Fire has been an essential survival tool for humans to live in the desert for tens of thousands of years. It has played, and continues to play a role in many aspects of life: warmth, hunting, cooking, tool making, communication, land management & medicine.
There is a very special bond between the men and fire. Knowledge of fire is passed on through ancient ancestral stories.
It is the man’s job to start the fire & the woman’s job to keep it burning.
Traditionally desert Aboriginal men would use a sawing motion to make fire. The base was made by cutting a wedge shape out of a soft wooden shield, tinder was then placed in the wedge (soft grass or kangaroo droppings). The edge of an amirre (spear thrower) or alye (boomerang) were then passed in a sawing motion across the cavity until the tinder was smoldering. Once the kangaroo dung was smoldering it was dropped into hand full of dry grass and lightly blown to ignite the flame.
These days most people start fires with lighters or matches.
Other Aboriginal groups around Australia used fire drills, flints and pyrites to make fire.
Fire was a form of communication, an ancient form of email.
When water supplies were running low one of the men would travel to where they knew the next reliable source of water would be. On his way he would take a firestick and burn small patches of grass as he went.
If the waterhole had sufficient water, he would build up a stockpile grass, wood, a few green leaves and branches. When he lit it the thick smoke would signal the family that it was time to shift camp to this new location. They could easily follow the freshly burnt out pathway to the waterhole.
Winter nights in the desert are very cold and temperatures can drop to -7 degrees Celcius. When you sleep around the fire the person who gets up in the coldest hours of the morning to stoke the fire is the best!
For tens of thousands of years desert Aboriginal people burnt the land in the cool months when the dark clouds came together. Fire was, and in some placed still is, used to ‘clean up’ the country for walking, hunting, signaling, ceremonies and to encourage plant and animal foods. The men strategically burnt patches giving the landscape a mosaic pattern of different aged grasses.
When rain fell, fresh growth would shoot in the newly burnt areas. Patch burning created good habitat for small game mammals such as bilbies and mala. They sheltered in the old grasses and fed in the adjacent new grasses. Their bedroom was close to their kitchen!
One of the major contributors to these desert animals being critically endangered today is the decrease in this traditional burning. Research has shown that remaining populations of bilbies occurring close to Aboriginal communities are at their healthiest in areas where communities are actively managing the land.
Fire stick farming is the traditional way Aboriginal people looked after the land and created fire breaks to ensure large destructive summer fires were not a threat.
With the land burnt, new growth was promoted and soon became abundant, food could be gathered for several months after a fire.
In the ash and soil there is magnesium and potassium and if burnt just before rain the phosphorus, nitrogen and sulpher that goes up in smoke comes down with the rain. Food plants such as: desert raisin, bush cucumbers, potatoes grow. Grasses and acacias develop seeds for making bread and the fresh grass attracts big game such as Kangaroos and Emus.
Another use of fire is to clear land and over-growth of grasses and plants in water courses that run into claypans and soakages, burning out growth from around claypans, making the claypan a wider open catchment for water. It is also used to burn off reeds, grass and trees around lakes and ponds that may eventually clog them up.
Fire was an important aid in hunting but was rarely used to actually kill animals directly. Instead, areas were burnt in such a way as to direct animals to where they could be easily speared.
Kangaroos, Emus, Bilbies, Mala, snakes, lizards & birds, in fact, anything caught in the line of the fire would have to try an escape the flames, the men would be waiting with clubs and boomerangs to pick off a smorgasboard of meat.
This had a secondary effect, leaving open ground for tracks leading back to the burrows of the bilbies, bandicoots, goannas, perenties and carpetsnakes.
Fire was also be used to smoke animals out of caves and tree trunks.
New growth that would come after the fire would attract animals back to the area, once again providing easy hunting.
In different parts of Australia different fire regimes were used and adapted to local needs
Preparation of food like kangaroo varied from group to group depending on their location. For instance, a group that lived in an area where water was more plentiful, cooked the kangaroo for longer than people that lived in drier country. Less cooking time meant more blood so not only were you having a meal you were getting some moisture from the blood. Only men cook kangaroo as it is part of hunting law.
Women cook lizards, breads made from seeds and grubs. Different areas of the fire are used to cook different things - just like your cooktop at home. On the edge of the fire there is hot earth and ash – in the centre hot coals.
Fire is used to heat spearvine which is then straightened with feet and knees.
Resin from the Spinifex grass makes glue. This resin needs to be beaten out of the grass, cleaned and then heated, using a fire stick or burning bark and heat the resin. As you heat the resin you will notice it change and melt down into a black sticky glue. This glue was used to fix quartz rocks on the end of spear throwers and clubs to cut and sharpen on the men’s tools. Both men and women can use this glue, but men were responsible for the making of the glue
Traditionally women’s tools like bowls (urtne) & digging sticks (atneme) were covered in ochre and oiled with animal fat. When Europeans arrived they bought wire to fence off land. This wire is used to heat in the fire and burn designs into the wooden implements.
When the women are making their bowls, to assist in the drying out of the bark they sprinkle hot ash in the middle of the bowl so it will start to shape by curling. When making their wooden digging sticks, after the stripping of the bark and branches one end of the stick is then placed in the fire and burnt. You shave down the burnt end using a rock to get a pointed, hard digging end.
Certain men and women in the community are responsible for medicines – these people either inherit this responsibility or, if they show an interest, are encouraged to learn.
Like in Western society this responsibility requires years of training. For thousands of years prior to European settlement medicines were made without boiling – plant material was dried then mixed with animal fat and made into a rub or mixed with water and used as a wash.
Very few traditional medicines were taken internally. When Europeans arrived they had metal. Desert people found many uses for metal. Billy cans boiled plant medicines to make soothing drinks for the chest or rubbing ointment for the chest and back.
Some people today replace animal fat with Vaseline or copha. The Vaseline is melted in a pot then the plant material added and boiled then strained back into the container. It cools and solidifies. This medicine can be used over and over without going rancid.
The smoke and fumes from burning special plants are used as medicine anf for cermonies and rituals. A special fire pit is dug and branches paced on top of the coals. The sick person lies down on the branches and breathes in the smoke. Children are held over the fumes for a few minutes.
It is very relaxing and social for women to sit around the fire and make bush jewellery. You heat pointed bits of wire up in the hot coals and burn holes through Bean Tree seeds, gum nuts and Quondong seeds and string them together to make necklaces.
Compare with Sonoran Desert culture.