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Learning the Hard Way

Every day, the Martu people of Western Australia go to extraordinary lengths to find or hunt what they need to eat. How they do it offers lessons for the rest of us, say anthropologists Doug and Rebecca Bird.

Frances Andrijich

PART OF THE FAMILY: Rebecca and Doug Bird spend months at a time with the Martu.

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By Ken Eastwood

Readers should be aware that this story includes graphic descriptions of game hunting.

In a desiccated desert landscape, a .22 rifle pokes out the window of a four-wheel-drive Toyota Troop Carrier. The gun's sight has been expertly attached with kangaroo sinew.

Crack! A shot rings out across the orange sand and the chase is on. The 4WD, laden with Stanford undergraduates and Australian Aboriginals, accelerates wildly and weaves frantically in and out of the spiky spinifex grass and mulga. A melee of people and packs flies about inside the truck as it bounces over the hard ground. "Having a nice ride, everyone?" 17-year-old Hamzah Taylor shouts from the front seat. His iPod is plugged into the car's stereo system, blaring indigenous rock. "A real outback adventure!"

Ahead, the wounded but fast-moving quarry careens through the low-lying vegetation, slowing to a trot only when it thinks it is safe behind an acacia tree. Then another shot hits home and the animal bolts again. If this were any other game animal out here—a kangaroo or an emu or a much-coveted bustard—the .22 would have finished the job by now. But this is a feral camel, bigger than the 4WD itself and as strong as the desert sun. Bullets strike three more times in 10 minutes before the beast slumps to its knees.

Hamzah, barefoot and wearing a Snoop Dogg baseball cap, springs out of the vehicle wielding an axe. With one swift movement, he slices the camel's jugular; crimson blood pools on the terra-cotta ground. Senior Bill Loundy, a double major in English and earth sciences, is the first to join in the butchering. "I wore a white shirt so I could get blood on it," he declares. Although a vegetarian back home, he's keen to try all the bush foods he can on this trip. "Out here I eat meat because it seems more natural."

The students observing the hunt have come to this remote part of Western Australia under the direction of Stanford anthropologists Doug Bird and Rebecca Bliege Bird.

The Birds have spent much of the past decade studying the hunting and foraging habits of the Martu, an Aboriginal society that has lived here for millenia. The Martu offer a window into how humans—and native Australians in particular—have adapted the landscape for their needs. The Birds' work is not only increasing our understanding of traditional ways of living but also may be applicable to contemporary policy making. For example, the couple's study of the Martu use of fire to clear small areas of vegetation—ostensibly to enable better hunting—has shown that the practice also promotes biodiversity and might provide grist for re-examining land management methods. The Birds have offered insights about gender roles based on differences in food-gathering strategies adopted by Martu men and women. And their intimate knowledge of Martu life provides a platform for analyzing how societies based on cooperation function differently—and perhaps more effectively—than those in which individual goals drive behavior.

Although the Martu have many westernized ways, hunting and foraging remain important social and cultural activities, undertaken by at least some people each day. Depending on the season, 20 to 50 percent of the Martu diet is still composed of bush foods.

For the 15 Stanford undergrads who joined the Birds for three weeks last August, the research trip was truly hands-on. With direction from Martu elder Waka Taylor, junior Tiffany Cain took a turn harvesting the meat from the freshly slain camel. "I don't need a grocery store anymore," she said, reaching for a pack of moist towelettes. "Just going to eat camel and catch my own goanna."

The Martu lands are roughly in the middle of Western Australia, the country's largest state, about 600 miles northeast of Perth. After flying into Perth, the students had taken another two-hour flight to the 4,000-strong mining outpost of Newman, then a seven-hour road trip on corrugated dirt tracks to their temporary home, a makeshift camp among bloodwood and witchetty bush deep in the desert interior.

