands of a larger group would mean that the water would start to run short, so the people would move back to their homelands and look for other sources.

Sometimes permanent water could be found in desert waterholes or wells by digging down into the ground. Aboriginals would revisit many of these all the time. The presence of particular plants could also be used to indicate that water was nearby, and the people would dig waterholes or soaks to get to the water. Water would seep slowly into the bottom of the hole and some kinds of grasses would be in it to act as a filter against mud and dirt.

Various types of container were used to carry water on the journeys between water sources. For example, when they were moving from one waterhole to the next, the Walmajarri people of northern Western Australia would use special coolamons. Grasses were put in the coolamon to stop the water from slopping about and spilling. At the same time, it helped keep the water cool even on a hot day. Some other desert people used sewn-up kangaroo skins to carry water.

Aboriginal uses of fire

We know now that Aboriginal people made use of fire for a variety of reasons:

Fire as a management tool: caring for country

One of the main species of plants found across Australia are the eucalypts (or gum) trees – there are over 700 species. The leaves of gum trees, especially in the southern parts of Australia, contain flammable oils. Dead leaves and branches fall off the trees and gather on ground around them over a few years, forming what scientists call a fuel load. When fires occur, as they often do in the hot summer months in the southern Australia, they can burn using up the fuel load around the trunks of the trees. If there is a lot of fuel, the fire might spread into the top of the trees, bursting it into flames. Winds, dry weather and high temperatures can make the bushfires uncontrollable and terrifying. 

In some parts of Australia, Aboriginal people still use fire to manage their land and its forests. Instead of allowing the fuel load to build up, they light fires when there is little by way of fuel load and the weather is not going to cause the fire to get out of control. This produces what is known as a cool fire, which does less damage to the trees and cleans up the land. Cool fires also help with seed germination in some plants. The people see managing fire as part of their responsibility as custodians of the land.

Aboriginal fire management is used in some of the national parks in northern Australia, like Kakadu National Park to stop bushfires from getting out of control. When Sydney was settled, Aboriginal burning ceased. The fuel load began to build up in the forests and the fires began to burn uncontrollably. It is only now that we are starting to understand the science behind the Aborigines’ management practices. It has been suggested that this should be done in some of the parks and bushland areas in southern Australia to prevent bushfires there.

Activity: Fire management

Aborigines  and “firestick” farming

Indigenous people use fire to help grow new shoots on plants and attract animals for food, rather than digging up fields and planting crops. They use a range of native plants, including fruits, seeds and roots of many trees, shrubs and grasses. The kind of farming used by Aborigines is sometimes called “firestick” farming. It is used for a variety of purposes:

Activity: Making fire


Aboriginal use of mangroves


Back to Areas of interest Last updated: 25 June 2005