11 October 2021

Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher is a Wiradjuri man based at The University of Melbourne whose research, supported through the ARC's Discovery Indigenous scheme, tracks the long-term interactions between humans, climate, disturbance and vegetation. In doing so, he is recovering a more nuanced story than is typically told, of indigenous interaction and management of the Australian landscape for the past 40,000 years or more.

Dr Fletcher first examined long-term human interaction in the landscapes of Chile, a southern hemisphere country which (apart from the impact of volcanoes) has experienced similar recent climatic conditions to Tasmania and Southern Australia. By uncovering these climate correspondences, but noticing the differences, Dr Fletcher was attempting to uncover the evidence of humans in the landscape. What he discovered has helped to redefine our understanding of how the landscape was managed by Aboriginal people in Australia.

‘In Chile the human story there is strong, but it's nowhere near as profound as what it is in Australia with the length of time that people have been here and that kind of modification of landscapes,’ says Dr Fletcher.

The original goal was to find the ‘arrival signal’ – the ecological footprint of the first arrival of humans in Australia – but as time went on, his focus has shifted to the change that took place when indigenous people were removed from the landscape.'

‘I started in one of the traditions in my line of work, which has been this kind of quest for the initial impact signal, the ‘Holy Grail’ if you like, going back in time to understand what happened when Aboriginal people first arrived.'

‘But the one thing I learned through time is that the arrival date just kept being pushed further back, as we discovered new sites and new techniques to date them.'

‘I felt that we needed to know when people left the landscape, to understand the impact when they arrived. Now through a lot of the work that I've done, I’ve found that one of the most profound changes that we’ve seen in landscape history dates from the time that Aboriginal people were removed from landscapes.’

What Dr Fletcher found was that South Eastern Australian landscapes were less densely forested in pre-European times, as a direct result of its management by Aboriginal people. This surprising discovery is supported by the observations of early Europeans.

‘If you look at all the landscape paintings of the early contact period following British invasion in the next century or so, they usually depict open landscapes, which is such an amazing discovery because it's so counter to the story, which is all about land clearing.’

Dr Fletcher says that his work is also adding a new dimension to the engrained narrative about the causes of severe bushfires, which he says would have been less severe when forests were under management by Aboriginal people.

‘It was obvious to me [when looking at the ecological records] … that these catastrophic fires, not only the most recent ones, but the ones that have occurred right through the last few decades, are at least in part due to the changing management that accompanied the British invasion and Aboriginal people,’ says Dr Fletcher.

‘If we keep following the idea, the myth, if you like, built on the misguided idea that these bushfires are purely a climate driven phenomena, then we're not going to get at the root cause. And the root cause is that there is more wood in the landscape than there was under original management.’

Dr Fletcher is now examining the degree to which climate change is exacerbating the problem, and making forests a lot more flammable, against the explanation for extreme fire being a result of their mismanagement.

‘I'm Aboriginal and I talk to Aboriginal people... the oral and the traditional knowledge is there and strong. But what I do is rooted in the idea that in order to make effective policy, we need data to speak to power.’

‘For instance, there are some really highly dense forests that society probably perceives as natural lands. But I’m finding that some ‘wilderness’ hasn't been that way for thousands of years, but is in fact a product of the last century or two.'

‘One thing that we were fooled into believing is that science is this beacon of objectivity and it's founded on reason and the pursuit of universal truth... well that universal truth has a particular worldview, says Dr Fletcher.

‘So I am trying to bring a different perspective and ask different questions. I want to contribute to the discourse in that regard, to bring the data to the table and say, look, these forests will test this notion that forests burning all the time now have always been like that.'

‘This is the question I'm asking,’ says Dr Fletcher.