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The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  492 ratings  ·  77 reviews
Reveals the complex, country-wide systems of land management used by Aboriginal people in presettlement Australia

Across Australia, early Europeans commented again and again that the land looked like a park, with extensive grassy patches and pathways, open woodlands, and abundant wildlife. Bill Gammage has discovered this was because Aboriginal people managed the land in
Hardcover, 434 pages
Published May 1st 2012 by Allen Unwin (first published October 1st 2011)
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Michael It is quite a dense and confusing book. I would say a good level of Australian history would be necessary to understand it well. A popular book on the…moreIt is quite a dense and confusing book. I would say a good level of Australian history would be necessary to understand it well. A popular book on the same topic is Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe. That may be a better place to start.(less)

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Mar 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, race, science
When my family first arrived in Australia I was five and it was August, that is, the end of winter, and it was raining and bitterly cold. All of which my parents hadn’t quite prepared us for, because, well, we were going to Australia, the land of sunshine… the problem was that we aren’t really going to ‘Australia’ so much as to Melbourne…

All the same, throughout my childhood summers were something to look forward to. Sure, there were the occasional bushfires, but as someone said recently, those
Chris Fellows
Jan 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A very important book. It has forever changed how I see my country. I am in awe at what was once here. Gammage persuasively argues the case for the existence of a sustained, intelligent and incredibly complex regime of fire use that created and maintained a distinctive Australian landscape for thousands of years. The scope of this achievement is staggering. The intelligently-designed mosaic we once had prevented the large and destructive fires we now experience, encouraged biodiversity, and made ...more
Trigger warnings: fire. That's probably it, other than some racism and outdated language courtesy of quotes from historic sources.

I've been meaning to read this book since I first heard about it when it came out. It was EVERYWHERE when it was first published, and there was much talk of how it was going to revolutionise Australian history.

Sadly, that doesn't seem to have happened, but this *is* an astonishing book that does completely turn Australian history on its head. Gammage essentially arg
Mar 24, 2019 rated it it was ok
This book is popular enough it deserves a review not just of its content but also of its impact. One very serious and welcome impact is that it's put Indigenous land management in the spotlight in a way that no previous publication did (although Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu is now doing that job, and probably more effectively).

However, there are significant weaknesses in the book that should cause readers to treat the author's conclusions with caution. Indigenous voices are few and far between, for
Jun 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
Should be compulsory reading for anyone over the age of 10 interested in land management - i.e. how to save the planet and ensure that our kids survive to have kids of their own and theirs also
Tim O'Neill
Jan 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This is a book that will mean you never look at the Australian landscape the same way again. Most Aussies have some vague idea that the Aborigines used fire to manage the land. I know I'd read enough references to burning by "the natives" in early settler and explorer accounts and was aware that this had something to do with hunting. Gammage's book makes it clear exactly how careful, well-calibrated and effective this use of fire on the landscape actually was.

