Teacher background information


Foundation Year Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Nature and development of science

Science involves observing, asking questions about, and describing changes in, objects and events (ACSHE013 - Scootle )

  • recognising how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples gain knowledge about the land and its vital resources, such as water and food, through observation (OI.3, OI.5)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have worked scientifically for millennia to gain knowledge about the land and vital resources, such as water and food. The wealth of environmental knowledge held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is a result of continuous observations of the environment, noticing changes that have occurred, asking questions, and documenting and preserving knowledges and understandings. These knowledges and understandings have long informed how to access and sustainably manage important natural resources. Astute observations of the environment provide important information: the location of water sources, particularly in times of drought or in arid parts of Australia when water is limited, and the availability of natural resources that provide food, medicines and matter for material culture. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to recognise how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have vast knowledges about the land and its vital resources that have developed through many thousands of years of observations.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have made detailed observations of their Country or Place for many thousands of years, resulting in a wealth of knowledge and understanding about the intricate interrelationships within the environment. Observations of changes within the environment lead to scientific questioning to understand the reason and impact for the change. Accessing vital resources, such as water and food, requires careful observation of the environment to notice when changes occur; some changes have special significance as they may indicate when particular resources become available. As well as obvious waterbodies in an environment, there are many other signs that can indicate the presence of water, such as the presence of particular plant and animal life, behaviours of animals that can lead to a water source, discolouration of bark on trees, bulging of tree trunks or roots, and the colour and texture of soil. Careful observation of the often subtle changes in an environment can also indicate the availability of important food resources; changes in fruit colour can indicate ripeness, animal size can indicate suitability for consumption, and tracks and prints can indicate the presence of a particular organism. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have observed the environment for millennia, making detailed records and questioning changes, to build a deep understanding of when and how to access vital resources.

Fresh water is a necessity for human life and knowing how and where to find water is crucial to survival. In times of drought, in arid parts of Australia or while travelling in unfamiliar environments, water can be a scarce resource. Over millennia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ astute observations have resulted in a deep understanding of indicators of the presence of water. The presence of specific plants has long indicated the likely presence of a nearby water source. The Gugadja Peoples of the eastern Great Sandy Desert region in Western Australia know that the presence of yiliyili (Queensland bluebush; Chenopodium auricomum) can indicate the nearby presence of drinking water. Yiliyili is a low growing shrub that grows on swamp floors, in clay pans or at the fringe of lakes, hence its presence is often localised with an ephemeral water source. The Kaiadilt Peoples of the South Wellesley Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland use the presence of recurring groups of sheoak trees (Casuarina spp.), along the coast of Bentinck Island, to identify the location where small seeps of fresh water come out of the sand near the tide margin. It has also been recorded that in the vicinity of Mapoon on the western Cape York Peninsula of Queensland, clumps of Pandanus spp. have been used as an indicator of underground water. An excavation of the ground where Pandanus spp. is plentiful is used to confirm the presence of an underground water source.

Changes to the usual appearance of particular plants can also indicate a water source, and such observations and knowledges have long been used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to locate drinking water. For example, many Aboriginal Peoples of the far north Queensland region carefully observe the tea trees (Melaleuca spp.) for changes on the trunk that can indicate water under the bark. The circumference of the trunk of the tea tree usually appears to be roughly circular; however, at times lateral bulges in the trunk can be observed. Girramay Elder Claude Beeron, of Far North Queensland, explained that the distended swellings are a known water source that can be accessed when needed, such as during dry weather and when travelling. The Whadjuk Peoples of south-west Western Australia can locate water in Eucalyptus spp. trees by observing the trunk discoloration that appears when water is present in a hollow under the bark. Water is tapped from the tree by creating a small hole that is closed again once the water has been accessed.

The roots of some species of tree are also reliable sources of water; careful observation of plants can identify the correct species and examination of the ground can reveal where to dig. The Ngarkat Peoples, east of the Murray River region in South Australia, accessed water from the roots of mallee (Eucalyptus spp.) while in the semi-arid region of southern Australia water can be obtained from the roots of both Eucalyptus spp. and Hakea leucoptera. To obtain water from roots the ground is carefully observed for cracks or bulges in the earth. At these points the roots are excavated from the ground, broken off near the trunk of the tree, and the water is either sucked directly from the root or drained into a container.

