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The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia

by Bill Gammage

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1835126,076 (4.09)6
"Across Australia, early Europeans commented again and again that the land looked like a park. With extensive grassy patches and pathways, open woodlands and abundant wildlife, it evoked a country estate in England. Bill Gammage has discovered this was because Aboriginal people managed the land in a far more systematic and scientific fashion than we have ever realised. For over a decade he has examined written and visual records of the Australian landscape. He has uncovered an extraordinarily complex system of land management using fire, the life cycles of native plants, and the natural flow of water to ensure plentiful wildlife and plant foods throughout the year. We know Aboriginal people spent far less time and effort than Europeans in securing food and shelter ... . With details of land-management strategies from around Australia, The biggest estate on earth rewrites the history of this continent, with huge implications for us today."--Dust cover.… (more)
  1. 00
    Woodlands by Oliver Rackham (Polaris-)
    Polaris-: Both books' authors hold tremendous regard for the methods and traditions used in managing landscapes by the local peoples - be they indigenous Australians or traditional British woodsmen.

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Reading historian Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth, How Aborigines Made Australia which has been on my TBR for nearly a decade, I came across what I think is the best explanation of The Dreaming that I've ever come across. It occurred to me as I read it, that many of my international readers may have come across references to The Dreaming without really knowing what it's about. So here's an excerpt from the chapter entitled 'Heaven on Earth' book to clarify what it means.

Gammage says that all religions aim to explain existence and to regulate behaviour. It was the anthropologist Ted Strehlow (1908-1978) who said that 'the great and specifically Australian contribution to religious thought has been the unquestioning Aboriginal conviction that there was no division between Time and Eternity.'
"The Dreaming conceives an unchangeable universe, hence free of time. This can be so because the universe is not natural: it was made from darkness by God. Who made God and darkness no-one knows. They are as much puzzles as chance and death. No religion has solved them, but denying time makes them much easier to pass over, and [Aborigines] accept that although it is worthy to strive to understand, they are not meant to know.

Across Australia the creation story is essentially the same: God made light, brought into being spirits and creator ancestors, and set down eternal Law for all creation. The creator ancestors accepted the Law or suffered if they didn't, and made epic journeys across a formless space, giving land and sea substance and shape before settling to rest in a place important to them. They are there still, and where they went still bears marks of their trials and adventures. All things derive from their presence or deeds, and are ruled by the Law they passed on.

Since universe and Law never change, time is irrelevant, as in a dream. Change and time exist only as cycles: birth and death, the passage of stars and seasons, journeys, encounters, and after 1788 the appearance of plants and animals seeming new but always there. Cycles are eddies, ending where they begin or eclipsed by larger cycles: travel by death, for example, or seasons by life spans. Eddies exist not on a river of life, for a river has a beginning and end, but on bigger eddies, in a boundless pool. Time is an eddy; the pool is timeless. Pool, eddies and Law are the Dreaming.

The Dreaming has two rules: obey the Law, and leave the world as you found it—not better or worse, for God judges that, but the same. The first rule enforces and exists for the second. Together they let place dominate time, and translate well understood ecological associations into social relations—kin, marriage, diplomacy, trade and so on, outlawing fundamental change, so making all creatures conservationist and conservative". (p.123-4)
As Gammage says, the impetus for change is inbuilt into most other societies and we tend to think that it is natural. He also notes that it's not clear that Aborigines "entirely succeeded in leaving the world as they found it but they dedicated their lives to conserving what they inherited, and within the perception of living generations generally they succeeded."
"Innovation and creativity, become means not ends [...] and do not disturb a sense that the fundamentals of existence are beyond challenge or improvement". (p.124)
Leaving the world as it is, does not mean untouched. The Law says that the land must be managed and it is a manager's duty is to shepherd land and creatures through the cycles of life and seasons.

