New research article in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Biological Sciences

Niche construction and Dreaming logic: Aboriginal patch mosaic burning and varanid lizards (Varanus gouldii) in Australia

Rebecca Bliege Bird1, Nyalangka Tayor2, Brian F. Codding3, Douglas W. Bird1
1 Department of Anthropology, 450 Serra Mall Bldg 50, Stanford University, Stanford CA 94305
2 Parnngurr Community, via Newman, WA 6754
3 Department of Anthropology, 270 S. 1400 E. Rm 102, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0060.

Contrary to popular perceptions of human hunting, In the Australian Western Desert, indigenous hunters actually increase populations of the animals they hunt. Aboriginal people use fire to hunt burrowed monitor lizards and in so doing, create small patches of regrowth that enhance habitat and increase lizard populations where they are most heavily hunted. Where there are no hunters, lightning fires spread over vast distances, patchiness is low, and monitor lizards are more rare. Lizards are present in only 7% of sample plots in unhunted areas, nearly doubling in areas where they are heavily hunted. Martu recognize this relationship through the knowledge is contained within the Dreaming, a ritual and practical philosophy and body of knowledge that structures the way people interact with the desert environment: the land must be used if life is to continue, and it is the absence of hunting that causes species to decline, not its presence. The logic of the Dreaming, the Jukurr, has often been interpreted as belonging to the realm of the sacred and irrational, something that is opposed to scientific understanding. Our research suggests, rather, that such sacred knowledge is recognition of the significant niche constructing benefit that aboriginal foraging provides. The loss of aboriginal hunting and burning in the mid 20th century may have contributed to the contemporary extinction of many desert species that depend on such mosaics.

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