Teacher background information
Year 1 Science Content Description
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long sourced materials from the environment for a range of purposes including the construction of watercraft, shelters, tools and other implements. Natural materials often require physical changes to render them useful for a particular purpose. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have scientific knowledges and understandings of the processes to physically change natural materials and apply these knowledges in the construction of items. Physical processes, such as bending and twisting, are methods that can be applied to change natural materials and make them fit for purpose. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to explore how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples apply physical changes to natural materials in order to construct or manufacture items for specific purposes.
Prior to European arrival in Australia, there were more than 500 distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nations, each occupying a specific geographical territory. The region occupied by a specific Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander People determined the resources that were available to them. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have sourced natural materials from the environment for millennia to use in the construction of a wide range of items, including tools, watercraft and shelters. Often these natural materials require physical changes to make them suitable for the desired purpose. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have a scientific understanding of the properties of natural materials and the processes that can be applied to physically change the materials. Bending and twisting materials are processes that confer physical changes to natural materials and these processes have long been used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the manufacture of items for particular purposes. The ongoing cultural practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities throughout Australia continue to utilise material science knowledge and understanding in the manufacture of many items.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples process fibre by twisting and twining to manufacture items such as nets, baskets, bags, belts, mats and other woven or netted items. These items are used for fishing and to catch game, to process and prepare food resources, to carry items and for other domestic uses. A variety of natural resources are used to prepare fibre for string and cordage; these differ according to each geographical region and the desired purpose of the finished product. For example, the Gunai Peoples of the Gippsland region in Victoria have long prepared kangaroo grass to manufacture string for nets, while the Mabuaig Peoples of Mabuaig Island in the Torres Strait process coconut husk to manufacture string. Fibres are prepared through processes that may involve a combination of steaming, soaking, splitting, scraping, chewing, stripping, washing, pounding and drying. These processes are carried out to improve the flexibility, strength and durability of the fibre. Animal materials are also used in the manufacture of string, including sinew or tendon and hair. Once the string is prepared it can then be physically changed through twisting, twining, plaiting or knotting to manufacture items for a desired purpose.
In many parts of Australia, the initial physical change to string involves twisting a strand on itself to become uniform, often achieved by rolling the strand with an open palm along the outer thigh. This increases the strength of the strand and removes any irregularities. The direction of the twist in the string is designated ‘S’ or ‘Z’ by contemporary definitions, depending on the direction of the twist (anti-clockwise or clockwise respectively). The Guugu Yimithirr Peoples of far north Queensland form two-ply string using two strands of string, both prepared with an S-twist and twining the strands together with a Z-twist. This process of reversing the direction of the twist results in a strong, even product. The two-ply string is then further manipulated into the desired item, including bags, fishing nets, nets for the capture of large game and baskets. The Wirramayo Peoples of Ngadjuri Country in the mid-north of South Australia knot together lengths of two-ply string to manufacture nets up to 12 metres in length to capture kangaroo and emu. Expert net makers knot the string together, judging the size of the mesh required with their thumb and fingers; the regularity and uniformity of the gauge of the net determined by the targeted animal. It has been estimated that a net approximately 18 metres in length and 12 metres breadth, requires up to 9,000 metres of string and 90,000 netting knots.
The Yolŋu Peoples of north eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory manufacture three-ply rope for use with dugong and turtle harpoons. The rope is prepared by three people sitting together, each with a stick on to which S-twisted string is wound. The process to prepare three-ply rope involves each person twisting their stick to twine the strand and passing it to the person next to them, twining the three strands together. The Wik and Wik Way Peoples of north-eastern Australia manufacture string bags using a pattern of looping and knotting. Loops may be made using a range of techniques including a figure-of-eight pattern, loop and twist form or a cross-knit style. The length of the looped mesh determines the diameter of the bag and when the desired length has been achieved, the string is knotted to hold the bag in place.
On many of the Torres Strait Islands mats are constructed for a range of purposes, including to sit and sleep on, to wrap items and as canoe sails. Materials to construct the mats including coconut leaf, pandanus or the bark of tea tree, are made supple by scraping. Many techniques are used to manufacture the mats. However, the material is commonly plaited or woven together in a regular pattern and finished off by bending over and interlacing the ends. The physical process of bending to manipulate plant fibres in the manufacture of string, rope and domestic items has long been understood and employed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The physical change to natural material renders it useful for particular purposes, including the manufacture of nets, bags and mats.
Bending is a physical change that can be applied to other natural materials to make them useful for specific purposes. For example, the construction of shelters, watercraft and items such as bicornuate-shaped baskets, all require natural materials to be bent into shape during the manufacturing process. Steam bending is a technique whereby heat and moisture are applied to wood or bark to enable the material to be moulded into a desired form. Steam bending has long been used, and continues to be used, by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to treat wood and bark for a variety of applications. Other methods to bend wood include: using flexible, green timber; soaking wood in water; burying wood in hot, dry sand; and bending and fastening wood in place with twine or sinew.
Prior to European colonisation, some Tasmanian Aboriginal people, particularly in the west-north-west, constructed unique beehive-shaped shelters. The dome-shaped shelters were constructed using wooden structural supports that had been steamed by fire to facilitate bending. The Bama Peoples of the rainforest region in far north Queensland construct arched shelters from saplings that are stuck into the ground, bent towards each other and fastened in place by tying with lawyer cane or vines. The Kaurareg Peoples of Murulag Island in the Torres Strait construct dome shelters for protection during the wet season. The shelters are constructed with an arched framework of flexible sticks and overlaid with tea tree cladding to prevent water from penetrating the shelter.