The chapter goes on to explain songlines (the path along which a creator ancestor travelled to bring country into being) and totems (which assert place for each living being). Totems control kin, marriage, population and loyalties.
"Aboriginal landscape awareness is rightly seen as drenched in religious sensibility, but equally the Dreaming is saturated with environmental consciousness. Theology and ecology are fused." (p.133)
The Biggest Estate on Earth was reviewed extensively at the time of its publication in 2011, including by Janine Rizzetti here and at Brona's Books here. However, although Gammage's book is a work of remarkable and ground-breaking scholarship, it is very heavy on detail and at 434 pages requires considerable commitment to read it. I think that most readers will find Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? by Bunerong man Bruce Pascoe, a more accessible way to learn about this topic from an Indigenous perspective. (There is now also a children's version of Dark Emu, which IMO ought to be in every school library). ( )
  anzlitlovers | Mar 13, 2021 |
Well Bill, you pretty much had me until your last chapter (which is really an appendix). But thou "dost protest too much, methinks". This appendix is very defensive and highlights the fact that Bill's thesis has its critics. I think there is certainly enough evidence cited to show that Aboriginals did use fire extensively to manage the landscape and, in fact, we are "given a Tsunami of evidence". But I found myself asking all the way through ......."Is this ALL the evidence?....Is this balanced?......are there other views that we are not being exposed to? Has Bill cherry-picked this evidence?" Because without knowing the answers to these questions it's impossible to know how reliable the arguments are. I did some work myself on Riverine soils ..and published a few scientific papers on them and one thing I did learn was that Cypress pine in that area is almost always found on sandy loams ...not on the red-brown cracking clays. So there are certainly environmental factors at play in tree distribution. (Apart from selective burning).
I guess we are shown enough evidence for me to be persuaded that pre 1788, fire was used extensively to open up land for animals such as kangaroos. And this was responsible for much of the parklike landscape observed. But I did get a little bored with the seemingly re-iteration of the same point ad nauseam. I'm not necessarily more convinced by 1000 quotes than I am by 10. I'd just like to be convinced that he hasn't been "cherry-picking" his quotes. For example, this extract from a journal kept on the Nijptangn ...one of de Vlamingh's ships north of Perth in 1697; "Having come to the beach, we found many oysters and started at once out on our march but sometimes had to rest through fatigue caused by the heat of the sun and the heavy going through the thick scrub". I guess one could find a lot of similar quotes...with no mention of "park-like" conditions......in fact just the reverse. But what does this PROVE? How do we know these were balanced comments? Obviously it is harder to have to force your way through thick scrub than through bushland. And maybe explorers chose the easy routes. Anyway we have plenty of bushland in Australia that hasn't seen a fire for say 8-10 years and has just the kind of park-like conditions talked about. Basically it's because of competition for light and for water ...and the bigger trees have the advantage with both. Clearly, the WHOLE continent was NOT being managed as Bill would have it. Some parts were thick scrub. (See the quote above).
I've come back to this review in Dec 2019 as NSW has been devastated with massive bush fires following a prolonged drought. Sydney has been swathed in smoke for weeks on end. Apparently many of the fires have been ignited by "dry lightning" and this sort of ignition and fire would have taken place with or without controlled burning by aborigines. The intensity and scale of the current fires is truly monstrous ...with flames rising to over 60-70m and 2.7 million Ha burned (an area bigger than Wales and still early in the season). Yet, I noted that, following the burn, the basic eucalyptus trees were still standing and presumably will re-shoot and the undergrowth has been eliminated. So these wild fires also seem likely to result in the same park-like conditions that Bill claims are entirely due to planned burning by aboriginals. So I'm not entirely convinced by his arguments. It seems to me that with patch-work burning in the winter that fauna and certain plants will have better survival rates...and certainly, the aborigines practiced this sort of burning. But to claim that the park like conditions were entirely an outcome of their burning practices...and ignore the contribution of wildfires...seems like an over-reach.
