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Year 7 & 8 TOC

Indigenous Science


Classification (taxonomy) is the practice of defining and naming groups of living and non-living things, based on their shared characteristics. We use the taxonomy system created by Carl Linneaus to help us make sense of all the organisms on Earth. 

In Linnean taxonomy, organisms are grouped together into taxa that form a ranked hierarchy, starting with either domains or kingdoms. Domains are divided into kingdoms, kingdoms into phyla (or divisions), which in turn are divided into classes, then orders, families, genera and species. Linnaeus originally based his scheme only on the structural similarities of different organisms. Modern biological taxonomy also uses genetic information of living organisms to reflect the evolutionary relationships between different species.

First Nation's Classification

The classification systems of First Nations’ Australians are diverse and complex. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders classify living things by their use, age, stage in life cycle, sex, social status and totemic association.

In their most basic forms, both systems use binary classification. For example is a plant edible or inedible?

Similar to Linnaean taxonomy, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander classification systems of edible plants and animals are hierarchical with organisms being grouped in levels with each of the higher levels encompassing the ones below it.

Many living things are grouped by First Nations’ Australians based on their use. A vast knowledge exists around the use of living things when alive, such as fresh plant sap for medicines. However, equally important is the knowledge of what once living things can be used for. For example, many plants are grouped together based on their use when they are no longer living: spear trees, string trees, shield trees, canoe trees, resin trees and many other use-based categories. Living things are at times put into groups based on features such as form and function. These groupings are not always based on relatedness as used in the Linnaean classification system. For example, some First Nations’ Australians classify turtles, barramundi and dugong into the same group of organisms, based on the observation that they are all aquatic and have fins or flippers. In contrast, the Linnaean classification system categorises turtles as reptiles, barramundi as fish and dugong as mammals.

First Nations’ classifications and groupings can also undergo categorical shifts in that a particular organism can move from one category to another depending on context or usage. For example, Yanyuwa peoples in the Northern Territory have two broad categories which distinguish biological organisms as being either coastal and marine, or inland. Certain animals and plants can move between these two broad categories depending on circumstance. The Yanyuwa language has one term that refers to all dugong and sea turtles, walya, but this category further breaks down to at least 16 names to distinguish dugong. These names include variations depending on age, size, gender, and even a dugong’s status within its herd. Similarly, in the Meriam language of the Torres Strait, there is one word that names a green turtle but various other words are used at different stages of a green turtle’s development and when it is fully grown.

As is the case in many First Nations’ taxonomies, these classifications indicate the importance of a particular plant or animal to a cultural group. They reflect First Nations peoples’ deep knowledge of different stages in an organism’s lifecycle, its interactions and relationships with other animals or plants, its status in learning, cultural stories and totemic systems, and its uses as food, medicine, tools, clothing or other resources with which it may be associated.

It is also worth noting that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ detailed botanical and zoological classificatory knowledge of Australian native plants and animals has been instrumental to scientists applying western classification systems. This existing knowledge was often ignored by early European naturalists, at times resulting in fatal or near-fatal encounters. There are many examples of scientists believing they have discovered a ‘new’ species only be informed that Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples already have names, cultural stories and detailed understandings of the ‘new discovery’.

As Europeans colonised Australia, there was an immediate desire to explore and classify the biota of the continent in the framework of the Western classification system. This resulted in many scientific expeditions throughout Australia, the success of which largely relied upon the contributions made by Aboriginal expedition members. For example, the first inclusion of Bennett’s tree kangaroo into the Linnaean taxonomy was made possible through the astute observations and contribution of an integral Aboriginal member of the 1872 ‘Northern Expedition’ to southern Cape York Peninsula.

By exploring this elaboration, students gain an awareness that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have complex and sophisticated classification systems. Students can develop an understanding that all classification systems serve a purpose of relevance and importance to the user, and that these systems can also reflect knowledge, values, behaviours and worldviews of the peoples who construct them.

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.


The above information was sourced from: https://australiancurriculum.edu.au/TeacherBackgroundInfo?id=56826

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