Aboriginal Australians hold the secret to a life of freedom and leisure—it’s fire.

An ANU researcher has challenged the idea that Australia was an untouched wilderness at the time of white colonisation. In 1788 the Australian landscape was one that had been carefully constructed with the use of fire, according to ANU Adjunct Professor Bill Gammage.

“For over 220 years the land has been shouting at us newcomers that we’ve got it wrong. The country was not natural but made. Aborigines made it by using fire, or no fire, to distribute plants and then using plant distribution to position animals,” Gammage told a capacity crowd of over 200 people at the Australian Academy of Science’s Shine Dome on ANU campus earlier this month.

By comparing today’s landscapes with historical records, Gammage has shown that Aboriginal people used fire to clear sections of forest and create mosaics of grassland, open forest and dense forest on their country. Grasslands were situated on the best soils, he found, which ensured they provided nutritious feed that attracted animals and allowed food crops to grow. Gammage said that areas of shrub and dense forest left alongside grassland created shelter so animals like kangaroos felt less vulnerable and were easier to hunt.

This system provided Aboriginal people with abundant, convenient and predictable food sources and gave them plenty of time for ceremony and leisure.

“About 70% of Australia’s plant species tolerate or encourage fire,” said Gammage when explaining why fire-centric land management is possible in Australia. He told how the system in 1788 catered for a large diversity of living things, many of which are now gone or going.

Gammage’s findings reveal that constant and repeated burning of country was common practice in virtually every part of Australia in the past and largely brought bushfires under control.

“This let people prevent the terrible killer fires which have immolated the fringes of every Australian capital in recent decades,” he said.

According to Gammage, a land management system like this could not succeed in isolated areas of Australia and therefore neighbours would have negotiated constantly and the system would have spanned the country, connected by common laws and beliefs.

“There are instances of farming in 1788 but people were never likely to convert to it. Fire gave too many advantages. It let people fuse the ecology and religion of an entire continent into the biggest estate on earth and instead of dividing Aborigines into gentry and peasantry it made them a free people,” Gammage said in concluding.