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Hunting with Fire

Photo by Rebecca Bird

Hunting with Fire
Anthropologists study of Aboriginal foraging strategies sheds light on the evolution of human behavior

About the Photo: A Mardu woman near Parnngurr Outstation prepares a nyurnma (a large burned patch). Such fires are used on a regular basis to clear off old-growth spinifex grass and increase the efficiency of searching for and tracking small game.

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When anthropologists Rebecca and Douglas Bird go on one of their six-month fieldtrips to live with Aboriginal people of Australia, they enter an ancient and complex culture in which they are the students, not the teachers. They are participants in and observers of the rich Aboriginal way of life, an intriguing mix of modern and traditional that contradicts the primitive stereotype of native cultures.

The result is research that is contributing to a better understanding of behavioral ecology through an analysis of human culture, behavior and social interactions, all within an evolutionary and ecological framework.

"Mardu society is economically egalitarian and much of their lives are governed by a complex set of religious imperatives," says Doug about the Mardu Aborigines with whom he and Rebecca are now living for nearly half the year. "Mardu lives are not simple; in fact, theirs is one of the most complex social and religious organizations ever recorded cross-culturally."

The married couple faculty members at the University of Maine since 2001 has two field sites in Australia. Their Mardu hosts live in the Outstation community of Parnngurr, about 800 miles northeast of Perth in the vast Western Desert.

The landscape is dominated by linear red sand dunes interspersed by isolated rocky outcrops, spinifex grass and acacia trees, where the Mardu still hunt on foot for bush turkey (kipara) and sand goanna lizards (parnapunti), and gather berries and bush tomatoes (wamala).

Their other field site is the Mer Island home of the Meriam people, located among the 17 Torres Strait Islands off the northeast coast of Australia, at the very northern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. The Torres Strait Islanders are the only other indigenous Australians.

The Mer research project was the Birds' first in Australia, beginning while they were graduate students at the University of California at Davis and ending in 1999 after 27 months of field study.

The couple's innovative research at the Mer site helped establish their reputations in the behavioral ecology field and attracted national media attention in 2002, just months after they arrived at UMaine, where Rebecca is an assistant professor of anthropology and Doug is an assistant research professor with appointments in Anthropology and the Climate Change Institute.

Their news? After carefully observing, recording and analyzing the foraging patterns and success rates of Meriam men, women and children gathering food on the reefs and in shallow coastal waters, the Birds made an intriguing discovery. Children as young as age 5 often are as adept at fishing with lines and spears as the most experienced adults. Only at tasks that require more physical size and strength, such as shellfish gathering, do the children differ in comparison.

The research called into question the traditional explanation for extended human childhoods, that children require prolonged learning to master the complex tasks and social interactions of adulthood. The Birds found that childhood is not so much about learning and practicing those tasks as it is about simply growing into them.

The Birds found similar results when studying the hunting strategies of Mardu children as part of their ongoing research on foraging dynamics. The Mardu at Parnngurr Outstation in the heart of the Western Desert live in a community of 70100 people who were among the last Aboriginals to encounter Europeans in the 1960s. Their territory is about the size of Utah.

Parnngurr Outstation now has government-built facilities that include housing, community water, generator power, a school, medical clinic and general store. Despite the modern trappings and the availability of food to purchase, the Mardu adhere determinedly to their social roots and religious traditions. Ritual performance and narrative are constants in their complex set of religious and social obligations. In turn, their religion is intertwined with the land and its treatment.

The Birds study traditional foraging activity under grants from the National Science Foundation and The Leakey Foundation, looking for clues to behavior patterns and their adaptation to environmental and social change.

This spring, Rebecca departed for Parnngurr Outstation on March 16, and Doug and their 6-year-old daughter, Sydney, left on May 1 to join her, with an expected return to Orono in mid-October. Their daughter first accompanied them into the field when she was 3 months old and has since traveled to Australia more than 10 times.

"Sydney loves living and playing with the Mardu kids," says Doug, describing the Mardu's "wonderfully free" childhood period known as ngulyi, which occurs between weaning and initiation into adult responsibilities and ritual training.

In the field this year, the Birds are joined by Chris Parker, an anthropology Ph.D. student at the University of Utah in residence at UMaine, and by collaborators from other institutions.

Rebecca and Doug go about their Mardu fieldwork with painstaking precision, using GPS receivers to pinpoint locations where food is acquired; conducting "foraging follows" in which they record every move of their subjects; walking transect lines on geographic grids and noting such variables as vegetation types and game tracks; and employing satellite photography for large-scale perspective. Their voluminous data are entered into laptop computers for later analysis.

The Birds are two of a handful of ethnographers who use quantitative focal individual follows to conduct their research, requiring them to camp the entire time they're in the field. Even in the permanent Outstations, the Mardu remain full-time campers, sleeping under the stars in the deep dark of the desert night.

Rebecca has been formally adopted into Mardu kinship, a rare honor for an outsider. In the field, the Birds live with the extended family of her Mardu "mother."

In their work in behavioral ecology, a specialized subdiscipline within anthropology, their focus is on the interactions between humans and their environment, emphasizing the influence of social and geographical factors. "Behavior cannot be divided up into genetic and environmental components. It is always a product of the interaction between both genetic variability and variability in the physical, social and cultural environment in which individuals develop," Doug says.

One focus of the Birds' research is how gender relates to hunting and foraging strategies. For instance, the Mardu women primarily hunt smaller animals that are relatively easy to catch, such as goanna lizards. Often they use "mosaic burning," a ritual use of fire designed specifically as strategy to increase hunting efficiency by allowing them to better spot the burrows of prey and evidence of tracks.

The men, on the other hand, hunt larger animals, like bush turkey and kangaroo, that may require days of tracking before they are killed.

The women's hunting proves to be much more productive, with three days of hunting normally producing 4565 pounds of goanna meat. The men's hunting, however, may only produce one 13-pound turkey after a three-day chase.

Rebecca hypothesizes that some of the differences between the foraging of men and women may be related to the way that particular types of hunting can clearly display important qualities. It may be that sometimes men tend to hunt for attention rather than food, per se.

Men may gain status in the community because tracking the larger game gives them a way to demonstrate their skills and generosity (the larger game is shared communally, whereas individual families keep the smaller game they catch). "The men have cars and guns now, but there is still skill involved in tracking. For days on end, they can follow the animal and figure out what it did every single moment. It's the demonstration of that tracking ability," she says.

Doug says that while this research focuses on a small group of people, it is significant in that it ties in with a larger body of anthropological research concerned with the differences in the work that men and women do in all cultures.

"We're looking at basic clues about factors that influence something as important as gender the factors that make up what it means to be human. We're finding that even in materially simple circumstances, it's not just about the food. It's often as much about complex social arrangements and complex social interactions," he says.

by Margaret Nagle & Contributors
May-June, 2004

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