• Burning;
  • historical accounts, landscape change;
  • land management;
  • savanna;
  • species declines;
  • traditional practices


Traditional management of fire in the world's savannas is of vital interest for contemporary management. This paper reviews the nineteenth century literature on Aboriginal application of fire in the Northern Territory of northern Australia, and relates the other studies of the historical record for the whole savanna region of northern Australia. The aim is to provide a comprehensive picture of historical traditional fire practices.


Northern Australia tropical (monsoonal) savanna region.


All available journals of explorers in the nineteenth century in the Northern Territory were reviewed and analysed.


Twenty-five explorers' journals were identified and reviewed. Fifteen yielded information on aboriginal use of fire. Two hundred and six observations were recorded in the journals. Of these, 100 were of active landscape fires and fifty-two were of burnt landscapes. Other observations were discarded as they did not contribute to the understanding of traditional use of fire. The results were generally consistent with other studies completed in Queensland and Western Australia.

Main conclusions

The historical record shows that Aboriginal people in the `Top End' of the Northern Territory of Australia commenced burning early in the dry season, within weeks of the last rains, and continued throughout the dry season. Burning stopped only when the wet season rains prevented further burning. Little if any wet season burning was carried out. This picture is at variance with a previous historical study for the Northern Territory, but consistent with that for the whole northern Australian savannas using equivalent historical sources. The findings are important for ecological management of the savannas of northern Australia. Recent deleterious changes to the biota and landscape have been attributed to recent changes from traditional fire regimes. A reinstatement of traditional practices is proposed.