Teacher background information


Year 10 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Biological sciences

Transmission of heritable characteristics from one generation to the next involves DNA and genes (ACSSU184 - Scootle )

  • investigating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ knowledge of heredity as evidenced by the strict adherence to kinship and family structures, especially marriage laws (OI.8)

This elaboration provides the opportunity to learn about the complex societal systems of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that dictate who can marry whom. The development of societal rules that impose regulations on marriage rests on the understanding that unions between individuals that are too closely related can lead to the inheritance of detrimental traits in their offspring. Students learn about the genetic principles that underlie the transmission of heritable characteristics and realise that, while the details of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander marriage laws may be different from those determined by the Australian Marriage Act, they share the common understanding of the hereditary benefits in imposing certain restrictions. 

One of the many important reasons for marriage systems is the prevention of the transmission of defective genes to subsequent generations. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have long recognised that many characteristics are inherited and often run in family lines. Traditional kinship systems ensure that closely related marriages do not occur. This prevents the potential transfer of hereditary defects that may culminate in abnormalities, diseases or dysfunctions. By studying the inheritance patterns of a genetic defect such as haemophilia, students gain an understanding of the scientific principles that underlie heredity and contemplate their societal implications. 

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have demonstrated a long-held understanding of traits and inheritance patterns without the assistance of technology that has revealed the existence and role of DNA and genes. This understanding is not dissimilar from the famous geneticist Gregor Mendel’s early understandings of how certain traits are passed down through generations and family lines. Mendel made his discoveries in the mid-1800s. Thousands of kilometres away from Europe and possibly thousands of years earlier, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had also observed, and knew, that traits and illnesses could appear in the offspring generated from closely related individuals. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups developed a complex system which informed people of who they were (where they fit within their social structure) and with whom they shared blood (DNA and genes). This is known as a kinship system whereby individuals are given skin names that reveal their family lineage. 

These longstanding traditional practices and obligations of kinship systems are still in use in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, including those in urban environments. Kinship systems are central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society. They are highly sophisticated and complex systems that not only define relationship to others but can also determine a connection to the universe and include responsibilities towards people, land and the use of natural resources.  

There are generally three levels of kinship in Australian First Peoples' societies, Moiety, Totem and Skin Names, and they can be based on either patrilineal or matrilineal lines of descent (mother's or father's lines of descent). Unlike Torres Strait Islander societal structures, skin groups are found across mainland Australia, but different Aboriginal societies have different numbers of skin groups. These groups are not related to skin colour, but rather are a means of identifying relatedness and roles in society. One of the key features of skin group identification is that it defines who one is, and is not, allowed to marry. 

By investigating the diverse kinship systems of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, students learn about the complex organisation of Australia’s First Nations’ societies. Students gain an understanding of the biological principles that govern the transmission of heritable characteristics from one generation to the next and consider how the awareness of these natural laws in different cultures may be reflected in the emergence of different forms of societal organisations and marriage laws.

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.

Bell, J. (2013). The persistence of Aboriginal kinship and marriage rules in Australia: Adapting traditional ways into modern practices. The Journal of the European Association for Studies of Australia, 4(1), 65-75.

Central Land Council. (n.d.). Kinship and skin names. Retrieved from http://www.clc.org.au/articles/info/aboriginal-kinship

Cole, B. (2005). Loved up: Lore of love [Video file]. Australia: Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association Productions.

Fuary, M. M. (1991). In so many words: An ethnography of life and identity on Yam Island, Torres Strait (Doctor of Philosophy thesis). Australia: James Cook University.

Fuary, M. M. (1993). Torres Strait cultural history. Indigenous minorities and education: Australian and Japanese perspectives of their indigenous peoples, the Ainu, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, 165-186.

Houseman, M. (1997). Marriage networks among Australian Aboriginal populations. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 1997(2), 1-23.

Laade, W. (1968). The Torres Strait Islanders’ own traditions about their origin. Ethnos, 33(1-4), 141-158. doi:10.1080/00141844.1968.9981002

Laade, W. (1973). Notes on the clans, economy, trade and traditional law of the Murray Islanders, Torres Straits. Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 151-167.

Lang, A. (1907). Conceptional totemism and exogamy. Man, 7, 88-90. doi:10.2307/2788302

McNiven, I. J., David, B., Kod, G., & Fitzpatrick, J. (2009). The great kod of Pulu: Mutual historical emergence of ceremonial sites and social groups in Torres Strait, northeast Australia. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 19(3), 291-317. doi:10.1017/S095977430900050X

Northern Land Council. (2018). Our culture. Retrieved from https://www.nlc.org.au/about-us/our-culture

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1931). The social organization of Australian tribes. Melbourne: Macmillan.

Shnukal, A. (2008). Traditional Mua. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, Cultural Heritage Series, 4(2), 7-33.

University of Sydney. (2014). Aboriginal kinship presentation: Skin names. Retrieved from http://sydney.edu.au/kinship-module/learning/5-skin-names.shtml

University of Sydney. (2016). Aboriginal kinship presentation: Moiety. Retrieved from http://sydney.edu.au/kinship-module/learning/3-moiety.shtml

Wheatley, N., & Searle, K. I. (2011). Playground: Listening to stories from country and from inside the heart. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

White, D. R., & Denham, W. W. (2007). The Indigenous Australian marriage paradox: Small-world dynamics on a continental scale. Retrieved from http://eclectic.ss.uci.edu/~drwhite/ppt/TheIndigenousAustralianMarriageParadox2j.pdf