Teacher background information


Year 3 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Chemical sciences

A change of state between solid and liquid can be caused by adding or removing heat (ACSSU046 - Scootle )

  • investigating how changes of state in materials used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, such as beeswax or resins, are important for their use (OI.5)

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to investigate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ long-held scientific understanding of states of matter and the knowledge that the application or removal of heat can cause changes in state. For millennia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have applied or removed heat to substances, including resins and beeswax, to manipulate the substance into the desired state. Resin and beeswax are substances that change state from solid to liquid with the application of heat and return to a solid state when the heat is removed. The reversible properties of such substances make them an important commodity and have long been used, and continue to be used, by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to waterproof, repair, decorate, modify and to construct items and implements. Students can investigate changes in the state of materials that for millennia have been understood and utilised by Australia’s First Nations Peoples for a variety of purposes.

For millennia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have recognised that matter exists in different states, including solids and liquids, and have long used the application or removal of heat to induce a change in state of specific materials for desired purposes. Solids consist of particles that stick tightly together and vibrate around a fixed position, giving solids a definite volume and shape. The application of heat to certain solid substances results in the particles vibrating more rapidly until they can move past each other. This results in the substance changing into a liquid state and having a defined volume but no longer a defined shape. For some substances this change in state is reversible, that is, the removal of heat from the material reverses the change in state, with the liquid returning to a solid.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long understood that heat softens certain substances into molten, viscous liquids that are malleable and can be manipulated for a desired purpose. Removal of heat from the viscous liquid results in the material cooling and hardening back into a solid state. This is known as having thermoplastic properties. Resin and beeswax are examples of thermoplastic materials that can change state. Resins were, and continue to be, widely used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as adhesives in the manufacture of implements, such as attaching spear points to shafts, hafting stone hatchet heads and knife blades to handles, and attaching pegs to spear-throwers. Similarly, the ability of beeswax to change state from a solid to liquid makes it useful as an adhesive to affix items such as feathers, seeds and other adornments to implements and regalia or to the body. Both resins and beeswax are used for other purposes; to waterproof items, preserve and protect wooden implements, and as a fixative.

A wide range of plants naturally exude resin, and the type of plant used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as a resin source depends on the vegetation that is available in their geographical territory. Aboriginal Peoples most commonly use spinifex (Triodia spp.) and grasstrees (Xanthorrhoea spp.) to source resin. Beeswax is a hydrophobic compound produced as the bees manufacture honeycomb, and the composition of the wax differs depending on the species of bee. For example, the wax of a native Australian bee, Austroplebeia australis, is known to manufacture wax that is more malleable over a wide range of temperatures than the wax from the European honeybee. Resin and beeswax are insoluble in water but soluble in organic solvents, making them ideal waterproofing agents. Both resin and beeswax have been used for this purpose for millennia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

The Wimaranga Peoples of the western Cape York Peninsula region in Queensland use fire to heat beeswax and change its state from a hard, rigid solid material to a softer, malleable molten liquid. Once molten, the wax is used to repair cracked water carriers, to attach decorative articles to hair and mend and preserve twined fibres. When the heat is removed, the wax hardens again to a solid state, extending the durability of the repaired implements.

The Turrbal Peoples of the Brisbane region were observed by early European colonists to frequently carry beeswax due to its usefulness in many applications. When required, the wax was held to a flame to allow the heat to cause a change in state from solid to liquid. The Turrbal Peoples then rubbed the molten wax onto shields and allowed the applied wax to cool and harden on the shield surface, to preserve the wood. Beeswax has also long been used in this region, and continues to be used to attach stingray barbs to spears, fix handles to axes, and to waterproof water vessels carved from the wood of the bat-wing coral tree.

The Yidinji Peoples of far north Queensland apply wax from native bees to preserve string manufactured from natural fibres. The applied wax makes the string waterproof and more resistant to weathering. The Peoples of the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin in the Northern Territory melt the wax of the native bee to use as a binder that reduces the flaking of paint on wooden implements. The Kuku-Yalanji Peoples of the rainforest region of far north Queensland use beeswax to attach the bright red seeds of Abrus precatorius (jequirity bean) to hair. The Wik-Mungkan Peoples and other Peoples of the Cape York Peninsula manufacture fire stick covers using beeswax to waterproof the fire sticks and to embed the seeds for decoration. Torres Strait Islander Peoples use beeswax to attach the skin of goanna or snake over the mouth of the warup, a large, distinctive, hourglass-shaped drum. Additional pellets of beeswax are stuck to the warup and used to tune the drum. When required, the beeswax pellets are heated in a flame to change to a molten and malleable state, and used to tune the drum and enhance the quality of the sound produced.

The property of beeswax, to change state from solid to liquid with the application of heat and return to a solid state on the removal of heat, has long made it an important resource for Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Beeswax continues to be used for many purposes due to this property. Beeswax is today commercially produced for use as a preservative for wooden surfaces.

