Stanford University
Aboriginal Fire and Desert Biodiversity
Principal Investigators:
Rebecca Bliege Bird
Douglas W. Bird

Nyalangka Taylor
Curtis Taylor
Brian F. Codding
Pete Kauhanen
Claudia Engel
David Kim

This NSF-sponsored project investigates social and ecological factors that influence practices of landscape burning, habitat modification and their environmental consequences among indigenous Martu foragers in Australia's Western Desert. Anthropogenic fire is an important constructive force in shaping biotic communities around the world. In Australia's arid zone, fire may be a particularly important due to the highly flammable nature of the dominant climax vegetation: spinifex grass. Spinifex grasslands cover a vast extant of the western deserts. Martu use fire to hunt for denned sand monitor lizards in the winter, burning small patches of mature vegetation in order to more efficiently find occupied dens. Since Martu don't burn off an area larger than they can search, these fires are smaller than those that are randomly lit by lightning, which can get out of control and burn vast extents of the desert in catastrophic fires. As vegetation regrows overtime, the patchwork that results from small temporally discrete fires results in greater diversity in the local ecological community.

This project is part of a long-term research collaboration involving Stanford researchers, students, and indigenous Martu. The ethnographic field component has incorporated over a decade of quantitative records of Martu land use and livelihoods. The ecological research consists of monitoring areas in Martu homelands at different stages of regrowth following a fire and analysis of satellite imagery to classify burns from 2000 to 2010.

Current research includes continued field work, spatial (GIS) analysis of satellite images and the classification of historic aerial photographs to examine burning practices in the recent past.

"Waru! Holding Fire in Australia's Western Desert" exhibited June 28 to July 31, 2011, at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery. This exhibition marked the lived relationships among indigenous Martu of Australia's Western Desert; their foraging economy, ritual arts, the expression of these on the landscape, and their links to desert biodiversity..." Continue reading on the Stanford Anthropology website.
Former Research Assistant:
David Kim

A Decade of Fire in Western Australia

Spatial History