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Fire Ecology, 2014
Volume 10, Issue 2

Barriers to Understanding the Influence of Use of Fire by Aborigines on Vegetation, with an Introduction by M. Kat Anderson
Author: Omer C. Stewart
Pages: 1-9
DOI: 10.4996/fireecology.1002001

In March 1963, anthropologist Omer Stewart delivered a paper at the second annual Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference in Tallahassee, Florida, about the ecological significance of the use of fire by aboriginal peoples around the world. This paper, published later that year in a conference proceedings, is being reprinted here because, 50 years hence, it has become clear that it represents a turning point in our understanding of intentional burning by indigenous people and its effects on vegetation. Few ecologists, foresters, or wildland managers in Stewart’s day believed that indigenous burning deserved any consideration whatsoever, and we have Stewart’s clear voice to thank for articulating the contrary view that largely prevails today.

I never had the privilege of meeting Omer Stewart; nevertheless, his published and unpublished work on indigenous people and their use of fire and his arguments for the importance of this topic to ecology and anthropology have greatly influenced me and many others in various disciplines. As one of the first American anthropologists to understand that indigenous burning was relevant and, indeed, essential to our current understanding of the historical ecology of particular sites in many vegetation types, he taught us that indigenous people, and even non-Indian “backwoods-men or hill folk,” had specialized local forms of knowledge that could make a significant contribution to regional fire histories.

Over the course of his career, Stewart gathered, from oral interviews and written records, a great deal of information on the topic of indigenous burning to manage vegetation from disparate indigenous cultures separated widely by geography on multiple continents. The apparent universality of indigenous burning led him to conclude (in this reprinted article) that “man with fire as a tool has been the deciding factor in determining the types of vegetation covering about a fourth of the globe.” Coming at a time when the sciences of fire ecology and prescribed burning were in their infancy, this was a bold assertion indeed.

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