A basic thrust of his argument is that with the use of the fire stick, the aborigines cared for the land better than the newcomer europeans and our land has degraded dramatically since 1788. That is probably correct. But it is also supporting a population of about 25 million whereas before 1788 it was (according to the best evidence I can find) about 200,000. And, if you don't have any land clearing at all ....and maintain the wilderness as wilderness....then , of course, you are going to preserve the natural character of the land. But, surely we can do better: even with extensive agriculture. Reduce erosion, clean up the streams, manage water tables better, preserve wildlife corridors and habitat and so on.
Interestingly enough, managed fires are being introduced as a way of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and better managing "Country". I did some work with the Kimberley Land Council on such managed burning. Nowdays, the fires are lit from helicopters and overseen via helicopter. But the basic idea is the same. Slow cold burns every few years (in a kind of patchwork) rather than one wildfire every 6-10 years which burns even big trees to the ground and emits a lot more greenhouse gases in the process.
I actually found his description of the aboriginal dreamtime/religion and relationship to country most interesting, maybe the best part of the book.... especially the idea of the songlines...the path or corridor along which a creator ancestor moved to bring country into being. And the way these songlines threaded Australia linking people of many local groups ...separated by great distances. And being born on or near a songline decides a person's most important totem. And for an emu man, he does not have emu as merely symbolic; he IS emu, of the same mould and of the same flesh. He must care for emu and for his habitat. etc. All Australia obeyed the dreaming. By world standards this is a vast area for a single belief system to hold sway. (I think this is a really interesting point). It leads on to the sacred duty of aborigines to leave the world as you found it ....hence the adherence to long established practices about burning the land.
Clearly burning the land regularly did a number of things. It burnt insects; it burned young seedlings and seeds, it allowed grass to regenerate and with fire resistant trees it allowed them to continue growing...especially where there was a cool fire. (Actually, there is another advantage that Bill does not mention and that is that a cool fire emits less Nitrous Oxide than a hot fire and Nitrous Oxide is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). And, of course, it provided pathways through the timber. Though there are also some downsides. Back-burning now around Sydney gives us the days with the highest (and most dangerous) levels of small particle pollution ...and these small particles are carcinogenic.
I must admit, to my shame, that I had never fully appreciated before just how the aborigines felt attached to the land (country). (Though I had heard it claimed many times) ; how they were displaced and what an impact this had on them; and how ignorant the newcomers (settlers) were ...and still are.....about this casual displacement. I wonder how much the situation was destabilised by the introduction of smallpox, measles, etc into the early communities. As Bill Says..."For the people of 1788, the loss was stupefying. For the newcomers it did not seem great". (I recall around Sydney there was something like a 95% death rate from a series of infection outbreaks in the aboriginal community
Bill briefly touches on some other activities of aborigines that I have only just read about in "Dark Emu". The fact that Aborigines did cultivate yams and grass seeds...and if this wasn't farming it was pretty close to it. They also, in at least one area, built stone houses and extensive fish traps; they dug wells in stone and built dams and aqueducts. So in many respects they were on the cusp of that development phase that elsewhere led to a more highly developed agriculture, writing and civilisation as we have come to know it. Though Gammage makes the interesting point that with their world view ..."They considered themselves superior to "us" ; they preferred their mode of living to ours....they pitied us that we troubled ourselves with so many things".
Overall, an interesting book...makes his point very strongly...but he hasn't convinced me that it's a balanced view. He's best when he talks about the aboriginal view of their world and attitude to country. ( )
  booktsunami | Mar 30, 2019 |
Well worth the time that was needed to read and digest.
So many examples from all over the Country made for a long but detailed read and well supported the arguments that the use of fire was a national trend in Land managment pre 1788.
  Bikebear | Feb 3, 2017 |
A fascinating read. Had seen that it had won the Victorian Premier's (?) prize for litrature but most taken in by a very supportive review in the Australian Journal of Politics and History ( 58 AJPH p450) " a seminal book".

