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.

It is important to highlight that Aboriginal culture has always been scientific and is not confined to non-Aboriginal scientists. Aboriginal students can be proud of the deep knowledge their culture extracted from nature to survive this long and sustainably in a fragile environment. Similarly, the education system as a whole needs to acknowledge sophisticated Aboriginal scientific methods and loose the common stereotype that Aboriginal people were confined to more 'primitive' methods.

Many Aboriginal people now 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.


Aboriginal people developed the boomerang and other sophisticated weapons (e.g. woomera).

Boomerangs were used for a range of purposes other than hunting, for example to improve stone knives. And if you're asking who developed the first unmanned controlled flight, it's probably Aboriginal people with the boomerang. Note also that most modern aircraft's wings mirror the shape of a boomerang.


Aboriginal people 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.

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.

In 2018 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) – the global network of the world’s professional astronomers – recognised four stars in the night sky by their Aboriginal names. The names include three from the Wardaman people of the Northern Territory: Larawag, Wurren and Ginan in the Western constellations of Scorpius, Phoenix and Crux (the Southern Cross). One name is from the Boorong people of western Victoria: Unurgunite in Canis Majoris (the Great Dog).


Wardaman Senior Elder Bill Yidumduma Harney, an artist, author and musician, contributed some of his traditional star knowledge for the books Dark Sparklers (2003) and Four Circles (2015). These books remain the most detailed records of the astronomical knowledge of any Aboriginal group in Australia.

Check out the Australian Indigenous Astronomy website which allows you to browse by community or topic and has educational and research-related content.


Early anthropologists who studied Aboriginal languages thought Aboriginal people only had limited words for numbers, or failed to inquire about more advanced numerical systems. There were words for 'one' and 'two' which Aboriginal people then combined to construct words for 'three' ('one two' or 'one one one') and 'four' ('two two' or 'one one one one'). Later works simply quoted these early findings without question, including authors who wrote classroom resources. Hence this linguistic failure is the main cause for the myth of primitive Aboriginal minds and was taught at Australian schools until at least the 1980s.

Truth is that there is "considerable variation in Aboriginal number systems" which means that some might have only limited words, but others included words for much higher numbers some of which could be extrapolated indefinitely. And this has been known publicly since the early 20th century.

Aboriginal people encoded numbers also non-verbally, for example in message sticks. They could contain information about distance or the number of people to a party.

Before dismissing the repetition or combination of lower numerals to form higher numbers, remember that some languages have similar concepts. The French word for 80, for example, is 'quatre-vingts' which literally means "four twenties"; 89 is 'quatre-vingt-neuf', meaning "four twenty nine", and 95 is 'quatre-vingt-quinze' or "four twenty fifteen".

marrma dambumirri dambumirri rulu

— Gamatj word for 250


How could they traverse this great continent without compasses, but using stars and oral maps?


Aboriginal people managed country carefully, for example through controlled burning to maximise productivity. They possessed ethno-botanical knowledge linked to specific places and environments. This resulted in very fertile soils.


Aboriginal people had an intimate knowledge of bush medicine, including organic and inorganic chemistry and how to apply acid/base techniques. For example, they treated poisonous plants (such as cycads and nardoo) to make them usable for food or medicine or kill animals for food (e.g. fish). 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.

Aboriginal people knew long about the anti-bacterial properties of honey. Scientists confirmed that specific chemical components relating to antibacterial activity of several Australian Leptospermum honeys were similar to, or better than, that of the well-known manuka honey in New Zealand. Also, honey of the native stingless bee has a much lower GI than regular sugar and doesn't cause tooth decay because its sweet component is trehalulose and not glucose and fructose. Stingless bee honey can fetch as much as $200 per kilogram.

Aboriginal people knew how to form and utilise new substances, for example quicklime (calcium oxide), pigments and ochres (iron oxide, charcoal), acid (pyroligneous acid), plaster (calcium sulphate), alkali salts (salts of potassium and sodium), beverages (ethanol), charcoal, and by-products such as heat and light.


Aboriginal people were masters in animal and human tracking and analysing footprints, comparable to fingerprinting in forensic science.


They organised fierce resistance to the British invaders, and sometimes won significant military victories such as the raids by Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy 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

Story: 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 (8)

[1] 'Boomerangs were the multi-tool of early Indigenous Australians', SMH 16/4/2021
[2] [2a] [2b] [2c] [2d] 'Aboriginal scientific achievements recognised at last', SMH 21/4/2014
[3] 'The stories behind Aboriginal star names now recognised by the world’s astronomical body', The Conversation 15/1/2018
[4] [4a] [4b] [4c] 'Facts and fallacies of Aboriginal number system', John Harris, Work Papers of SIL-AAB, Series B, Vol 8, 12/1982, pp 153, available at
[5] This is based on the vigesimal system (based on 20 as opposed to the decimal system, based on 10). English has a similar oddity with 'score', as in the famous "four score and seven years ago" of the Gettysburg address. See
[6] 'Indigenous science goes far beyond boomerangs and spears', IndigenousX 11/11/2018,, retrieved 7/3/2020
[7] 'Stakes raised in Australia-New Zealand rivalry over manuka honey as study finds ours is the best', ABC News 24/10/2019
[8] 'Scientists say native stingless bee honey hits the sweet spot', Brisbane Times 23/7/2020

Cite this page

Korff, J 2021, Aboriginal knowledge for the science curriculum, <>, retrieved 25 May 2024

Creative Spirits is a starting point for everyone to learn about Aboriginal culture. Please use primary sources for academic work.

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