Teacher background information
Year 1 Science Content Description
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have made observations of the sky and landscape for millennia; noting, recording and communicating changes in these environments, and connecting them with other events in the environment. Observable changes in the sky such as cloud formations, the appearance and movement of celestial bodies including the sun, moon, planets and stars, and the colour of the sky at sunrise and sunset, have long informed connections between daily and seasonal changes within an environment. Landscape changes including changes in the observable features of plant life such as flowers, fruit or foliage colour changes, also signal daily and seasonal changes. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ extensive knowledge of changes in the landscape and sky connects with daily and seasonal changes. These observations have been collected and recorded for millennia and today continue to be observed and documented by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ long-held systems of determining time in days and seasons depend on acute observations of changes in the environment, including subtle changes in the sky and landscapes. As in many other cultures around the world, the passing of days and changes in seasons can be signalled by the movement of celestial bodies, weather patterns and the cyclical changes in plant life. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have made observations of such changes in the sky and landscape, and have connected regular patterns with periods of time, such as the passing of days and onset of seasons. Unbroken observations for millennia have also connected less regular phenomena, such as the appearance of particular cloud types and moon halos, with seasonal and weather events. The observations of changes in the sky and landscape that indicate particular times or seasons have long been important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. These observations inform many aspects of life, including seasonal patterns of movement, the availability of resources, and the timing of gatherings and land management practices.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples developed timekeeping systems based on astronomical observations of the sky, including the regular, cyclical patterns of movement of the moon, stars, planets and the sun. Time, in the form of days and months, is generally determined by the observation of the rising and setting sun and the phases of the moon over a lunar month. The Nyangumarta Peoples of northern Western Australia used the moon phases, and appearance of the sun, to distinguish time periods in months and days. In the Southern Coorong district of South Australia, the Ngarrindjeri Peoples used the number of full moons to record the age of children under the age of one, while in the Hahndorf area of South Australia, the Peramangk Peoples marked the appearance of each new moon on an object, such as a digging stick, to record their own age. The Takayna People of north west Tasmania applied the lunar phases of the moon to daily life and determined the timing of a gathering, for example, by the number of dark days after the moon had disappeared. To this day, the appearance of particular constellations or planets in the sky is also a means of determining seasons for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. For example, the Pitjantjatjara Peoples of the central Australian desert know that the appearance of the constellation Pleiades in the dawn sky indicates the beginning of the cold season.
Many changes in the sky are indicative of changes in weather or seasons. Clouds, the colour of the sunrise or sunset, and moon halos, are examples of phenomena that have long been observed and connected with events by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Aboriginal Peoples of the Kulin Language Group in western Victoria understood that a red sunrise indicated rain, while a red sunset indicated that the following day would be warm. This knowledge is consistent with contemporary meteorological explanations; red skies are the result of high-pressure systems that trap aerosols and dust in the atmosphere. During the day the sky appears blue; air molecules and atmospheric particles scatter the shorter (blue) wavelengths of light more strongly than longer (red) wavelengths. During sunrise and sunset, the sun is low in the sky and the sun’s rays pass through a greater length and denser parts of the atmosphere. This causes short (blue) wavelengths to be scattered away leaving mainly longer (red) wavelengths to pass through. The reddish colours of morning and evening skies are intensified when sinking air (high pressure) causes greater concentrations of airborne particles, such as aerosols, dirt and dust. When weather systems move from west to east, the prevailing wind direction in Victoria, a red sky at night indicates that high-pressure air is located to the west and fine weather usually follows. In the morning, the sunlight is to the east; a red sky indicates that the high-pressure system has passed and a low-pressure system, that frequently brings rain, is following.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have also connected the appearance of moon halos with the onset of rain or bad weather. Moon halos occur when ice crystals are suspended in the upper atmosphere; moonlight is refracted and reflected by the ice crystals and can result in the appearance of a halo around the moon. Contemporary science recognises that moon halos often precede a low-pressure system, frequently followed by rain and cooler temperatures within the next day. The longevity of this knowledge is attested in the cultural records of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The Euahlayi and Kamilaroi Peoples of New South Wales have cultural records that connect the appearance of a moon halo with rain; to the Peoples of the western desert region, a moon halo signifies that the Moon-man is taking shelter from approaching bad weather.
Observations of the presence, type and patterns of clouds in the sky, observed for millennia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, are further indicators of weather and seasonal events. The “morning glory” cloud is a rare meteorological phenomenon that occurs at predictable times only in the Gulf of Carpentaria due to the configuration of land and sea. The cloud forms in rolls of up to 1000 kilometres in length; it is usually associated with frontal systems that cross central Australia and high-pressure systems in northern Australia. The Gangalidda Peoples of north-west Queensland refer to this natural phenomenon as mabunda or mabuntha; it indicates the season that flatback and freshwater turtles are nesting. To the Yanyuwa Peoples of the Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria, the clouds indicate the beginning of the wet season. The clouds also signal the arrival of flying foxes, the Torres Strait pigeon, various species of parrot, and the time when seagulls and sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples distinguish between rain-bearing and non-rain-bearing clouds. In the Nyiyaparli language of the Palyku Peoples of the Pilbara region in Western Australia where rainfall is infrequent, call clouds jundurba (that translates to ‘rubbish clouds’ in English) and nangali (that translates to ‘rain clouds’ in English).