Careful observation can also reveal tree hollows where rainfall and dew can collect, another source of drinking water. Across the dry desert regions of the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia, the desert sheoak (Allocasuarina decaisneana) is a plant known to often have a cavity, with a small opening, in a fork of the tree. Water trickles down the branches to the fork, through the hole and gathers in the cavity. The small opening through which the water drains makes the water inaccessible to birds and other wildlife, meaning that it is a clean source of fresh water. Aboriginal Peoples of the central desert regions carefully observe the desert sheoak trees to locate the small openings under which a volume of water may be stored. The knowledge that water can gather and be stored in tree hollows was exploited by the Darumbal Peoples of the Rockhampton region in central-east Queensland. It has been reported that the Darumbal Peoples carved hollows in bottle trees (Brachychiton rupestris) to create artificial reservoirs so that an abundant supply of water was available when required.  

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples carefully observed the presence and behaviour of animal species within a region as a means of identifying water sources. Birds such as the zebra finch and some species of pigeons are known to be never far from a fresh water source. Careful observation of these birds, in parts of Australia where water is scarce, can assist in determining whether water is present and in locating the source. The behaviour of ants moving in lines up and down the trunk of a tree can indicate a hidden store of water in the tree. Aboriginal Peoples have been reported to use this ant behaviour to locate stores of fresh water; water is recovered for human consumption by syphoning it from the hollow.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ astute observations and knowledge also inform the availability of food and the optimum time for harvest. In the Torres Strait Islands, careful observation of turtle tracks on sand banks and low islets indicates the location of turtle nests from which eggs can be collected. A female turtle emerges from the sea and trails up the sand to dig a nest in which her eggs are laid; she returns to the water taking a different route. Torres Strait Islander Peoples are experts in tracking turtles; the nest is located by the convergence of the tracks, and incoming or outgoing tracks can be determined by the sand direction when pushed by the turtle’s flippers.

The fruit of Kangaroo Apple plant (Solanum laciniatum) is poisonous when unripe, but it is a nutritious food source once ripened. Many Aboriginal Peoples whose Country encompasses south-eastern parts of Australia, where the plant is found, know to observe the plant carefully and not harvest the fruit until they change from a yellow-green colour to a bright blood-orange colour. The Peoples of the Gundjeihmi Language Group in the Kakadu region of the Northern Territory know when the berries of andjurrugumarlba (native black currant) turn black that they are ripe and delicious.

Aboriginal Peoples whose Country encompasses the desert environments where honey ants can be found, including the Arrernte, Luritja and Pitjantjatjara Peoples, have long observed the environment to understand the relationship of the ants with trees and lerp insects. Such knowledge informs the accurate identification and location of the honey ant nests. The trees under which the honey ants nest can be identified by the characteristic lerps that form on the branches, and the nests are usually found on the shady side of the tree. Aboriginal Peoples who have observed and understand the behaviour of the honey ants know not to dig directly down from the top of the nest. Instead, digging from the side provides access to the underground chambers where the storage caste ants reside, and the ants can be harvested for their honey filled abdomens. Larvae of several native moth species are a highly nutritious food source that have long been sought after by Aboriginal Peoples. The Noongar Peoples of south-west Western Australia carefully observe the environment for the holes that the larvae bore in particular species of wattle or eucalyptus and the frass (fine, powdery saw dust) that collects underneath the hole. When the holes are located, the larvae can be collected for consumption. Similarly, the Pitta Pitta Peoples of the Boulia region in Queensland carefully observe the environment for the presence of kalorangoro (large grubs) in trees that are collected and roasted on a fire before consumption.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to recognise how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have made astute observations about the environment for millennia, asking questions and describing changes to build a wealth of knowledge and understanding about a Country or Place. This knowledge is crucial in knowing when, where and how to access vital resources including food and water. Detailed observations of the environment and changes that may occur have long been connected with particular events, such as where water sources may be located or when important food resources are ready for harvesting and safe for consumption. Students can learn how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ continual observations of objects and events over many thousands of years have resulted in vast knowledges about the land and its vital resources.

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.

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Cairns, J. (1859). On the weir mallee, a water-yielding tree, the bulrush, and porcupine grass of Australia. Transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, 3, 32-35.

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Macintyre, K., & Dobson, B. (2017). The puzzle of the bardi grub in Nyungar culture. Retrieved from http://anthropologyfromtheshed.com/project/the-bardi-grub-in-nyungar-culture/

Magarey, A. T. (1895). Australian Aborigines' water-quest. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, South Australian Branch, 3, 67-82.

Moore, G. F. (1842). A descriptive vocabulary of the language in common use amongst the Aborigines of Western Australia: Embodying much interesting information regarding the habits, manners and customs of the natives and the natural history of the country. London: W. S. Orr & Company.

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