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First Land Carers
First Land Carers

About 50 years ago, archaeologist Rhys Jones proposed a new term: ‘fire-stick farming’. Scholars across disciplines were beginning to appreciate that the traditional Aboriginal practice of burning country was in fact a sophisticated land management system which deliberately shaped the ecology of Australia to the direct benefit of Aboriginal people.

'Continuing research has shown just how comprehensive and effective Aboriginal land management systems were in providing a range of foods for harvest, usually in abundance, and in maintaining landscapes that were beautiful, accessible and useful.'

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The term has since been reconsidered because of its ‘farming’ reference to European practices and the implication of Indigenous worthiness through European equivalence. ‘Cultural firing’ or ‘cultural burning’ are now preferred, better capturing the complexity of the practice and the needs it fulfills.

Continuing research has shown just how comprehensive and effective Aboriginal land management systems were in providing a range of foods for harvest, usually in abundance, and in maintaining landscapes that were beautiful, accessible and useful.

New understanding has in large part come from a re-examination of the early colonists’ own records and words; from passages in journals and letters which describe Aboriginal activities and the landscape as it was when first encountered; and from knowledge gained from Aboriginal people who remain on their traditional lands today and maintain their burning regimes for ‘cleaning up Country’.

[Artist: Joseph Lycett], National Library of Australia

Grazing Lands

Over and over again, explorers and settlers remarked that the pleasing and fertile looking vistas which greeted them within and beyond the Sydney Basin closely resembled ‘gentlemen’s parklands’ in England. Large, open grassy areas and ‘natural’ looking stands of trees were very much the fashion in England at the time, created around the gentry’s country houses by sought-after garden designers.

Many locales in Australia as they were first seen were curated – changed and shaped by fire regimes over many generations to provide grazing areas and fresh pick for kangaroos and emus so they could be reliably found on an ongoing, almost rotational basis. The right kind of firing at the right time for the right plants and animals in the right environments also improved soils, kept down scrubby regrowth, and was used by women to increase yields of many other crops like yams and grains.

[Artist: Joseph Lycett], National Library of Australia

Colonial impact

To the Europeans, the inviting countryside away from hilly sandstone areas looked like excellent farming and grazing land. Easily traversed, it was also seemingly easy to take. But resistance, violence and disease continued to follow colonial expansion, and more Aboriginal lives were terribly and irrevocably changed. In some areas, without the comprehensive management of its traditional owners, the land changed too.

After only three or four years of grazing their hard-footed animals and no firing, settlers reported ground compaction and the disappearance of once abundant herbaceous plants and pasture grasses. According to historian TM Perry, as early as the 1810s, John Macarthur’s prime land was ‘choked up in many places by thickets of saplings and large thorn bushes … and the sweet natural herbage had for the most part been replaced by coarse wiry grasses which grew uncropped.’

While some early settlers like WC Wentworth saw the value of burning and did it themselves, declaring it ‘necessary and useful’, they invariably did it poorly. Lacking the nuanced knowledge of Aboriginal practitioners, they often caused more damage, carbonising soils or activating the seeds of unwanted plants.

By the 1820s concern over the declining productivity of colonial landholdings was one of the prompts for the formation of an agricultural society – in retrospect a bitter irony considering the same land had otherwise provided well for its original owners.

What we know about Aboriginal land management and food production

Archaeological, historical and scientific research into Aboriginal land management continues. Some techniques are known to have been remarkably similar continent-wide, while most, logically enough, were locally different to suit specific environments.

Some practices include

  • cultural burning to produce grazing and cropping areas, improve soils and promote selected growth, also for paths and clearings for utility and comfort
  • seed collection
  • turning over of ground in women’s yam fields
  • aquaculture, sometimes using complex systems of fish traps and eel ponds
[Artist: Christiana Susan Dumaresq], Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

'The Royal Agricultural Society of NSW pays its respects to Elders past and present, across New South Wales and Australia, recognising the knowledgeable long-term guardians and traditional owners of this country– the First Australians.'

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Acknowledgement

The RAS of NSW recognises that in the early years of colonisation, Aboriginal people were employed and often forced to work on agricultural or pastoral plots, clearing fields, managing animals, and doing many other farm and domestic jobs. Later, Aboriginal station-hands, station managers, and other employees comprised the backbone of the Australian pastoral industry, albeit without the deserved accolades.

The story of the Easter Show is itself a shared story. Aboriginal champions in woodchop and buckjumping (the forerunner of today’s rodeo) feature throughout the long history of these competitions. Aboriginal station workers would have helped prepare champion animals for entry into the Show, whether or not they accompanied the exhibits to the Show themselves. The entertainment of tent boxers of years past was brought to us by boxers of all races, including Aboriginal champions, who Easter Show audiences flocked to see.

Today’s Sydney Olympic Park Showground is built on the land of the Burramattagal and Wangal People of the Eora Nation. The Royal Agricultural Society of NSW pays its respects to Elders past and present, not just in this locality, but across News South Wales and Australia, recognising the knowledgeable long-term guardians and traditional owners of this country – the First Australians.

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