Teacher background information
Year 3 Science Content Description
Biological sciencesLiving things can be grouped on the basis of observable features and can be distinguished from non-living things (ACSSU044 - Scootle )
This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to recognise how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have observed the organisms within an environment and classify organisms based on similar features or function. Classification is the process by which scientists group living organisms based on observable features. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ systems of classification reflect a long-held and deep scientific understanding of the environment and the complex interrelationships of the organisms within that environment. The diversity of systems of classification by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is reflective of the many Nations of First Peoples across the Australian continent and the equally diverse environments that each Nation encompasses. This Teacher Background Information focuses on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ classification systems. Students will have the opportunity to explore the observable features that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have used to develop classification systems for living organisms and understand that these systems continue to be used by Australia’s First Nations Peoples.
The classification of living things by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples reflects complex interrelationships within the environment, including the relationship of Peoples with living things and how the organisms are used, for example, as resources for tools, food and medicine. For millennia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have made observations of the natural world and have used commonalities between organisms to group and classify living things in the environment. As well as using the observable physical characteristics of an organism in classification, noticeable ecological similarities may also be used. Alongside diversity in language and customs, the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples has resulted in unique classification systems for living organisms across Australia that reflect a deep cultural, biological, spiritual and social understanding of the environment.
The importance of plant life as a resource for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, in particular the use of wood in material culture, is reflected in the classification systems of such organisms. In many Aboriginal classification systems, plants are distinguished as either wood-bearing plants or non-woody plants. For example, the Yankunytjatjara Peoples of north-west South Australia distinguish wood bearing plants (punu) from green plants (ukiri), such as vines and succulents. Similarly, the Warnindhilyagwa Peoples of Groote Eylandt classify woody plants (eka) distinct from other flora (amarda) of the region. The woody plants of the Groote Eylandt region are classified into a further eight categories based on observations that group the plants as either similar in form or similar in habitat. For example, paperbark trees are all classified into a group called alyukwurra. In many of the languages of Aboriginal Peoples, further classification of wood-bearing plants is associated with the tools or implements that they are used to construct. The Gurindji Peoples of the Victoria River region in the Northern Territory classify the three main types of local wattle collectively as parrawi, used to make small spears. Often the classification of wood-bearing plants has the same name as the function of the finished object. For example, the Pitta Pitta Peoples of the Boulia region of Queensland classify both the tree Erythrina vespertilio and shields constructed from Erythrina vespertilio as koon-pa-ra.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples classify living organisms into plant or animal groups, including the Warnindhilyagwa Peoples, whose term akwalya broadly encompasses all animal life. Animal life is then further distinguished into groups, such as land animals, marine animals and winged organisms, based on observable characteristics of the organism and their habitats. The Yanyuwa Peoples of the Sir Edward Pellew group of Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria classify living organisms as belonging to the sea (wurralngu) or belonging to the mainland (ankawangu), with many sub-classifications within this binary system. Organisms may be further classified based on observations of the particular habitats they occupy, such as the inter-tidal zone or the open sea. Other methods of classifying organisms may result from observations of animal behaviours, such as consumers of big seeds or consumers of small seeds. In the classification systems on the Torres Strait Islands, living fauna specific classifications are made; birds are classified as urui, distinct from fish that are classified as whapi. The Mabuiag Peoples of Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait have specific nomenclature for most species of plant and animal life, determined by observable features of the organism. For example, snakes are generally classified as thabu, and are further differentiated by whether they are known to be venomous or not; non-venomous are classified as kasa thabu (that translates to ‘just snakes’ in English) and venomous snakes are emar thabu (that translates to ‘death snakes’ in English).
While most animal classification systems of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples tend to be based on important observable characteristics, there can be complex differences between systems used in different Nations. For example, the saltwater crocodile, although a water-based animal, is classified as a land animal by the Warnindhilyagwa Peoples as the eggs are laid on land. However, the Yolŋu Peoples of north eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory classify the crocodile as gal 'yunamirr (animals that drag) based on observations of movement. Further examples of species classification use structural and other visual features of the organism. The Yolŋu Peoples classify the five species of turtle found in the region using prominent observable features, such as small nose, flat back, large head or dark head. The Yanyuwa Peoples classify bees based on the size and colour of the species, including red/black body, long legged, large or small.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples may also have systems for classifying organisms within the same species based on observable features such as the sex, age, life cycle stage and physical features such as size or colour of an organism. For example, the Yanyuwa Peoples have terminology that distinguishes the flatback turtle, wimdiwimdi, from other species of turtle. They further differentiate this species based on sex; female flatback turtles are classified as a-karnlnja and male flat back turtles are classified as dilhali.
This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ observations of the features of organisms have informed methods of classification. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have observed organisms within the environment for millennia and have used these observations to group and classify organisms. Students can learn that the observable characteristics of organisms have long been used to develop complex methods of classifying living things and reflect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ deep cultural, biological, spiritual and social understanding of interrelationships within an environment.
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.
Abbott, I. (2009). Aboriginal names of bird species in south-west Western Australia, with suggestions for their adoption into common usage. Conservation Science Western Australia, 7(2), 213-278.
Art Gallery of New South Wales. (n.d.). Art of the Torres Strait Islands. Retrieved from https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/artsets/hav5uo
Bradley, J. & Yanyuwa Families. (2007). Barni-Wardimantha Awara Yanyuwa Sea Country plan. Atherton: Mabunji Aboriginal Resource Association.
Bradley, J. (2006). Yumbulyumbulmantha ki-Awarawu = All kinds of things from country: Yanyuwa ethnobiological classification (Research Report Series No. 6). Brisbane, Qld.: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, University of Queensland.
Clarke, P. (2018). The Ngarrindjeri nomenclature of birds in the Lower Murray River region, South Australia. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 143(1), 1-29.
Clarke, P. (2012). Australian plants as Aboriginal tools. Dural: Rosenberg Publishing.
Clarke, P. A. (2003). Australian ethnobotany: An overview. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2, 21-38.
Davis, S., Ganambarr, M., & Traynor, S. (1982). Aboriginal science teacher's handbook: Incorporating the Milingimbi case study. Darwin: Northern Territory Department of Education.
Dwyer, P., & Duhnam, M. (2005). Ethnoclassification, ethnoecology and the imagination. Journal De La Société Des Océanistes, 120(1), 11-25.
Olsen, P., & Russell, L. (2019). Australia's first naturalists: Indigenous Peoples' contribution to early zoology. Canberra, ACT: NLA Publishing.
Rudder, J. (1983). Qualitative thinking: An examination of the classificatory systems, evaluative systems and cognitive structures of the Yolnu People of north-east Arnhem Land. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/110248?mode=full
Smith, N. (1991). Ethnobotanical field notes from the Northern Territory, Australia. Journal of the Adelaide Botanic Garden, 14(1), 1-65.
Waddy, J. (1982). Biological classification from a Groote Eylandt Aborigine’s point of view. Journal of Ethnobiology, 2(1), 63-77.
Watson, J. J., & Hitchcock, G. (2015). The terrestrial vertebrate fauna of Mabuyag (Mabuiag Island) and adjacent islands, far north Queensland, Australia. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, Culture, 8(1), 35-54.