Book Review – The Biggest Estate On Earth

I haven’t written a review here for ages, but I thought I’d write about this book to get some of my thoughts down about it. I just finished reading it during our holiday in New Zealand, and the contrast between a neighbouring country with a relatively recent human occupation (< 1000 yrs) and that of Australia was made even more stark through reading this book. For example, we visited Zealandia, a wildlife/eco-sanctuary which aims to provide a look at what New Zealand would have looked like before human habitation. ┬áIn Australia, where humans have been here for tens of thousands of years, what would such a project even mean?

The Biggest Estate on Earth

A historical analysis of the extent people managed the Australian landscape prior to European contact

The key controversy about this book is mentioned by Bill Gammage in his Appendix: that this is an application of the discipline of academic history to an area normally considered to be the domain of science – the Australian landscape. Accordingly, the book is dense with an overwhelming amount of source material that Gammage draws upon to support his analysis. This density made the book a bit of a chore for me to get through at times, and I maybe should have read just the first two and last two chapters, but the key insight is rewarding: that prior to European contact, people in Australia extensively managed the landscape to the extent we may even say that they “farmed” it.

As a historical text, Gammage draws upon both primary and secondary sources, but the former are extensive. Sources included writings from early explorers, surveyors, botanists, anthropologists, politicians, and farmers from across Australia, as well as paintings and maps from the time. A particularly interesting source for me was photographs of trees, which due to their multi-hundred year lifespans, are a form of documentation about what occurred in their vicinity during their life.

I found the argument repetitive, but still convincing, and am happy to believe that across Australia by 1788, people broadly shaped the landscape to suit their needs for both animal and plant food sources, as well as for large gatherings. Early Europeans to see this landscape described it over and over again as a “park”. The main tool used by indigenous peoples for shaping the land was controlled and timed burning, with fire being used on most days of the year, as people moved across their country. Since European contact and settlement, such practices have ceased and plant, animal and insect populations have also changed as a result. While it isn’t possible to return to the landscape or landcare regimes of those days, it highlights the knowledge that has been lost.

Rating by andrew: 3.5 stars
***1/2

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