The Martu are one of hundreds of Aboriginal peoples whose ancestors date from the earliest human habitation of Australia 45,000 years ago. Isolated by geography and distance, they did not encounter white people until early in the 20th century when the government began "bringing in" Aboriginals to missions and resettlements and later forcibly removing children from their families in an attempt to anglicize them. (The 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence dramatized the story of three Martu girls who escaped from a resettlement after being torn from their home in the 1930s.)

Today, about half of the society—totaling 1,000 or so—live in three communities of 50 to 200 people located throughout the Martu homeland. (Most of the rest live in outback towns such as Newman and Port Hedland.) The Birds first came here in 2000 at the invitation of the Martu, who were preparing their case for a claim that would give them official ownership of their ancestral lands. Having worked for nine years on natural-resource use by indigenous people in the Torres Strait in northern Queensland, the Birds had expertise suited to the Martu case. By documenting the hunting strategies used by contemporary Aboriginals, the Birds demonstrated that the land continued to be a vital resource for the people. They also mapped sacred sites to show the extent of the Martu's land and their connections to it. The government in 2002 acceded to the claim, granting the Martu native title to 85,000 square miles, at the time the largest such designation ever in Australia.

That introduction to Martu life captivated the Birds, and when two elders invited them back to "show you more country," the couple leapt at the opportunity. They formed close relationships in the community and were soon embraced as the children of elder Nyalangka Taylor. "I met them when they first came—they used to hang out with me a lot," Nyalangka says. "They wanted to call me something, and I said 'call me Mum.' They are special to me."

Martu communities usually are closed to outsiders—indeed, permits are required to visit. But they have become a second home to the Birds and their two children—bush-savvy Sydney, 12, and 4-year-old Naomi. The Birds juxtapose their teaching obligations at Stanford with months-long stints with the Martu.

Most of that time is spent in the foraging camps that spring up almost daily within a day's drive of the settlements. Operating a camp out here requires perseverance and mental tenacity to deal with heat, wind, fire, dirt and deadly fauna such as trapdoor spiders, not to mention a host of practical issues—keeping vehicles fueled and running and the never-ending need to find drinking water. The Birds manage to do it with general good humor and grace, and Rebecca even manages to stay looking stylish, despite sometimes going weeks without a decent wash.

"The daily business of life consumes the day," says Rebecca. "Water has to be pumped from the nearest handpump, which on one of our camps was 30 minutes away. Food has to be meticulously planned and packed into 12 big plastic boxes. We have to ensure people know how to act to avoid the dangerous critters—trapdoor spiders, snakes, scorpions, bull ants, centipedes, bull camels. Even going to the toilet requires a 15-minute walk with a shovel."

In recent years the Birds have explored a new avenue of study: how differences in the ways men and women hunt influence social norms. Although Martu custom doesn't dictate hunting activities according to gender, men and women generally choose different ventures. "There's no edict, no law about division of labor. They just tend to do different things," Doug says. About 60 percent of the time, men go for animals such as the fleet-footed hill kangaroo (kirti-kirti in the Martu language) or the bustard (kipara), a large turkey-like bird. These provide more meat but are difficult to bag—the success rate for kangaroos is around 20 percent. Meanwhile, 74 percent of the time women choose the "safer" option of hunting the foot-long sand goanna, a monitor lizard that is a staple food source. Goannas provide less meat than larger prey but are abundant and relatively easy to kill, producing a 90 percent success rate for hunters.

In a hunting party of eight to 10 people, five women and one man might go looking for sand goanna, usually within walking distance of the camp, while the other men go farther afield seeking bigger game. Rebecca says that women's child-care role, particularly when children are nursing, may have a small part to play in the choice of activities, but it doesn't completely explain the difference. "Child-care constraints alone can't institutionalize a long-term gender division of labor. If that were all that was going on, post-reproduction hunting would be the same for both genders," she says.

"Women like the more predictable outcomes," notes Rebecca, who has observed similarities between the Martu and other hunter-gatherer societies she has studied, including the Aché Indians of Paraguay. "They all fall out on a perfect line—you can predict the proportion of activity that's going to be done by one sex or the other by your chances of success."