Observable changes in landscape are further indicators of weather and seasonal shifts. The cycles of some plant species provide information to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples about the change of seasons. This information is important for many aspects of life; accessibility to resources, the timing of events such as seasonal movement or gatherings, and suitable times for land management practices, such as controlled burning. The Noongar Peoples of south-west Western Australia mark the beginning of kambarang, second spring, by the flowering of balga (grass tree; Xanthorrhoea spp.); and the bright orange and yellow flowers of the mooja (Australian Christmas tree; Nuytsia floribunda) indicate that hot weather is approaching. The Masigalgal Peoples of Masig Island in the Torres Strait understand that the heavy flowering of pulla (beach morning glory; Ipomoea pes-caprae) signals the beginning of the woerr (also known as sagerr) season that brings the strong south-easterly winds. The flowering of the billy button (Craspedia spp.) signals to the Narungga Peoples of Yorke Peninsula in South Australia that marine resources such as the mulloway are plentiful and, prior to colonisation, this was used as an indicator for the time to move to coastal areas.
Landscape changes also indicate the suitable times for the implementation of land management practices, such as the application of carefully controlled fire. The dense vegetation in the south coast region of Noongar Country in south-west Western Australia requires application of infrequent, high intensity fires to maintain plant and animal habitats. Observations of the landscape to identify when the density of the trees becomes sparse (approximately every 10 to 15 years), informs the Noongar Peoples that it is time to apply carefully monitored, high intensity fires in order to promote new growth and encourage a dense forest environment. The Peoples of the Banbai Nation of the northern tablelands in New South Wales watch for the flowering of wattle to know when to start low intensity fires. The Peoples of the Gundjeihmi Language Group in the Kakadu region of the Northern Territory observe the landscape for the emergence of the spectacular orange flowers of the Darwin woolybutt (Eucalyptus miniata) in yegge season (cooler season, May–mid-June), to know when to start patch burning. Small fires are lit in a mosaic pattern early in the year, when the weather is still and cool and the plant material still contains moisture. The fires encourage new growth and reduce fuel load, thereby preventing high intensity bushfires in the coming gurrung season (hot, dry season, mid-August–October).
This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to recognise how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ knowledges about observable changes in the landscape and sky are indicators of time, weather and seasons. Changes in the landscape including observable features of plant life cycles have long been used, and continue to be used, to inform seasonal changes, times for resource harvesting, timing movement through Country or Place, and suitable times for land management practices. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have observed, recorded, and used astronomical and meteorological phenomena for millennia to inform aspects of daily and seasonal life, including weather changes, timing for gatherings, and accessing of particular resources. Through this elaboration students can recognise the extensive knowledge held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples about the observable changes in sky and landscape.
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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Australian Indigenous Astronomy. (2019). Kamilaroi and Euahlayi. Retrieved from http://www.aboriginalastronomy.com.au/content/community/kamilaroi/
Australian Science Teachers Association, Science Web Australia. (n.d.). Unit 2: Changing lands and skies. Retrieved from http://scienceweb.asta.edu.au/years-f-2/unit2/overview/yrf2-unit2-overview.html
Barber, M. (2013). Where the clouds stand: Australian Aboriginal relationships to water, place, and the marine environment in Blue Mud Bay, Northern Territory (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/9708
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Gantevoort, M. K. H. K. (2015). Stingray in the sky. Astronomy in Tasmanian Aboriginal culture and heritage [Honours thesis]. Sydney: University of New South Wales.
La Terra, M. (2017, November 29). Morning Glory: Australia's rare meteorological phenomenon. Culture Trip. Retrieved from https://theculturetrip.com/pacific/australia/articles/morning-glory-australias-rare-meteorological-phenomenon/
Laudine, C. (2016). Aboriginal environmental knowledge: Rational reverence. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Parks Australia, Kakadu National Park. (2019). Caring for Country. Retrieved from https://parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/discover/culture/country/
Parks Australia, Kakadu National Park. (2019). Six seasons. Retrieved from https://parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/discover/nature/seasons/
Prober, S., O'Connor, M., & Walsh, F. (2011). Australian Aboriginal peoples’ seasonal knowledge: A potential basis for shared understanding in environmental management. Ecology and Society, 16(2).
Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority. (1999). Changes to features of the earth and sky. Retrieved from https://www.qcaa.qld.edu.au/downloads/p_10/kla_sci_sbm_eb_201.pdf
Smith, R. (2015). The morning glory and related phenomena. Retrieved from https://www.meteo.physik.uni-muenchen.de/~roger/AustralianProjects/TheMorningGlory/TheMorningGlory.html
Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. (2017). Tasmanian Aboriginal place names. Retrieved from http://tacinc.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/PLACE-NAMES-HISTORY-BACKGROUND-18.5.17.pdf
Tonkinson, R. (1972). Da: Wajil: A western desert aboriginal rainmaking ritual (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/831/items/1.0101466
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Webb, E. K. (1997). Windows on meteorology: Australian perspective. Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing.