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Firestick farming in early Australia

How the indigenous Australians used fire to change their environment. Created by Sal Khan.

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Video transcript

Farming, as we now associate the word, has been around for about 7,000 to 10,000 years. And when we think of farming, we imagine a farmer planting seeds, and later harvesting the crops. Or maybe having cattle that they can allow to graze, and then using that cattle for either meat, or milk, or wool. But there's actually a different type of farming that predates this association with I guess what we could call the traditional form of farming. And it predates it by several tens of thousands of years. And we believe that it started with the original inhabitants of Australia. And what they did is-- and this is why we call it farming-- and because if you think about farming in the most general sense, it's really humans using technology to manipulate their environment so it becomes more suitable for humans. So it becomes more suitable for things that humans might want to eat, or get milk from, or whatever. And this type of farming is called firestick farming. And I think you can already imagine what it might involve. It involves using fire, which is really a form of technology-- or it can be a form of technology-- using fire to make the environment more suitable for human activity. And so what the original Australians did-- the indigenous Australians, or sometimes referred to as the Aboriginal Australians. And if you're wondering where the word Aboriginal comes from, you might recognize some parts of it. Original-- you know what that means. The first things. The things that were there from the beginning. And then you have ab, which is Latin for from. So this is literally from the beginning. So when you say Aboriginal Australians, you're really saying the Australians that were there from the beginning. And so what they would do is, is that we believe if you go back 50,000 or 60,000 years before the first Aboriginal Australians settled Australia, Australia had much more forest. It still has forest. This is a modern picture, obviously, of an Australian forest. But what they did is that they set up controlled burns. And what these controlled burns did is that they cleared away a lot of the forest. They cleared away a lot of the brush that's over here, and it made it much more suitable for grassland to develop. And the reason why they liked grassland-- so let's make a little cycle here of what they did. So they have controlled burns. Controlled fires. Those controlled fires helped promote grassland. And then once you have grassland, that made the environment more suitable for animals that the original human settlers could essentially live off of. That they could hunt, that they could potentially eat their meat. And so, for example, things like kangaroos. And these supported the human population, which obviously, would then do the controlled burns. And you see here-- so we could have started off with something like this. Someone provides a controlled burn. And they were actually pretty scientific about how they did it. They wouldn't just go at the end of summer, when everything was hot, and ready to just blow up, and then start a fire that they couldn't control. They would often do these in seasons knowing that it had a certain level of moisture in the air, it wasn't too hot. And to a large degree, by doing these controlled burns, not only did it provide an environment-- kind of do this firestick farming-- not only did it provide an environment that was suitable for things like kangaroos, some type of things that humans could eat-- but it also prevented major fires. And you still see forest rangers doing this type of thing. And there's some reason to believe that what the original Australians did, on some level, was more nuanced and more fine-tuned than even what we do, in a modern sense, in controlled burns. So these controlled fires also prevented major uncontrollable fires. Because what happens is if you don't have these controlled fires, then you have brush building up, year after year after year. You have stuff building up. And then, when the fires do occur, the uncontrolled fires are less likely to be started during the winter, when the air is cool or when there might be some moisture. They're more likely to occur in the dry season. So you have all this stuff build up. And then when the fire does happen, it happens in the driest season. And then what happens with all of the stuff built up in the dry season, it just becomes uncontrollable. One of the byproducts-- or actually there are several byproducts of this firestick farming-- we believe, is a lot of the grassland in Australia now might have been more forested before. And even when the first European settlers came in the late 1700s, they were kind of surprised when they went into what is now Sydney Harbor and they said, wow, look at all the grassland here. It almost looks like park space. And then they would let their sheep graze there. And they were surprised-- because they had driven out the original inhabitants. And then they were surprised when forests just started to grow up in that grassland. And it was because the original Australians were actually controlling that forest growth to make it more inhabitable for things like kangaroos. And then when the English settlers came, they started to have their sheep graze in those grasslands. And it also was responsible for the disappearance, we think, of many major-- I guess, for lack of a better word-- megafauna. So really large animals that inhabited Australia, for really millions of years, until humans showed up. And this is one of them. It's just neat to look at them. This is called Diprotodon optatum. Or, another way to think of it, the giant wombat. And there's fossils of the giant wombat around 40,000, 50,000 years ago. But they disappeared with humans showing up. And there's multiple ways that you can think about why they disappeared. They might have-- and this is probably the case-- they might have been more dependent on the forest habitat. Or this was a more favorable habitat for them than the grasslands. Maybe because they ate leaves that were high up. Or another thing is, once the forest habitat goes away, they were actually also easier to hunt down. Or either way you think about it, they might have just been hunted by humans. But we do see that with humans coming to the Australian continent, you start to see the disappearance-- and this isn't the only one-- but there were several major species of megafauna, of super large animals, that disappeared at that time period.