In Australia, Martu hunter-gatherers light fires to expose the hiding places of their prey: monitor lizards called goanna that can grow up to six feet long. These generations-old hunting practices, part of the Martu day-to-day routine, have reshaped Australia's Western Desert habitats, according to Stanford University anthropologists Douglas and Rebecca Bird.
"Martu" refers to a group of about 800 indigenous Australians from eight dialect-groups that inhabit the Western Desert. For 10 years, the Birds have been investigating Martu hunting strategies and their lasting environmental impacts. With support from the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford, the researchers have begun to explore what makes aboriginal hunting grounds molded by fire more biologically diverse than lands untouched by humans.
"The results of our work will be used to assist conservation efforts and joint indigenous land management policy in the Western Desert," said Douglas Bird, an assistant professor (research) of anthropology and principal investigator on the Woods Institute Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) grant.
In many cases, humans aren't the wrench in nature's gears but an important piece of the clockwork, he added. And because so much of Australia's Western Desert, from lizards to shrubs, revolves around Martu practices, conservation efforts will only succeed if they incorporate traditional goanna-hunting practices, he said.
"We're trying to demonstrate what would happen if you did pull people off the landscape," he said. "What happens when you break all of these co-evolutionary links between people who've lived on the landscape for thousands of years and the diversity of the faunal and floral community?"
Martu life revolves around hunting and fire, Douglas Bird explained. Martu inherit ritual duties that correspond to certain tracts of desert called "estates." An important part of this i
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