Hunting with Fire
Anthropologists study of Aboriginal foraging strategies sheds light
on the evolution of human behavior
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
"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
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 70–100 people who were among the last Aboriginals
to encounter Europeans in the 1960s. Their territory is about the size
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
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 45–65 pounds of goanna meat. The men's
hunting, however, may only produce one 13-pound turkey after a three-day
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 &
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.