Starting with comparisons of early d
Aug 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A dense, meticulously researched opus which posits a comprehensive theory- that pre-invasion, Aboriginal people managed the land minutely and without exception, shaping a land conducive to human habitation and food supply. This will easily go down as one of my most memorable reads of 2012.
Gammage's approach is relentlessly historical. He has gathered thousands of quotes from white explorers and settlers describing the land they first encountered. According to the forward by Henry Reynolds, 1500
Martin Empson
Feb 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
In The German Ideology Marx and Engels write "nature, the nature that preceded human nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin)". They were arguing that the natural world is transformed by humans, constantly recreated and rebuilt. It is an insight that kept returning to me as I read Bill Gammage's excellent book The Biggest Estate on Earth. Gammage's contention is that the Australian landscape as seen by European ...more
Thomas Isern
Apr 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
Gammage has produced a landmark work, albeit an exasperating one. His presentation of evidence is encyclopedic and, eventually, deadening. He just keeps piling it on, without forming it up for us. He succeeds in making exceedingly important points, but then stretches them just a bit too far. The aborigines of Australia, we are informed, engaged in sophisticated landscape management through mosaic burning, what on the prairies of North America we call patch burning. The evidence for this is quite ...more
Richard Reese
Apr 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The British colonization of Australia began in 1788. Historian Bill Gammage, a white fella, spent ten years studying the writings of early observers, as well as paintings, drawings, and maps from the era. The landscape in 1788 looked radically different from today. Much of what is now dense forest or scrub used to be grasslands. Early eyewitnesses frequently commented that large regions looked like parks. In those days, all English parks were the private estates of the super-rich. Oddly, the Abo ...more
Nedret Efe
Aug 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
A very detailed account of the way in which Aboriginal Australians actively managed the land and shaped a mosaic of grasses through controlled burning, and the ecological implications after European settlement in 1788 when such burning largely ceased
Dec 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Every Australian should read this book. An eye-opener.
Lloyd Downey
Mar 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Well Bill, you pretty much had me until your last chapter (which is really an appendix). But thou "dost protest too much, methinks". This appendix is very defensive and highlights the fact that Bill's thesis has its critics. I think there is certainly enough evidence cited to show that Aboriginals did use fire extensively to manage the landscape and, in fact, we are "given a Tsunami of evidence". But I found myself asking all the way through ......."Is this ALL the evidence?....Is this balanced? ...more
Justin Jonson
Apr 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Some excellent insights are provided in this treatise, however Gammage may have been able to tell the same story with half the text. A valuable contribution to gaining insights into how Aboriginal cultures managed the land, none-the-less. Well worth it.
Martin Chambers
Feb 24, 2016 rated it liked it

In the “The Biggest estate on earth” Bill Gammage has created an exhaustive thesis that sets out that Australia at the time the first Europeans came was not the wilderness most Australians think it was. Rather, it was a managed landscape attended by an advanced society. The notion is contrary to the popular idea that Aborigines were primitive hunter-gatherers, and it challenges our concept of what might be the natural landscape of Australia.
Gammage’s research is exhaustive, although much of it
Apr 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Most people who have some interest in Australian history have some understanding the Aboriginal people previously did 'burn offs' on the land. What Gammage shows is not only did they just 'burn off', however had a system of complex system of land management using fire as a tool. In brief laymans terms, this involved creating a mosaic template across the land of shaded forest, waterholes, and grassy patches of field that attracted game for hunting. Where the complexity came in, was their knowledg ...more
Jenny Kirkby
Sep 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
The only thing that stops me giving this book 5 stars is the amount of repetition in the multiple examples the author gives to support his assertions. I understand that this is required for skeptical readers struggling to acknowledge that, despite a different approach to Europeans, Australia's indigenous peoples had/have a far superior understanding of land management here and took superb care of this land. I think this book deserves public acclaim as much, if not more, than "Dark Emu" as Gammag ...more
Nov 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a really important book that provides a synthesis of vital evidence we need to reshape the dominant colonial-invader narrative that permeates Australian society. The book can feel very long and repetitive at times but this is necessary as the author requires a huge amount of evidence to combat an extremely ingrained perception of pre-invasion Aboriginal life. This is an incredibly well researched and well written book that rewrites the falsehood that we have been fed that pre-invasion Ab ...more
Mar 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow. What a fascinating, enlightening book!
Mar 06, 2018 rated it liked it

This must be one of the most important books ever written about Australia. Bill Gammage is an extraordinary scholar. He set out to discover how humans have shaped the Australian environment, and spent a decade trawling the libraries and landscapes of Australia for clues. The mass of evidence he presents is truly overwhelming. He quotes letters, journals, newspaper articles, books and scientific papers. He includes 59 carefully selected images: paintings, drawings, photos. He is a profound observ

