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First People’s knowledge of ‘mysterious fairy circles’ in Australian deserts has turned a long-running scientific debate on its head


What are “fairy circles”? They are specks of bare earth, regularly scattered over barren grasslands. Scientists first described fairy circles in Namibia in the 1970s and sparked a worldwide debate in the scientific community about the causes of the phenomenon.

In 2016 a group of concluded international scientists that in the Australian Pilbara “fairy circles” arose from spinifex plants competing for water and nutrients – a similar explanation to the one they proposed for fairy circles in Namibia. These stories were reinforced by the mediabut the voices of Aboriginal desert people were not reported.

In a study published in Natural Ecology & Evolution today we show what our Aboriginal co-authors have known all along – that fairy circles in Australia’s western deserts are flat, hard “pavings” inhabited by spinifex termites (Drepanotermes kind).

Colleague Peter Kendrick at a termite pavement in Nyiyaparli, Western Australia. The bare, level pavement is surrounded by unburned spinifex grassland, and the hard surface covers the subterranean termitaria.
Photo by Fiona Walsh

Knowing the country

Aboriginal people have lived at least in Australia’s Western Desert, including the Pilbara 50,000 years and know their country deeply. We are grateful to be part of a cross-cultural team of researchers, including Western Desert people and scientists.

An uninhibited curiosity was our starting point. Some of us knew little about spinifex grassland ecosystems. None of us knew about “fairy circles” or the international scientific debate. However, we all wanted to learn and were interested in learning together. As our research unfolded, the more we learned, the more we realized we didn’t know. We learned things that were new even to those who have lived in and studied deserts all their lives.

We saw similarities between patterns in specific Aboriginal artwork and aerial photographs of the sidewalks. We found paintings that tell deep and complex stories about termites and the activities of termite Jukurrpa (Dreaming) ancestors.

Painting illustrates women's work and ceremonial associations with termites and sidewalks.
Titled ‘Watanuma’ (2008) by Pintupi woman Wintjiya Napaltjarri. Watanuma (or Warturnuma) is both a place and flying spinifex termites. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 151.2 x 182.0 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. © estate of the artist, licensed by Papunya Tula Artists and Aboriginal Artists Agency.
https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAjQVU, Author specified (no reuse)

Western Desert Martu people call the fairy circle sidewalks linyji and the fat-rich flying termites Warturnuma. We learned that the hard surfaces of linyji are used to thresh seed and flying termites are prized food. Martu colleague Gladys Karimarra Bidu stated:

Linyji are the homes of termites that live underground. We collected and ate the Warturnuma that flew out of Linyji. Warturnuma is wama, delicious. Old people also put their seeds on the hard linyji. They hit seed to make damper; our good food. I learned this from my old people and have seen this myself many times.

First Peoples knowledge of mysterious fairy circles in Australian deserts.0&q=45&auto=format&w=754&fit=clip
Linyji (pavements) were essential surfaces for cleaning seed food and preparing it for eating. Martu used to clean food seeds on a linyji (sidewalk) nowadays they use a tarpaulin. On the left is a colleague, Thelma Milangka Rowlands. Photo by Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa with permission.

Termites as relatives

This knowledge about sidewalks and termites is shared and passed down from generation to generation by Martu and other indigenous groups. Our Australian Wildlife Conservancy colleagues Alice Nampijinpa Michaels and Lee Nangala Wayne describe their feelings for flying spinifex termites in this video. Alice said:

Pamapardu, great crowd. Watturnuma and pamapardu we call them. I cried for that pamapardu. I cried for my brother. My brother’s dream.

Why such strong feelings? Spinifex termites are related to them. Those that live on the sidewalks are like the krill of desert ecosystems – they are plentiful. Most people think of above-ground termite mounds, but here’s an entire community that lives mostly below the soil surface, emerging only to eat dead spinifex or fly to reproduce.

Most Australians consider spinifex grasslands to be “garbage land”. A shepherd even said it when we were digging in termite pavement. He was about to set the spinifex (and possibly us) on fire. Termites, including those that live in the spinifex, are often vilified and poisoned by Australians. However, these expanses of land and their termites are of great importance to the Aboriginal people in ways that were invisible to some of our team.

New scientific findings of Aboriginal knowledge

Our intercultural research has led to unexpected findings. Termite pavements retain water after heavy rains, which scientists didn’t realize until we recognized clues in the stories and art of rural Aboriginal people. Purungu Desmond Taylor, Martu interpreter and co-author, remembered the Mulyamijilarge desert skink, and describes breeding behavior not previously reported by scientists:

After good rainfall in the land of the linyji, Mulyamiji would be born in the water that lay on the linyji. My mother, my two fathers, my uncle told me this a long time ago.

Aboriginal people have refined their encyclopaedic knowledge while living continuously on this continent for thousands of generations. Listening to Aboriginal desert voices enhanced our understanding of how ubiquitous, but often overlooked, desert land works.

We learned that the flat is loud linyji are used to prepare food, they can become ephemeral sources of water and support farming Mulyamijithey provide abundant and rich sources of food and have deep spiritual significance.

This year Australians will be asked to recognize Australia’s First Nations People in our constitution. In our experience, we strengthen our bonds with Country and each other when we nurture relationships, listen carefully and share together, work equitably and in a two-way manner.

Read more: The Voice: what is it, where did it come from and what can it achieve?

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