Teacher background information


Year 2 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Use and influence of science

People use science in their daily lives, including when caring for their environment and living things (ACSHE035 - Scootle )

  • investigating how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples use science to meet their needs, such as food supply (OI.2, OI.3, OI.5)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long used science to inform the sustainable harvest of environmental resources to meet their needs, such as the supply of food. Sustainable harvesting practices employed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples demonstrate care for the environment and living things through the considered acquisition of resources. A diverse range of scientific knowledges and understandings underpins the harvest of resources to ensure that ecosystem balances are maintained and that the living things within an environment are protected for the ongoing generation of resources. Cultural protocols, founded on these deep ecological understandings, safeguard and care for living things and the environment. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to investigate how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples use science in their daily lives to harvest resources sustainably in order to meet their needs.

In ecology, sustainable harvesting is described as sensitive and responsive harvesting that maintains environmental balance. Its methods allow population numbers to be maintained or to increase over time, and play a role to prevent the extinction of species. Furthermore, the sustainable harvest of a resource requires an understanding of ecological interdependencies and sustainable harvesting practices, that ensure that dependent species populations are unaffected by resource acquisition. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have in depth scientific knowledges and understandings of the environment of their Country or Place, including life cycles and organism longevity, mating behaviours, timing, home ranges and diets, that inform when and where resources can be accessed. Organisms were, and still are, purposefully harvested at a time in their lifecycle and/or population density, to ensure the long term survival of the species and its dependent organisms. Prior to colonisation, such scientific knowledges and understandings were used daily by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to care for the environment and living things, and to acquire essential resources, such as food supplies. These knowledges continue to inform harvesting practices today.

Native bees have long been an important organism for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, as they are highly valued for the resources they produce, including honey (sugarbag) and wax; these resources are used as food, adhesives and medicine. Native beehives produce only small amounts of honey, up to 50 times less than European honeybees, and as such it has long been an important social and economic resource. Wild honey can be located by skilful tracking to find the hives. Careful access using sustainable harvesting practices to collect honey from the standing tree ensures that the hive and the tree are not destroyed.

The Awngthim Peoples of western Cape York Peninsula have been recorded as collecting wild honey using a thin length of fibrous timber that acts as an absorbent sponge. A small incision is made either directly above or below the hive and the timber tool carefully inserted into the hive. The honey soaks into the fibrous timber, thus allowing it to be extracted and transferred to a container. The incision may be resealed or blocked with mud or tightly packed grass to ensure the preservation of the hive. Harvesting native honey using sustainable methods is evidenced in trees that are still standing today; these trees bear as many as six bark incision scars, demonstrating that they have likely been revisited multiple times to access wild honey. This harvesting practice demonstrates scientific application and care for the environment as it ensures that living things in the environment, in this case the native bees and the tree hosting the hive, are not damaged and continue to thrive.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long used scientific understandings of plant growth characteristics to sustainably cultivate tubers as a food resource. Yams are a type of plant that has stem tubers. These are enlarged structures of the stem that act as nutrient and energy storage for the plant, and enable the plant to regrow. Stem tubers have nodes from which a new shoot can sprout and develop into a new plant. On Yolŋu Country in north-eastern Arnhem Land, women have the knowledge, expertise and responsibility to cultivate and harvest ganguri (long yam). Ganguri grow deep underground and are located by acute observation of the surface vines to find the place to dig up the tubers without damaging the vine. As the ganguri are harvested, the vine stem and a small section of the tuber are left in position and the earth is replaced, to provide protection for the resource and encourage the yam to form again. The Meriam Peoples of Mer Island in the Torres Strait have long practiced the sustainable harvest of ketai (a climbing form of yam), that provides a staple vegetable food resource. When digging for the tubers, only new tubers are harvested, and care is taken to ensure that the parent tuber remains undisturbed. This practice demonstrates a botanical understanding that the parent tuber will continue to produce new tubers if it is undamaged. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have deep knowledges and understandings of aquatic ecosystems, and have developed and employed technologies and techniques for the sustainable harvesting of fish over millennia. Aquatic ecosystems are culturally, economically and socially of immense value to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, as they provide resources such as foods, medicines and material for implements. The knowledge of plants that contain piscicides has long been used as a means of sustainably harvesting fish. Saponins are a group of chemicals that are natural detergents; they are found in a range of plant species and foam in aqueous solutions. Rotenone is a chemical that occurs naturally in some plant species. When crushed in water, plants that contain saponins or rotenone release the chemical that affects the respiratory organs of the fish, producing a temporarily stupefied or paralysed state. When affected, the fish rise to the surface of the water where they can easily be harvested. This sustainable method of harvesting fish relies on the knowledge that the effect of the chemical, in the correct concentration, is short-lasting and not fatal to the fish or detrimental to the ecology of the aquatic environment. The application of such biochemical and physiological knowledge is widely documented across Australia. For example, on Mer Island in the Torres Strait, leaves of the vine sad (Meriam Mir language of the Eastern Islands of the Torres Strait for Derris uliginosa) are pounded to release rotenone and the crushed leaves are thrown into the water to stupefy fish. The Mitakoodi Peoples of the Cloncurry River region in north Queensland use the plant Tephrosia astragaloides for the same purpose. Again, the leaves are crushed and bruised before bundles of leaves are thrown into a waterhole, stunning the fish and allowing easy harvest as they rise to the surface. The Bindal and Wulgurukaba People of the Townsville region use the saponin-containing leaves and fruit of the red ash (Alphitonia excelsa) to harvest fish from small waterholes.