Adding to the complex picture is the cooperative nature of Martu society. Prestige in this community is gained not by owning more than others, but by giving away what you have—be it money, tobacco or food. This may help explain why government programs aimed at helping Aboriginal people have had limited effect. Put simply, Martu people would rather give than receive.

A successful goanna hunter would typically distribute her catch to the other members of the hunting party, regardless of whether they are related, but it's a comparatively small amount of meat—on average, enough to feed two to three people. However, a successful hill-kangaroo hunter places the carcass at the edge of camp and takes no further role in the butchering or distribution. Instead a senior man will assign the different cuts of meat to 10 or so family members of the hunter, or to others.

"There's symbolic value to the acquisition of food," Rebecca says. "It tells a lot about the individual—what activity they choose to be involved in, and then how they perform those activities. Kangaroo hunting shows the ability to care for community . . . and a willingness to work for the public good. It signals 'I've just eliminated the need for anyone else to do any work, because there is enough here to feed everyone.' Being a good goanna hunter shows that you're capable of some pretty essential skills. But who are you sharing with when you are hunting goanna?"

"[Kangaroo hunting] is a very public strategy," Doug adds. "It garners a lot of attention and feeds a lot of people. If you choose to go hunting for sand goanna, you're almost guaranteed to have a meal. But sometimes it's better [politically] to come back and be just as hungry as everyone else."

The mid-afternoon sun is tenderizing large chunks of camel on the roof of the 4WD as the hunting party continues toward higher orange-colored dunes. Here the spinifex is greener due to more recent rains. The hunters pass riverbeds, completely dry now, that gush brown water after summer floods. Occasionally a yellow-flowering grevillea or waist-high honey shrub provides another splash of color. Suddenly the second vehicle in the party veers off to chase three bustards that have landed a few hundred yards away. Before the vehicle gets close, the wily birds take to the air.

Up the track a bit, the trucks stop again in a section of thick spinifex. The young Martu clamber out and ignite large clumps of the resinous, highly combustible grass, setting a waru—a fire that roars off in the wind. Controlled burning by the Martu goes back eons and illustrates their profound understanding of the desert ecosystem, Doug says. A member of the hunting party, Burchell Taylor, describes the practice of setting fires as "cleaning up country." After fire denudes an area, goanna holes are easier to find. And bustards are often attracted by fire to find insects dazed by the smoke.

In effect, say the Birds, the Martu are "farming" small game by using fire to perpetually restore habitat. Nutrients from the charred ground regenerate plant life, allowing the animals the Martu depend on—and that depend on one another—to proliferate.

Martu identify five stages of vegetative regrowth in relation to fire. The first of these is nyurnma, which occurs immediately following a burn. This is followed by waru-waru, when new shoots appear, and nyukura, the most intensive growth stage, which produces a diversity of solanum fruits (such as bush tomatoes) and other plants. "In a single large patch of nyukura you can get a good 50 kilograms [110 pounds] of the small solanums," Doug says. But after a few more years, as the vegetation enters its final two stages, mangul and kunarka, clumps of spinifex dominate and eventually monopolize the terrain. "In the final two stages, you're really looking at sterile ground," Doug says. At that point, it's time for a fresh burn.

In areas where Martu regularly hunt for goanna and set these fires, the result is a patchwork of different vegetative growth stages. Mainly lit in winter (April to October), the fires are restricted to 22 hectares, an area roughly the size of 53 football fields, contained by wind, geographical features and previous burns.

The confined, managed burns also act as a buffer against vastly more damaging blazes that occur naturally in the desert. Outside the area in which the Martu regularly hunt—30 or so miles from the settlements—the landscape is scarred by fires hundreds of times larger than those set by the Martu, ignited by summer lightning storms. There, the mosaic created by a succession of human-set fires disappears completely and the diversity of vegetation, wildlife and habitat goes with it.