Resin has long been considered a critical product that was frequently part of the supplies carried on a person to provide ready access for repairing items or hafting tools. Resin is obtained from the leaf base of grass trees and from damaged areas of the trunk of resinous plant species. Some Aboriginal Peoples have been documented to apply heat by directly firing spinifex grass, changing the plant’s resin from a solid state to a liquid state and thereby maximising the yield of resin. Aboriginal Peoples, including the Ngaatjatjarra and Ngaanyatjarra Peoples of the western desert region in Western Australia, have long harvested the resin from such plants and prepared the resin as an adhesive or cement, using heat to change the hard, solid resin into a viscous liquid state more suited to application. As many of the resins are flammable, and can be damaged through direct exposure to flame, a change of state is achieved through the indirect application of heat. There are many techniques that have been developed and implemented to soften solid resin into a liquid state, such as heating on hot coals or in the ashes of fire, warming in the hands, passing a burning stick over resin lumps, hammering to generate heat until pliable or boiling the resin. The Alyawarre Peoples of the Central desert region in the Northern Territory heat resin by placing it on a stone heated in fire and rolling additional hot stones over the lump of resin until it is malleable.

Resins have many uses and have long been used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples for a variety of purposes. The Gadigal Peoples of the Eora Nation in the Sydney basin region used grasstree resin to reinforce the joints of fishhooks and to mend damaged canoes. In the Cairns/Yarrabah region of North Queensland, the Yidinji Peoples used the exudate from scrub turpentine to seal the sewn side of a bark waterbag. Resins and gums have reportedly been used to tan the hide of wallabies in the manufacture of water carriers. The process of drying hide and tanning improves durability and ensures the carrier is watertight. The Noongar Peoples of south west Western Australia use grasstree (balga) resin to fasten granite edges to wooden handles to manufacture an axe, while the Yamatji Peoples of the Murchison region in Western Australia use grasstree resin to attach stone flakes to cutting tools. On Groote Eylandt, the Warnindilyakwa Peoples melt resin over a small fire to change it to a liquid state. Then the resin is smeared over spearheads to fix to the spearshaft, the joints are bound with string, and another layer of resin is applied to strengthen the join and form a smooth, hard surface on cooling.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to investigate how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ understandings of states of matter is long evidenced in the use of resins and beeswax. For many thousands of years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have heated resins and beeswax to change the solid substance into a viscous liquid state. In the more malleable liquid form resins and beeswax are used in the manufacture and repair of implements, to attach decorative materials to the hair, body and regalia, to waterproof items, and to improve the durability and longevity of such items. Students can learn that the long-held scientific understanding about the application and removal of heat to cause a change in state of resin and beeswax has long facilitated their use, and this understanding continues to be used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples for many purposes.

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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Baker, R. M. (1988). Yanyuwa canoe making. Records of the South Australian Museum, 22(2), 173-188.

Bangarra Dance Theatre Australia. (2017). Excerpts from Island Board of Industry and Services. Retrieved from https://www.bangarra.com.au/youth-outreach/education/resources/ibis/excerpts

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Canopy Art. (2016). ii ra mer ene Gawei (the sound of tears and Gawei). Retrieved from https://www.canopyart.com.au/product/ii-ra-mer-ene-gawei-the-sound-of-tears-and-gawei/

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Gould, R. A. (1971). Uses and effects of fire among the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia. Mankind, 8(1), 14-24.

Haddon, A. C. (1912). Reports of the Cambridge anthropological expedition to Torres Straits: Vol. IV. Arts and crafts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Johnston, T. H. & Cleland, J. B. (1942). Aboriginal names and uses of plants in the Ooldea region, South Australia. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 66, 93-103.

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Neuenfeldt, K. (2016). 'Listen to my drum': Notes on historical and contemporary uses of Torres Strait Islander warup/buruburu drums in Australia. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2, 61-80.

Petrie, C. C. (1904). Tom Petrie's reminiscences of early Queensland dating from 1837. Brisbane, Australia: Watson, Ferguson.

Powell, O., Fensham, R., & Memmott, P. (2013). Indigenous use of spinifex resin for hafting in north-eastern Australia. Economic Botany, 67(3), 1-15.

Roth, W. (1909). North Queensland Ethnography: Fighting weapons (Bulletin No. 13). Records of the Australian Museum, 7(4), 189-211.

Roth, W. (1904). North Queensland Ethnography: Domestic implements, arts, and manufactures (Bulletin No. 7). Brisbane: G.A. Vaughan, Government Printer.

University of Queensland Anthropology Museum online catalogue. (n.d.). Fire stick. Retrieved from https://catalogue.anthropologymuseum.uq.edu.au/item/15442