Lines in the Sand

Lines in the sand

The Monthly, March 2024

By failing to take Indigenous knowledge seriously, a scientific paper speculating on the origin of WA desert ‘fairy circles’ misses the mark 

In 1987, Dr Fiona Walsh, an ethnobiologist, was working with a number of Martu women on their Country in the deserts of Western Australia. In the grasslands, they came upon a series of circular areas of sand, some as hard as concrete, surrounded by a ring of hummock-like spinifex plants. The Martu women explained that these circles – called linyji by the Martu to denote a bare, hard area, like a claypan – were created by termites. The women also recounted how the circles were used by desert peoples as sites for threshing seed.

Walsh thought little of it at the time. It was one of many lessons she would learn over the years from those who lived in the desert.