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date: 01 October 2023

Fire in African Landscapeslocked

Fire in African Landscapeslocked

  • Simon PooleySimon PooleyDepartment of Geography, Birkbeck College School of Social Science, History and Philosophy


Fires have burned in African landscapes for more than a hundred million years, long before vertebrate herbivores trod the earth and modified vegetation and fire regimes. Hominin use of lightning fires is apparent c.1.5 million years ago, becoming deliberate and habitual from c. 400 thousand years ago (kya). The emergence of modern humans c. 195 kya was marked by widespread and deliberate use of fire, for hunting and gathering through to agricultural and pastoral use, with farming and copper and iron smelting spreading across sub-Saharan Africa with the Bantu migrations from 4–2.5 kya. Europeans provided detailed reports of Africans’ fire use from 1652 in South Africa and the 1700s in West Africa. They regarded indigenous fire use as destructive, an agent of desiccation and destruction of forests, with ecological theories cementing this in the European imagination from the 1800s. The late 1800s and early 1900s were characterized by colonial authorities’ attempts to suppress fires, informed by mistaken scientific ideas and management principles imported from temperate Europe and colonial forestry management elsewhere. This was often ignored by African and settler farmers. In the 1900s, the concerns of colonial foresters and fears about desiccation and soil erosion fueled by the American Dust Bowl experience informed anti-fire views until mid-century. However, enough time had elapsed for colonial and settler scientists and managers to have observed fires and indigenous burning practices and their effects, and to begin to question received wisdom on their destructiveness. Following World War II, during a phase of colonial cooperation and expert-led attempts to develop African landscapes, a more nuanced understanding of fire in African landscapes emerged, alongside greater pragmatism about what was achievable in managing wildfires and fire use. Although colonial restrictions on burning fueled some independence struggles, postcolonial environmental managers appear on the whole to have adopted their former oppressors’ attitudes to fire and burning. Important breakthroughs in fire ecology were made in the 1970s and 1980s, influenced by a movement away from equilibrium-based ecosystems concepts where fires were damaging disturbances to ecosystems, to an understanding of fires as important drivers of biodiversity integral to the functioning of many African landscapes. Notably from the 1990s, anthropologists influenced by related developments in rangeland ecology combined ecological studies with studies of indigenous land use practices to assess their impacts over time, challenging existing narratives of degradation in West African forests and East African savannas. Attempts were made to integrate communities (and, to a lesser extent, indigenous knowledge) into fire management plans and approaches. In the 2000s, anthropologists, archeologists, geographers, historians, and political ecologists have contributed studies telling more complex stories about human fire use. Together with detailed histories of landscape change offered by remote sensing and analysis of charcoal and pollen deposits, these approaches to the intertwined human and ecological dimensions of fire in African landscapes offer the prospect of integrated histories that can inform our understanding of the past and guide our policies and management in the future.


  • Archaeology

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