Preemptive burning of selected areas to create natural firebreaks may be one method for preventing catastrophic, large-scale fires such as those that claimed more than 100 lives in Australia in 2009. So far, though, the Birds will only say that the Martu's practices promote better hunting; fire prevention may merely be a constructive byproduct rather than an intentional land management strategy.

The fire setting has social significance as well. Unwritten rules dictate where members of the community may burn—failure to honor them is considered a breach of trust. Doug points out that if a fire did get out of control, it could have terrible consequences. "To set fire or damage an area with sacred sites is really, really serious," he says. "It's potentially punishable by death."

Fire's central place in Martu life is celebrated in songs and art of the region. It was no surprise to Doug that an exhibition of Martu art that will tour the United States in 2010 is called "Waru." The exhibition will be on display at Stanford later this year. At press time the venue and dates were undetermined.

A revered artist, and one of the best foragers in the area, elder Kumpaya Girgirba toddles across an almost featureless plain in thongs, checked shirt and a pink Dora the Explorer beanie. She carries a Coke bottle full of water and a digging stick or wana (which in this case is a thin metal crowbar). Kumpaya has a friendly round face with wisps of black and grey hair appearing from under the beanie, and a nose as broad as the majestic Nukuwarta range behind her. Her left little toe sticks out from her foot at a nasty angle from an accident "a long time ago."

This area was burned last summer in a lightning strike and there's been no rain, so it's barren and unremittingly shadeless. Termite mounds stand like tombstones. The heat has nudged up to 91 degrees Fahrenheit.

Two days earlier, on a similar goanna hunt, Kumpaya had tired out two of the young female Stanford students who were with her for five hours. She just kept hunting, even though the returns weren't good. The students, worn down by the blistering heat and lack of water, had to rest in their tent later on, but Kumpaya seemed fine.

"These 80-year-old women can run me into the ground," Doug says. "You see them back in camp and they can barely walk, but out on the dunes, they'll go dune after dune after dune all day."

Rebecca describes following them in the heat of summer, when the mercury tops 113 degrees. "It's like someone has been hitting you over the head with a piece of lead pipe all day," she says.

Kumpaya's eyes scan the ground from the horizon to directly in front of her. She stops and turns to the left, following barely discernible tracks. "Ahh, kipara gone," she says mournfully.

Suddenly she locks onto a much smaller track and follows it, snaking back and forth, then honing in with increasing speed on a long-dead acacia, lying on its side. She springs into action. Whack, whack. After two overhead strikes of her crowbar onto the bush, she grabs a stunned goanna. She flicks its head quickly against the crowbar a few more times, and it's over. "That was easy—no digging," she says. In the warmer months, goannas are found on the surface, but in the winter it's usually a more laborious process, as Kumpaya soon demonstrates.

After searching for another 15 minutes, she finds a likely looking goanna hole. She rubs a bit of spit on her hands and starts thrusting the digging stick down in circles around the main hole, hoping to break through into the den. It requires persistence, experience and stamina. When the hole is found, she sits down beside it and scoops out dirt with her left hand, widening the hole with the bar held in her right. But after five minutes or so, she declares it no good—the goanna isn't there.

Back at the dinner camp Kumpaya adds her one goanna to the six provided by another party, and there's plenty to go around. Using a ground oven of hot coals and sand, the entire group cooks up a feast of goanna and hot tea, devouring the shared catch in a tradition that's remained intact for thousands of years.

Although they've now documented more than 1,500 such foraging events, the Birds aren't in any rush to leave their place by the fireside with their extended desert family. "It's so much a part of us and it's home, and there's always more stuff to find out," Doug says. "Even over a course of many years, some things will happen and you go, 'what? I've never seen that happen before.'"

KEN EASTWOOD is a freelance writer living in East Ryde, a suburb of Sydney. His work appears regularly in Australian Geographic.

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