The construction of fish traps, long and widely used across Australia, is a further example of sustainable harvesting technologies developed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The practice of sustainable fishing is governed by cultural protocols that ensure that the marine environment is protected; this knowledge has been passed down through generations for millennia. Fish traps or weirs are human-made structures, generally constructed from stone, that are positioned in an inter-tidal area. Fish and other marine organisms are carried into the trap as the tide rises; as the tide recedes and the water flows out of the structure, fish are trapped and can be harvested. The scientific knowledges that underpin the construction of the fish traps ensure that the marine environment is undisturbed; that is, tidal flows are not interrupted and the patterns of movement of marine organisms are not impeded. The Burgiyana fish trap at Point Pearce in the Yorke Peninsula region of South Australia was constructed by the Narungga Peoples and positioned within the minimum and maximum tidal range. At high tide the walls of the trap are submerged, allowing any unharvested organisms to return to the marine environment. The arc shaped fish traps on Erub Island in the Torres Strait are constructed so that at high tide the boulders are completely covered by water and when the tide recedes the trapped fish, crabs and other marine animals can be easily harvested. The Erubam Le Peoples of Erub Island have familial responsibility for the fish traps and continue to use and maintain the fish traps today. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ scientific understandings of marine resources govern fishing practices to ensure sustainability of both the environment and the food source. Cultural laws and protocols determine the number and species that can be acquired and prevent the harvest of undersized or reproducing organisms. This ensures that the marine populations continue to breed and grow, maintaining environmental balance and providing sustainable access to the food resource.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to investigate how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long used many disciplines of science in their daily lives, including in the sustainable procurement of food resources. The processes and practices that have been employed for millennia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, in the acquisition of natural resources, is underpinned by a deep understanding of the environment. Knowledges and understandings of the life cycles of living things and the interdependence of organisms within an environment are critical in sustainable harvesting practices. Such knowledges inform the carefully considered harvest of food supplies, to ensure populations continue to thrive, providing ongoing access to important resources while the environmental balance is maintained.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (n.d.). A brief history of Indigenous fishing. Retrieved from https://aiatsis.gov.au/exhibitions/brief-history-indigenous-fishing

Cannon, J. G., Burton, R. A., Wood, S. G., & Owen, N. L. (2004). Naturally occurring fish poisons from plants. Journal of chemical education, 81(10), 1457.

City of Townsville. (2000). Mundy Creek Aboriginal Bush Tucker Poster. Retrieved from http://www.soe-townsville.org/mundy/mundy_poster/index.html

Jackson, S., Finn, M., & Featherston, P. (2012). Aquatic resource use by Indigenous Australians in two tropical river catchments: The Fitzroy River and Daly River. Human Ecology, 40(6), 893-908.

Kregiel, D., Berlowska, J., Witonska, I., Antolak, H., Proestos, C., Babic, M., ... & Zhang, B. (2017). Saponin-based, biological-active surfactants from plants. In R. Najjar (Ed.). Application and characterization of surfactants, 183-205.

Margolis, Z. (2018, January 20). Sugarbag bee honey a feast from nature, with stingless insects creating delicious outback bush tucker. ABC News. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-21/native-honeybees-provide-popular-bush-tucker/9333278

Morrison, M., McNaughton, D., & Shiner, J. (2010). Mission-based Indigenous production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932–66). International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 14(1), 86-111.

Neuwinger, H. D. (2004). Plants used for poison fishing in tropical Africa. Toxicon, 44(4), 417-430.

Queensland Museum. (2019). Native stingless bees or Sugar Bag bees. Retrieved from https://www.qm.qld.gov.au/Find+out+about/Animals+of+Queensland/Insects/Wasps+and+bees/Common+species/Native+Stingless+Bees+or+Sugar+Bag+Bees#.XaO4nTYzY2w

Rowland, M. J., & Ulm, S. (2011). Indigenous fish traps and weirs of Queensland. Queensland Archaeological Research, 14, 1-58.

Shiner, J., & Morrison, M. (2009). The contribution of heritage surveys towards understanding the cultural landscape of the Weipa bauxite plateau. Australian Archaeology, 68(1), 52-55.