The Biggest Estate on Earth
How Aborigines Made Australia
By Bill Gammage
Allen & Unwin
When the Europeans came to Australia, they were amazed at what they found―a beautiful country, parklike in appearance, with fertile open pastures, often attractively ribboned with belts of trees, alternating with areas of impenetrable brush accessed by occasional open tracks ending in cul de sacs. Waterways were dammed to form meadows, wells protected by earthen structures, river banks were cleared. Game, birds and fish abounded.
The Europeans thought they had discovered a natural paradise, but over time, fertility declined, overstocking denuded the plains, and many of the open areas reverted to thick, ungoverned brush. It is only in recent times that Europeans will admit that the beautiful landscapes of Australia were created by the Aborigines, most frequently as family units working in cooperation with other family units, to sculpt the earth, mainly using the tool of fire.
The use of fire was a great art―some areas needing yearly burnings, and some requiring fire only at intervals of ten years or more. Fire cleared brush, returned minerals to the soil, brought up green grass, kept insect populations at bay, flushed kangeroo and other animals for hunters, created habitat for game, and destroyed habitat when certain species became too numerous.
Germane to our discussions of the “paleolithic” diet, this stone age people created fields of wild grain, usually millet, some stretching for as much as one thousand acres. They harvested the grain with stone knives, leaving the straw in what resembled haystacks, and stored this important foodstuff. Likewise they cultivated dozens of species of wild yam and tended areas of berries and fruit.
Where did the Aborigines obtain their knowledge? How did they know what to do? It came from the Dreaming, they explained to the uncomprehending white man, and the Dreaming, the supersensible world, wanted them, first and foremost, to care for the land. Land care was the most important role of human beings on earth.
While repetitive―Gammage takes care to include just about every early description of Australia that he could find―The Biggest Estate on Earth is nevertheless a fascinating page-turner, absolute must reading for anyone interested in “primitive” habits, attitudes and diet. Inspiring as well as informative, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia offer us a template for the future, of a land fully scuplted and managed, perhaps with other tools than fire, but a land that is fertile, varied and beautiful.