The Biggest Estate on Earth - How Aborigines made Australia. Gammage, Bill. 2011. Allen and Unwin. ISBN 978174237748

In his 2011 book, "The Biggest Estate on Earth - How Aborigines made Australia", Bill Gammage criticises as myth the idea that Australia was an untouched wilderness prior to white settlement, that it was a never ending sea of green; unkempt, untouched, untamed bushland. He describes how aboriginal Australians used templates to farm without fences and how their mobility enabled them to more closely fit resource use with the nature of the Australian environment.

He particularly emphasises their use of fire to manage and maintain the landscape as a grassland and in a form which maximises productivity of species which Aboriginals wanted. Gammage supports the notion of ‘Fire Stick Farming’, a term coined in 1969 by Rhys Jones.

Without fire and periodical burning the grassland reverts to shrub and then woodland. Fire assists to manage resources and supports access to kangaroos. Through prescriptive fire and water management when seasonal conditions were favourable they had abundant food and leisure and lived in every climate and terrain in the country.

In an interview with the ANU Reporter, Gammage said: “We think of fire as an enemy, as something to be fearful of and treat it carefully. For Aboriginal people it was a totem and it was an ally and they learnt to work with it. They could predict where it would go, how long it would burn for and how hot...Of course, they had to work hard to make that type of landscape. Even so, it is quite clear that Aboriginal people had a lot of time for recreation.”.

He also touches in the book on the role of the totem system and religious obligation in sustainable use of resources, but does not go into the same detail or provide many examples.  

Connection with country and land and roles and responsibilities support sustainable use of resources within the climatic variation that is Australia.

“Over time, and with greater European exploration and control of the continent, Aboriginal people were unable to tend their ‘gardens’. Their parkland became overgrown, unmanaged and wild as European grazing animals took the best lands. Worse, it became increasingly vulnerable to massive bushfires, whose flaming fury Australians are still struggling to learn to deal with today.” And after two centuries of European rule, Gammage says that the landscape will never be the same as it was before European settlement: “We are going to have to make the best compromise we can with our European past. And hopefully we will learn some of the lessons that Aboriginal people can teach us about how to manage what, for us, is still a foreign country...Can we ever go back to 1788? No. Europeans are too many, too arrogant, too comfortable, too complacent and too successful to ever imagine reverting to a pre-farming existence such as Aboriginal people had.”

The book is a work of great scholarship taking ten years in preparation during which Gammage carefully read explorers diaries and other records which are referred to in a 25 page bibliography and reference list.

In an Appendix, however, Gamage finds it necessary to defend his methods as a historian from criticism by scientists who want greater evidence and a more rigorous experimental approach. He addresses scientists who either deny his hypothesis completely, others who minimise its impact and those who accept it but the doubt his evidence or methods.

An interview with Professor Bill Gammage on the Australian National University channel at YouTube at: bit.ly/rep_parklife.

George Wilson MVSc PhD is Adjunct Professor at the Fenner School of Environment & Society.