Indigenous science goes far beyond boomerangs and spears

11 Nov 2018

How did the Dyirabal People learn to detoxify cycads? How did the Mithaka People learn to detoxify nardoo?

I am an Aboriginal science educator.

I have a love of the scientific method and all the amazing knowledge that exists within Western science, but I also have a huge amount of awe and fascination with all of the amazing scientific knowledge, technologies and processes that Indigenous peoples have developed over thousands of years.

I was a part of the ACARA curriculum team that worked on creating the 95 elaborations in response to teachers and community asking for support to better incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures into the science curriculum.

They have been mostly welcomed and celebrated by educators around the country – even the Prime Minister has come out in support of this work  – but unfortunately there have also been some who do not understand or appreciate the amazing scientific achievements of Indigenous peoples and the value it can add to the Australian Curriculum.

Indigenous science goes well beyond boomerangs and spears, although these are amazing feats of engineering and science understanding in their own right.

Indigenous science was critical for Indigenous people in solving any number of problems they faced and to capitalise on beneficial and sustainable opportunities presented by their environments and circumstances.

This is not an issue of Western science vs Indigenous science.

It is simply a matter of understanding that all groups of humans around the world and throughout history have hypothesised, experimented, made empirical observations, gathered evidence, recognised patterns, verified through repetition, made inferences and predictions, and developed branches of knowledge that helped them to make sense of the world around them and their place within it.

One only has to look at the origins of the word ‘Science’. It comes from the Latin word ‘Scientia’, which simply means ‘to know’.

To suggest that there are any groups of human beings who didn’t have science is, ironically, quite unscientific.

Australia is home to many of the earliest examples of scientific thinking in the world, and any curriculum that aspires to be relevant to Australian students should obviously include an understanding of Australian science throughout history.

This is not just relevant here; learning about ‘world firsts’ is important in any field of study. It is also crucially important to recognise and not denigrate Indigenous science as mere ‘superstition and witchcraft’ if we want to engage Indigenous students in the sciences and promote respect as well as scientific rigour amongst non-Indigenous students.

When I was a student I learned that Aboriginal people were nomads, hunters and gatherers, and otherwise didn’t achieve much of interest in ‘40,000 years’. As Dr Irabinna Lester Rigney has argued, “Indigenous intellectual traditions and knowledge transmission, which sustained Indigenous cultures and humanity for thousands of years, were not considered worthy science or even science at all.”

Science at its core is, in my opinion, a human trait practised to some degree by all peoples of the world.

As Robin Fox wrote in 1996, “In our everyday thinking we are constantly testing and confirming and falsifying hypotheses; this more than “conditioning” explains how we behave as we do.

We are natural scientists; we have no other choice…our perception of the world, and our decision making about it work on the basic principles of hypothesis testing and refutation, and that “scientific method” therefore is simply the extension of basic cognitive principles.”

How did the Dyirabal People learn to detoxify cycads? How did the Mithaka People learn to detoxify nardoo? How were spear throwers developed? How was fire starting developed?

The list of examples in which we can showcase Indigenous science is limitless.

These elaborations aim to teach the same mandatory science concepts using contexts that are relevant to Indigenous histories and cultures.

How did the Dyirabal People learn to detoxify cycads? How did the Mithaka People learn to detoxify nardoo?

These elaborations aim to teach the same mandatory science concepts using contexts that are relevant to Indigenous histories and cultures.

For example, in Year 8 students can explore the use of chemical reactions by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Students learn about common everyday chemical reactions such as the organic chemical reactions involved in fermentation, combustion and pyrolysis and inorganic chemical reactions of calcination.

I wonder how many Australians are aware of the diverse and sophisticated chemistry knowledges recorded throughout Australia at the time of colonisation?

Australia’s First Nations peoples faced and overcame innumerable challenges in the procurement of essential resources.

In many areas, important supplies that could not be readily obtained in the required form or could not be traded, had to be produced in situ. This necessity drove the development of sophisticated and complex chemical science practices that utilised chemical reactions to produce the particular substance or product required.

Through astute observation many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups recognised patterns and key variables associated in the formation of new matter.

Building on these observations and through empirical evidence acquired through the testing of various techniques, many successful organic and inorganic chemistry processes that produced new matter were developed across the continent.

These new elaborations allow students to investigate how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples used their organic and inorganic chemistry knowledge to form and utilise new substances, for example, quicklime (calcium oxide), pigments (iron oxide, charcoal), acid (pyroligneous acid), plaster (calcium sulfate), alkali salts (salts of potassium and sodium), beverages (ethanol), charcoal, and by-products such as heat and light.

When Western scientists first came to Australia, their ‘best science of the day’ was hugely shaped by racist attitudes and assumptions that have long since been abandoned by all but a few.

Science has moved beyond this process of dismissing and deriding Indigenous peoples and cultures and judging them by what they didn’t have instead of what they did.

This work goes some small way to providing opportunities for those teachers who desire the specific knowledge of Indigenous science required to meaningfully incorporate it into their classrooms, while still maintaining a rigorous, engaging and relevant learning environment aimed at meeting the core requirements of the Australian Curriculum: Science.

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