fire bookcover

At the time of European contact, Australian Aborigines made fire using four methods. These were:

* The hand drill, used across the northern and coastal regions.

* The fire saw with a cleft stick, used throughout much of inland Australia. This involved two small sticks, the lower one with an end split and wedged apart, allowing the hot ember to fall through the gap.

* The fire saw with the edge of a spearthrower rubbed over a soft shield, used in Central Australia. Sometimes the thin edge of a boomerang was used as the saw.

* The percussion method of striking flint against pyrites was restricted to South Australia, where flint was available.

A fifth method of fire making, restricted to the Broome and Ninety Mile Beach area of north-west Australia, is the fire plough. This is where one piece of wood is rubbed back and forth along the inside of a wider length of wood, and was probably introduced by East Indian crew members working on early pearling vessels in the 1800s.

The hand drill is where a vertical stick is twirled and forced down onto a lower stick to create an ember. Larrakia man, Alfie May, demonstrates the method.

Photograph by David M. Welch.

fire saw with a cleft stick. This small fire-making kit is resting against a termite mound for the photograph. On the left is a split stick, with the split wedged apart by a small piece of wood. In the centre is another piece of wood used like a saw and rubbed across the split or cleft stick to produce an ember. On the right is a small wad of macerated spinifex providing the tinder. Central Australia, 1920s.

Photograph by Herbert Basedow, from Making Fire.

Two Aranda men in Central Australia rub the sharp edge of a hardwood spearthrower over a softwood shield to make an ember using the fire saw method.

Photograph by Spencer and Gillen, from Making Fire.

To create a flame and make fire, two sticks are rubbed together with enough force and friction to produce a powdery sawdust with black hot charcoal-like properties. This is known as charchar-dust or ember. This will not burst into flames by itself, but will glow red when blown upon.

Tinder is the fine dry plant material which is necessary to obtain a flame. In the arid regions of Australia where soft grasses are lacking, Aboriginal people often used dry dung from kangaroos and other animals, which contained partially-digested and macerated plant material. The soil component was shaken out and the remaining fibres provided suitable tinder.

To obtain a flame, the hot ember is dropped onto the dry tinder and gently blown. The ember glows and gradually ignites the tinder, producing fire. The writer has learnt this skill and written the precise details in the book Making Fire, by Stephen Blake and David M. Welch.