The thesis is simply: that the Australian aborigines managed the Australian landscape on a large scale mainly through the judicious use of fire and an incredible knowledge of flora and fauna. All Australians know that certain trees need a good bush fire in order for their seeds to germinate. What had not clicked with many was that the aborigines also knew this and activley caused ( or precluded ) fires in order to manage growth / regeneration of those trees.

But it is on a much larger scale that their true genius lay. The management of whole landscapes is whathe book is all about. There are many quotations from early writings, journals, and explorers diaries to the effect that the landscape was less dense forests than looking like an English gentleman's estate, with wide expanses of open grasslands and manicured groupings of trees. What is most fascinating is a collection of earlier paintings and photographs with in many cases recent photographs of the same scenes demonstrating that with out the active management by the aborigines, the landscape has reverted to its "native" state.

As I say a fascinating read. Not the best written book ( in my humble view) , so suspect the literary prize is more for the content than the writing. It at times became a little repetitive but that only made more evident that the quotes and pictures are not isolated instances.

Anyone with any interest in Australian history or the story of the colonisation of Australia should read this.


2 March 2013 ( )
1 vote bigship | Mar 1, 2013 |
Bill Gammage's book was kindly leant to me by a new found friend while I was away in Western Australia. Unfortunately, owing to the many wonderful distractions one encounters during a family reunion visit, I was unable to sit down and actually read the whole body of text from start to finish. I did though manage to read significant portions of it - including the many copious illustrations with their very fully detailed and lengthy explanatory captions. In some ways this book reminded me somewhat of Oliver Rackham's excellent Woodlands published not too long ago in the Collins New Naturalist Library series. Both books' authors hold tremendous regard for the methods and traditions used in managing landscapes by the local peoples (be they indigenous Australians or traditional British woodsmen).

Obviously the two books' similarities end there as in the former case the traditional land management techniques were more or less effectively obliterated by an advancing tide of British colonialism, while in the latter case traditional woodland management was effectively ended in significant scale by the industrialisation of forestry that followed the First World War. The book's title refers to the fact that to newly arrived European eyes the lay of the landscape (as controlled pre-1788 by the local inhabitants) reminded them repeatedly of the vast landed estates that the wealthiest in their own societies back home were so earnestly trying to replicate.

Gammage's fascinating book is concerned with more than traditional woodland uses and management though. The Aborigines' vast understanding of their homelands, accumulated through hundreds if not thousands of years' worth of knowledge passed from one generation to the next, was truly a wondrous thing. They knew every aspect of every facet of flora and fauna in their landscape at a level that very few (if any) learned modern land use professionals would ever approach. Every wild flower, grass type, fungus, tree (and that includes foliage, fruit, bark, root or lignotuber, etc.) or shrub, bird or animal, would be intimately familiar to both men and women of all ages.

Most crucially, the skilled use of fire - whether it be naturally occurring or instigated deliberately - would often determine the cyclical movements and seasonal reactions of various flora or fauna, most notably the right grasses that would attract kangaroos for hunting. Controlling the bushfires would be an integral tool for not only hunting, but also in managing pathways, communications, and woodland regeneration. This knowledge would be all but lost, or rather abandoned through ignorance, by those authorities in power following the transformative year of 1788 and the commencement of systematic colonialisation of Australia. Gammage's book also illustrates wonderfully how various European colonials initially approached the landscape and their interactions with it in terms of surveying, mapping, drawing and painting, writing, and farming.

An extensively illustrated book with a multitude of primary references (together with a very comprehensive bibliography), this is an incredibly valuable and important book - not only for Australians, but for anyone interested in learning about any indigenous people's understanding and management of their own ancestral lands, and the devastating effects that the 'civilisation' of newcomers - be they through farming, forestry, land division, and creeping 'development' into the modern era can have. Books such as this can go some small way in perhaps helping to reverse those effects where those in control of the land have a mind to do so. ( )
1 vote Polaris- | Feb 20, 2013 |
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To the people of 1788, whose land care is ubmatched, and who showed what it is to be Australian.
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This book describes how the people of Australia managed their land in 1788.
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"Across Australia, early Europeans commented again and again that the land looked like a park. With extensive grassy patches and pathways, open woodlands and abundant wildlife, it evoked a country estate in England. Bill Gammage has discovered this was because Aboriginal people managed the land in a far more systematic and scientific fashion than we have ever realised. For over a decade he has examined written and visual records of the Australian landscape. He has uncovered an extraordinarily complex system of land management using fire, the life cycles of native plants, and the natural flow of water to ensure plentiful wildlife and plant foods throughout the year. We know Aboriginal people spent far less time and effort than Europeans in securing food and shelter ... . With details of land-management strategies from around Australia, The biggest estate on earth rewrites the history of this continent, with huge implications for us today."--Dust cover.

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Explodes the myth that pre-settlement Australia was an untamed wilderness revealing the complex, country-wide systems of land management used by Aboriginal people.
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