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Keywords:

  • environmental history;
  • indigenous resource usage;
  • savannas;
  • traditional ecological knowledge

Abstract

Knowledge of historic indigenous management practices in north Australian tropical savannas can benefit contemporary management by providing a long-term ecological context. This study provides understanding of how indigenous peoples managed their resources during the period of colonization by Europeans. Traditional management practices and resource use were observed by the European explorers and missionaries, anthropologists and ethnographers who followed. The historic record shows that the savannas were managed intensively by indigenous peoples, even during the colonization era. Across the region they used fire throughout the dry seasons, which is recognized by ecologists today. Importantly, and not previously reported in the ecological literature, they constructed water wells that provided them with extended use of country into the dry seasons, built and managed fisheries to enhance and extend their food supplies, and created extensive walking paths. These findings are significant because previous ecological research has assumed implicitly that indigenous people in the region were dependent on natural waters and therefore subject to seasonal availability of water to enable them to penetrate and live in dry country, and has given scant acknowledgement of manipulation of resources. The anthropological studies were compromised by the devastating social disruptions caused by the colonizers (mostly cattle ranchers and miners) and subsequent missionaries and government administrators. Despite these disruptions, the evidence demonstrates continuity of knowledge and management practices in much of the region. This history provides contemporary ecologists and managers with evidence of consistent patterns of resource management from earlier times. The evidence also shows that indigenous people were less at the mercy of the environment than has been assumed previously. The combined evidence suggests that contemporary management should consider that traditional management practices over many thousands of years were active and ubiquitous, and continued into the present era and probably shaped the biota of the region.