Jul 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A compelling re-reading of early colonial Australian landscapes, backed up with an astounding number of citations. A must-read for any person interested in the early agronomy practices and land management strategies that Australian First Nations people developed.
Jan 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
Bill Gammage's book was kindly leant to me by a new found friend while I was away in Western Australia. Unfortunately, owing to the many wonderful distractions one encounters during a family reunion visit, I was unable to sit down and actually read the whole body of text from start to finish. I did though manage to read significant portions of it - including the many copious illustrations with their very fully detailed and lengthy explanatory captions. In some ways this book reminded me somewhat ...more
Apr 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This fine 2011 study of the Australian landscape before 1788 is already the foremost historical account of how native people in Australia managed the land, "systematically and scientifically", before the forces of colonization were so brutally imposed. A significant percentage of the book's basic argument is visual, presented in handsomely reproduced paintings and landscapes from the 18th and 19th centuries as well as 'then and now' photographs over time. Gammage also relies heavily on the writt ...more
Nov 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Most people have the impression that before European arrival in Australia the country was wild and had a natural landscape. In 1788 the new European colonists marveled over the "park like" landscape they found that was filled with open and lightly wooded spaces with exceptional grass suitable for cattle (and kangaroos). What they all failed to realise was that the abundance they found was the result of thousands of years of deliberate land management over the entire continent to maximise plants ...more
Natasha Hurley-Walker
Fascinating history put together from careful botanical observations and historical accounts of the original inhabitants of Australia and how they managed the largest single estate for the longest continuous period in human history. It was moving and frustrating to realise how much has been lost, doubly so because we're now ruled by a government that thinks living in all of Australia (as opposed to its urban centres) is a "lifestyle choice" and that there was "nothing but bush" here in 1788. Suc ...more
Jan 13, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Before reading this book I thought I had quite an understanding of Australia's First People. I knew there were many countries and languages, I knew the Dreaming was essential and interconnected to all areas of life, and that they were deeply connected to the land. But how deep that connection was, I had no idea.

The Biggest Estate on Earth provided me a clearer perspective of the land management skills of the First Australians. The Australia that was first seen and documented in 1788 seemed like
Brona's Books
Nov 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Gammage relentlessly and persistently drums his message home until even the most reluctant non-believer must see what is so evident in all the paintings and writings from this time. His extensive use of primary sources almost feels overwhelming in sections, as quote after quote is used to support his premise.
If a comprehensive variety of sources and repetition can prove a point, then Gammage should consider his point proved!

In his Introduction, Gammage states,
They first managed country for plant
Sue Law
Mar 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is not an easy read. Despite the glossy cover it is actually an academic treatise. Approached with an open mind, it will totally change your mind about this history of Australia. Gammage uses the records and images made by the first explorers, surveyors and settlers to show that far from being an untamed bush wilderness, the length and breadth of Australia was a carefully managed mosaic of environments designed to produce predictable resources at predictable times of the year. The main tool ...more
Peter Franklin
This was an interesting book that demonstrated pretty convincing evidence that a lot of Australian bushland was quite open before white settlement. A great number of references to the park like land that the early white people documented along with the numerous fires that the aborigines lit is in the book. In fact this theme is a common thread through the book, partly because Bill Gammage wanted to provide a strong case for his assessment what the land was like as some academics do not want to b ...more
Jul 01, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: australia
A fascinating book, making me rethink my picture of 1788 Australia in particular the capability of the indigenous population to manage the landscape. Much of his material is drawn from the Canberra region so I found it very engaging. I will never use the term frost hollow again!

A yawning gap for me was the failure to even mention megafauna, the extinction of which undermines the author's thesis somewhat. Also, the author made a lot of hopeful assumptions in attributing landscapes to aboriginal i
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“Mobility scandalised Europeans. Their road obliged them to fence and guard, to stay put, to make hard work a virtue. This gave great advantages, including the numbers and technology to explain why a white Australian writes this book. It also led them to condemn people who reduced their material wants, sat yarning in daylight, and gave so much time to ceremony and ritual. These were preserves and pursuits of gentry. It did not seem right that Aborigines should be like that.” 0 likes
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