Clues to the ‘burning question’: Pre-European fire in the Sydney coastal region from sedimentary charcoal and palynology


  • Scott D. Mooney,

  • Kate L. Radford,

  • Gary Hancock

  • This article was prepared by Scott Mooney while employed as a Lecturer in the School of Geography, at the University of NSW (Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia. Tel: 61-2-9385 4389. Email:, in collaboration with Kate Radford, a former Honours student (Environmental Science, UNSW) and Gary Hancock from CSIRO (Division of Land and Water, Black Mountain Laboratories, Canberra). This work forms a part of a larger project by Scott Mooney on the fire history of the Sydney Basin.


Summary The concentration and influx of charcoal in a 210Pb-dated sediment core were used to investigate the recent fire history of Jibbon Lagoon in Royal National Park, NSW. Fire events of the recent (historic) past were compared to this record in an attempt to test its sensitivity. Recent fire events were not always reflected in the charcoal results. Nonetheless it can be concluded that since about AD 1930 the area has been characterized by a relatively high frequency of fires. The analysed sediments of the pre-European period contained a low concentration of charcoal, and only one large conflagration appears to have occurred in approximately the last 1600 years. How Aboriginal people used fire in this landscape is still uncertain. However, it is possible that they did not regularly burn the landscape, or if they did, it was in such a way that the delivery of charcoal to the lagoon was minimal. This study thus suggests that the idea of the ubiquitous use of fire by Aboriginal people should be further, and critically, analysed.