The Gunaikurnai Peoples of the Gippsland region of Victoria steamed sheets of stringybark over a fire to improve pliability for the construction of canoes. Once steamed, the bark could then be shaped by bending up the sides and folding the edges together to construct a watertight vessel with the capacity to carry multiple passengers. The Ngarrindjeri Peoples of the lower Murray River region in South Australia have long manufactured large bark canoes from various species of Eucalyptus, bent and carved into the desired shape. To bend the bark to the required shape a hollow is dug in the ground in the shape of the desired canoe. The bark is then placed over the hollow, weighted with mud and clay, and left to bend into shape. The Wik Mungkan Peoples of the Cape York Peninsula region in Queensland construct bark canoes from the bark of the messmate tree harvested during the wet season. The bark is held over a fire until it can be bent into shape. Initially, the bark sheet is folded in half and then it is bent up and the ends are fastened to form the prow and stern.
The Dyirbal Peoples of far north Queensland physically change lawyer cane in the construction of frames for animal nets and traps. Bala warrany (that translates to turkey net in English) and bala mugarru (that translates to butterfly net in English, due to its winged shape) require a frame on which the net is woven. Bala warrany is a turkey trap that is constructed by setting several lengths of lawyer cane into the ground and bending the cane over into a semi-circular shape. The netting is then placed over the top of the frame and drawn to a close at one end to capture the turkey. Bala mugarru is a folded fishing net that is shaped like the wings of a butterfly, giving the net its name. It is constructed from two lengths of lawyer cane that are bent into a curved shape; netting is knotted along each length of cane, from one end to the other. The net is used to catch fish, turtles, eels and other aquatic animals. It is held ajar on either side and carried through the water so that fish and other organisms swim into the net. The two wings of the net are then brought together to close the net, entrapping the catch.
In the north Queensland region, lawyer cane is physically changed in the construction of other items, including the distinctive jawun (bicornuate basket) that is unique to the region. The bicornuate basket is used in the detoxification of cycads; water is used in a process to leech toxins from the nut. Girramay Elder, Abe Muriata of rainforest Country in far north Queensland, is an expert jawun craftsman who shares some of the knowledges to make bicornuate baskets. The basket is constructed with several lengths of stripped lawyer cane that are bent into a bow shape over a fire to make the frame. Fine fibre is then twined across the bent cane frame. Then, to strengthen the basket, rings of bent cane are added to the interior at regular intervals. Handles to assist carrying the basket are added by attaching bent strips of lawyer cane to the mouth of the basket.
This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to explore how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples apply physical changes to natural materials to make them useful for specific purposes. Students can learn that everyday materials can be physically changed in a variety of ways, including bending and twisting. For millennia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have sourced natural materials from their environment and manipulated the materials in the construction of shelters, fishing nets, baskets, domestic implements and watercraft, such as canoes. The ongoing cultural practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples ensure the knowledges of applying physical changes to natural materials for particular purposes continue.
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.
Angas, G. F. (1847). Savage life and scenes in Australia and New Zealand: Being an artist's impressions of countries and people at the Antipodes. London: Smith, Elder, and co.
Beveridge, P. (1884). Of the aborigines inhabiting the great lacustrine and riverine depression of the Lower Murray, Lower Murrumbidgee, Lower Lachlan and Lower Darling. Government Printer.
Carmichael, E. J. (2017). How is weaving past, present, futures? (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from https://eprints.qut.edu.au/108051/
Edwards, R. (1972). Aboriginal bark canoes of the Murray Valley. Adelaide: Rigby.
Eyre, E. J. (1845). Journals of expeditions of discovery into central Australia, and overland from Adelaide to King George's Sound, in the years 1840-1 sent by the colonists of South Australia, with the sanction and support of the government: Including an account of the manners and customs of the aborigines and the state of their relations with Europeans. London: T. and W. Boone.
Frankel, D., & Major, J. (2015). Kulin and Kurnai. Victorian Aboriginal life and customs. Melbourne: Messmate Press.
Haddon, A. C. (1912). Reports of the Cambridge anthropological expedition to Torres Straits: Vol. IV. Arts and crafts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Krefft, G. (1870). On the manners and customs of the Aborigines of the Lower Murray and Darling. Transactions of the Philosophical Society of New South Wales, 1862-1865. Sydney: Reading and Wellbank.
McConnel, U. (1953). Native arts and industries on the Archer, Kendall and Holroyd Rivers, Cape York Peninsula, north Queensland. Adelaide: Hassell Press.
Muriata, A. (2016, June 24). Craft classic: Jawun. Garland Magazine. Retrieved from https://garlandmag.com/article/craft-classic-jawun/
Pedley, H., & Jumbun Elders Reference Group. (1997). Aboriginal tools of the rainforest. Townsville, Qld: Jumbun Elders Reference Group.
Plomley, N. (1993). The Tasmanian Aborigines. Launceston, Tas.: The Plomley Foundation.
Roth, W. E. (1904). Domestic implements, arts, and manufactures (Bulletin No. 7). North Queensland Ethnography Bulletin. Brisbane: Government Printer.
Ryan, L. (2012). Tasmanian Aborigines: A history since 1803. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.
Satterthwait, L. (1987). Socioeconomic implications of Australian Aboriginal net hunting. Man, 22(4), 613-636.
South Australian Museum. (n.d). Ngurunderi: An Aboriginal dreaming. Retrieved from https://www.samuseum.sa.gov.au/gallery/ngurunderi/
Spencer, B. (1922). Guide to the Australian ethnological collection exhibited in the National Museum of Victoria. Melbourne: A. J. Mullett, Government Printer.
Tasmanian Government. (n.d). The Orb: Shelters. Retrieved from https://www.theorb.tas.gov.au/living-cultures/shelters
Wet Tropics Management Authority. (2012). Caring for Country. Retrieved from https://www.wettropics.gov.au/site/user-assets/docs/Caringforcountry.pdf