Aboriginal knowledge for the science curriculum

The Western view alone limits students. Aboriginal knowledge enhances science education with examples of Aboriginal science.

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Aboriginal Knowledge

Aboriginal Knowledge has become an accepted term for the beliefs and understandings that Aboriginal people acquired through long-term observation and association with a place. It is knowledge based on the social, physical and spiritual understandings which informed the people’s survival.

Synonyms include Indigenous Knowledge, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), Indigenous People’s Knowledge (IPK), or ‘folk knowledge’.

Aboriginal science

If we understand ‘science’ to mean a systematic approach to acquiring knowledge, then 'Aboriginal science' is the science that Aboriginal people developed through empirical knowledge of their natural environment. After all, they used scientific methods of data collection, such as observation and experimentation, for thousands of years.

As is the case with Western science, Aboriginal science is the practical application of theories of knowledge about the nature of the world. While Western science passes on its insights with papers, Aboriginal culture used oral traditions such as stories, dance and ceremonies for the same purpose.

Aboriginal science was critical for Aboriginal people to solve the challenges they faced in the different climate zones of Australia and to use the environment and its resources to their benefit.

Increasingly Aboriginal people blend Western scientific and Aboriginal knowledge, creating niche expertise or unique business opportunities.

How can Aboriginal Knowledge help teaching science?

There are two main reasons Aboriginal Knowledge can help students in the science curriculum:

  • Increasing awareness. Students can learn that Aboriginal culture is not limited to stereotypical areas such as arts. Learning how Aboriginal Knowledge reaches out into science extends student's awareness of the depth of this culture.
  • Broader perspectives. Tackling problems with a Western mindset excludes other possibilities upfront. Seeing problems through the cultural 'goggles' of Aboriginal people helps students think out of the box and come up with different solutions.

It is also important that any curriculum that aspires to be relevant to Australian (and overseas) students maps how Australian science evolved throughout history, i.e. long before invasion.

Examples of Aboriginal science

There are many achievements that could find their way into a science curriculum:

  • Physics. Aboriginal people developed the boomerang and other sophisticated weapons (e.g. woomera).
  • Astronomy. They knew how the tides are linked to the phases of the moon, while Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was still proclaiming, incorrectly, that the moon had nothing to do with tides. [1] Others had figured out how eclipses work. The Emu in the Sky is a well-known Kamilaroi dreaming story which connects Aboriginal and Western astronomy. The stars were also used as seasonal indicators.
  • Maths. In some cases, Aboriginal people had sophisticated number systems. [1]
  • Navigation. How could they traverse this great continent without compasses, but using stars and oral maps?
  • Landcare. Aboriginal people managed country carefully through controlled burning to maximise productivity. They possessed ethno-botanical knowledge linked to specific places and environments. This resulted in fantastically fertile soils. [1]
  • Chemistry. Aboriginal people had an intimate knowledge of bush medicine, and how to treat poisonous plants (such as cycads and nardoo) to make them usable for food or medicine. They also knew how to transform Spinifex resin into a very strong glue. This knowledge is based on chemical reactions that occur during fermentation, combustion, pyrolysis and calcination. [2]
  • Warfare. They organised fierce resistance to the British invaders, and sometimes won significant military victories such as the raids by Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy [1] or Jandamarra.

You might be forgiven for not knowing. The old paradigm of "primitive natives" is still deeply ingrained in Australian society, keeping us from opening to the notion of "intelligent and sophisticated Aboriginal nations" which is closer to reality.

Next time you talk or teach, show that there is far more to explore than the common stereotypes of Aboriginal culture.

The great anthropologists of the 20th century... tell us much about Aboriginal art, songs and spirituality, but are strangely silent about intellectual achievements. — Ray Norris, Chief Research Scientist at the CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science [1]

A prominent Aboriginal scientist: David Unaipon

By 1909, Aboriginal scientist and inventor, David Unaipon, had developed and patented a modified hand piece for shearing. Between this year, and 1944, he made patent applications for nine other inventions, including a centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel and a mechanical propulsion device, building his reputation as “Australia’s Leonardo da Vinci”.

Read more about David Unaipon

Video: Why is Indigenous science important?

Watch Aboriginal scientists, Dr Stacy Mader, Dr Ray Lovett, Assoc Prof Simon Conn, Dr Maree Toombs, Assoc Prof Jason Sharlpes, Brad Moggridge, and Dr Simone Reynolds talk about why they think Aboriginal science is so important (about 4 mins).



View article sources (2)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] [1d] 'Aboriginal scientific achievements recognised at last', SMH 21/4/2014
[2] 'Indigenous science goes far beyond boomerangs and spears', IndigenousX 11/11/2018,, retrieved 7/3/2020

Harvard citation

Korff, J 2020, Aboriginal knowledge for the science curriculum, <>, retrieved 4 April 2020

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