The 1840 Western Port journey and Aboriginal fire history in the grassy ecosystems of lowland, mesic south-eastern Australia Academic Article uri icon


  • The historic influence of human fire and the role of ‘top-down’ vs ‘bottom-up’ drivers on ecosystems globally is highly contested, and our knowledge of regime diversity is poor. This paper uses an early European account as a case study to describe Aboriginal fire history in south-eastern Australia based on links between fire and: grasslands, native foods and culture. The route and observations detailed in Assistant Protector William Thomas’ 1840 account of a journey led by Aborigines to Western Port, Victoria, were overlayed with grass-tree boundaries compiled from historic plans. The narrative provides direct evidence of up to moderate-scale and intensity burns (with minimal fine-scale patchiness), undertaken in the height of the dry season, opportunistically linked to rainfall. The fires targeted open grassy ‘plains’ to maintain and access preferred hunter-gathering grounds. A synthesis of the earliest records supports high frequency anthropogenic burning maintaining alternative vegetation states with dynamic boundaries on elevated alluvial plains and, in places, adjoining swamps. The narrative represents an important primary source for studying traditional society, including the description of a local historic fire regime (‘koyuga burning’). Establishing such a fire regime ‘benchmark’ has the potential to stimulate new interdisciplinary research around the complex processes controlling grass-tree patterns, and build confidence that fire-stick farming was potentially instrumental in grassland formation, and integral to grassland maintenance throughout this region.

publication date

  • 2020