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Keywords:

  • human impact;
  • megafaunal extinction;
  • tropical palaeoclimate;
  • fire regime;
  • ecosystem change

ABSTRACT

Debate concerning the environmental impact of human arrival in Australia has continued for more than a century. Here we review the evidence for human impact and the mechanisms by which humans may have affected the environment of tropical Australia. We limit our review to tropical Australia because, over three decades ago, it was proposed that the imposition of an anthropogenic fire regime upon human occupation of the Australian continent may have resulted in profound changes in regional vegetation and climate across this region. We conclude that ecological processes and vegetation–fire–climate–human feedbacks do exist that could have driven a significant shift in boundary conditions and ecosystem state at the sub-continental scale through the sustained imposition of an anthropogenic fire regime over tens of millennia. These potential feedbacks operate through the inhibition of forest expansion both directly, by targeted burning at established forest edges and newly irrupted forest patches, and indirectly, through lengthening of the dry season because of changes to the timing of burning. However, the impact of any such anthropogenic forcing may have been entirely overshadowed by the effects of natural climate change and variability, as well as the generally low nutrient status of Australian soils. A robust assessment of the degree to which the environment of tropical Australia at the large scale has been modified from its ‘natural’ state because of human occupation will require new, coordinated collaborations between indigenous traditional landowners, archaeologists, anthropologists, geochronologists, geoscientists, ecologists, climatologists and modellers.