"The significance, really, is that we sort of uncovered a situation where traditional subsistence practices have a benefit to the broader ecosystem," Codding said. "I think this is probably going to be the case in many situations around the world where humans have stable, long-term interactions with their environments.
"This really isn't a focused conservation effort, but it has the same effects that people might get through conservation."
The fires set by the Martu people average about 10 acres much smaller than those sparked by lightning, Codding said.
Codding and three other anthropologists his formal doctoral advisers at Stanford University, senior author Douglas Bird, Rebecca Bliege Bird and Peter Kauhanen visited western Australia between 2007 and 2010 to conduct the research. The study was published online Monday in the journal Human Ecology.
The study concludes: "To be successful, management schemes should facilitate traditional burning and hunting regimes in remote communities, and incorporate this traditional ecological practice into future management protocols."
Codding said it came as no surprise to the Martu people that their burning has helped kangaroos. In their belief system, known as the dreamtime, they see themselves as part of a larger ecosystem with spiritual elements. Setting the small fires is part of the behavior and law passed down to them through the dreamtime.
The fires seem to have helped the kangaroos even in areas where they're hunted.
Codding and his colleagues found that kangaroo populations tended to be highest at moderate distances from villages, rather than very close (where kangaroos are first hunted) or very far (where there's little hunting and burning). The finding seems to suggest that the benefits of the burning outweigh even the hunting.