Teacher background information


Year 8 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Physical sciences

Energy appears in different forms, including movement (kinetic energy), heat and potential energy, and energy transformations and transfers cause change within systems (ACSSU155 - Scootle )

  • investigating traditional fire-starting methods used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and their understanding of the transformation of energy (OI.5, OI.7)

This elaboration provides students with a context to strengthen their knowledge and understanding of different forms of energy and the concept of energy transformation. By investigating the various fire-starting techniques developed and used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, students will also have the potential to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of the sophisticated fire-starting technologies of First Nations’ Australians that rely upon the transformation of energy.

Fire has played a major role in all human communities. From earliest times, humans developed the skills and equipment to make and sustain fire.  

Typically, fire occurs when a fuel reacts with oxygen from the air in a rapid exothermic reaction. The reaction forms a range of products and transforms the chemical potential energy of the fuel and oxygen into heat and light. In order for a fire to start, the auto-ignition temperature or kindling point of the fuel/air mixture must be reached. It is at this temperature that there is sufficient heat to provide the activation energy necessary for the combustion reaction to proceed and be self-sustaining. This elaboration discusses common traditional fire-starting technologies that have been ergonomically designed to efficiently transform movement energy into heat energy until the critical auto-ignition temperature is reached. 

Prior to the invention of the first chemical friction match in the 1800s, there were four principal methods used for raising tinder material to its ignition temperature. The fire drill, fire saw and fire plough generate the required heat through friction between two pieces of wood. A glowing hot ember is first produced, which is then placed into a tinder bundle and gently blown until a flame is produced. In the fourth method, the percussion method, two stones such as flint and ironstone are struck together to cleave off small shards of ironstone. These shards, having been heated by friction between the two stones, spontaneously ignite as they oxidise in contact with the air, producing high temperature sparks. The sparks are directed onto the tinder to set it alight. 

Historically, in many cultures it was common for only one of the methods referred to above to have been used. In Australia, however, there is evidence of the use of all four methods and it is understood that some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had knowledge of at least three. Possessing this knowledge would have enabled fire to be created in a range of conditions, utilising whatever resources were available in a given location and climate. Furthermore, it was common knowledge among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians that a pinch of sand would increase the friction between two pieces of wood and hence speed up the formation of a glowing ember. 

The fire drill and fire saw are the two most common methods used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, while the fire plough and percussion methods are less widely utilised.  

The fire drill method requires two basic parts; a flat piece of wood as a base or hearth, and a thin elongated stick as the ‘drill stick’. The blunter end of the drill stick is pushed down into a small indentation in the hearth and the stick is twirled by vigorously rubbing it between the palms of the hands. The kinetic energy of the moving hands is transferred to the moving stick. The friction between the two sticks transforms the kinetic energy to heat. A side notch in the indentation or socket allows the sawdust resulting from abrasion to collect and form an ember that can ignite tinder material. 

The drill stick and the base can be made from the same type of, preferably, softwood. Grass tree, Xanthorrhoea species, is one such suitable timber. When two different types of wood are used, the harder wood is used as the drill stick. In some parts of Australia, mulga, an Acacia species, is a hardwood that is used for drill sticks. The choice of material to be used as tinder depends on availability and includes dry grass, coconut fibre, dried kangaroo dung, and even the volatile powdered Eucalyptus leaves. The fire lighting technologies and their associated materials are always kept protected from moisture. 

The fire saw method, as its name implies, uses a sawing motion rather than a drilling motion to generate heat. The base may be a split branch with the slit being held open by thin wedges. Pieces of tinder are placed in or under the slit and a sharp-edged piece of hardwood, which could be a boomerang, woomera, coolamon, or wooden knife, is vigorously ‘sawn’ in a notch at right angles to the slit until a hot ember ignites the tinder. One of the advantages of this technique is that it incorporates the fire-making apparatus into objects that have a primarily different purpose.  

The fire plough method, the use of which was mainly confined to north-western Australia, involves creating embers by rapidly rubbing the dull point of a stick back and forth within a trough or groove cut into the base timber.  

Some Aboriginal groups located within modern day South Australia use the percussion method, as described above, to start fires.  

By investigating these different fire-making techniques students are given opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of the energy transfers and transformations evident within traditional fire-starting methods of First Nations’ peoples, as well as developing an appreciation of the importance of fire to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies and the ingenious methods used to create and sustain it. 

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.

Blake, S., & Welch, D. M. (2006). Making fire: An essential survival guide. Darwin: David M. Welch.

Davidson, D. S. (1947). Fire-making in Australia. American Anthropologist, 49(3), 426-437. doi:10.1525/aa.1947.49.3.02a00040

Haddon, A. C. (Producer). (1898, 2018). Making fire: Torres Strait Islanders [Video file]. Australian Screen, National Film and Sound Archive. Retrieved from https://aso.gov.au/titles/historical/torres-strait-islanders/clip2/

Lofts, G., & Evergreen, M. J. (2018). Transferring and transforming energy. In Jacaranda Science Quest 8 Australian Curriculum 3E LearnON & Print (3rd ed.). Milton, QLD: John Wiley & Sons Australia.

Mountford, C. P., & Berndt, R. M. (1941). Making fire by percussion in Australia. Oceania, 11(4), 342-344.

Roth, H. L. (1890). The Aborigines of Tasmania. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Roth, W. E. (1897). Domestic implements and utensils, firesticks and yam sticks, huts and shelters. In Ethnological studies among the north-west-central Queensland Aborigines. Brisbane: Edmund Gregory, Government. Printer.

Smyth, R. B. (1878). The Aborigines of Victoria: With notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania. Melbourne: J. Ferres, Government Printer.

Taylor, R. (2008). The polemics of making fire in Tasmania: The historical evidence revisited. Aboriginal History, 32, 1-26.