Written by Alethea Beetson, Indigenous Engagement Coordinator, Queensland Museum and Imelda Miller Curator, Cultures and Histories, Queensland Museum
All year Digi Youth Arts unsettle artists and mentors have been engaging, discovering, interacting, activating, calling out, evaluating, commenting, questioning and creating new artworks inside and outside Queensland Museum. As artists in residence, Digi Youth Arts have been focused on producing new works across six art forms – street art, theater, film, dance, visual art and music. This year alone, artists from four of these art forms have showcased new works developed in collaboration with industry mentors.
Queensland Museum arachnologist Dr Robert Raven travelled to the Central Highlands of Tasmania in February surveying spiders as part of a Bush Blitz survey. And it was during this survey that uncovered two new species of spiders in one night! Dr Raven tells the story of these great discoveries.
In terms of classroom learning and the Australian Curriculum, the exploration of message sticks brings together history, science, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, literacy and art. Coupled with a trip to a museum and contact with a local Aboriginal Group where possible, the links to both Historical Knowledge and Understanding and Historical skills for Foundation to Year 3 are strong. As well as being sources of information of the past about which students can easily pose questions, message sticks are an example of how stories of the past are communicated, why museums have such artefacts and can elicit reflection on the impact of changing technology on traditional Indigenous practices. By also immersing students in the spiritual connection that Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders have with the land and sea and the great diversity of each group’s connection, students begin to understand why message sticks and other forms of communication (stories, dance, music, art) are so important to Indigenous identity. In terms of science, message sticks hit the mark for Year 1, chemical sciences and also a number of the Years 1, 2 and 3 English descriptions.
Australia is a vast land. Not surprising then that it is home to a large number of different indigenous cultural groups. Over tens of thousands of years, “a rich diversity of tribal groups, each speaking their own languages and having a variety of cultural beliefs and traditions” has emerged (Hill, C. 2004). It is estimated that around 250 distinct indigenous languages were spoken in 1788 with around 600 dialectal variations. Message sticks have played an important part in communication between Aboriginal groups across the immense Australian landscape. In our classrooms, message sticks offer a way of understanding the diversity of indigenous cultures in a way that most students can relate to. Whilst the diverse oral culture of Aboriginal people is well-known, message sticks may not be something teachers are familiar with, hence this background briefing blog.
Message sticks are a form of communication between Aboriginal nations, clans and language groups even within clans. Traditional message sticks were made and crafted from wood and were generally small and easy to carry (between 10 and 20 cm). They were carved, incised and painted with symbols and decorative designs conveying messages and information. Some were prepared hastily, like you might create a note left on a friend’s desk or a quick text message; others were prepared with more time to make the markings neat and ornate. There were always marks that were distinctive to the particular group or nation sending the message and often marks identifying the relationship of the carrier to their group. This way it could be identified and authenticated by neighboring groups and by translators when the message stick was taken long distances.
Message sticks helped support the oral message that the carrier would provide, especially when languages of groups were very different. But there were enough marks to ensure that the original message would not be misinterpreted. More importantly, the message stick itself was a ‘passport’ which gave the carrier protection. When someone carrying a message stick entered another group’s country, they announced themselves with smoke signals and were then accompanied safely with the message stick to the elders so that they may speak their verbal message. Group members would then accompany the carrier safely back to where they came from with a reply. The message stick also helped to secure safe passage across long distances and through many groups. This was because each time the messenger was directed to meet the elders to show the stick and request permission to pass through and deliver the message to its final destination.
The subject matter of message sticks varies much like the text types of many written languages. Notices about meetings and events, invitations to corroborees, ceremonies and fights, notices/ requests of marriage arrangements, notification of a family member passing and requests for objects are some of the types of information placed on message sticks. They were also used for trading journeys; curators know that many artefacts could not have been made at the locations where they were found because the materials they were made from, were found and traded across great distances (Jacob 1991, pg 260). Some message sticks were created with unique markings that were used only at certain times, and were only allowed to be carried by particular people for special rituals.
The story telling text types are generally not seen on message sticks. These of course are shared within the clan, passed down through rich oral traditions including The Dreaming, music and dance. These ‘stories’ of country vary greatly from region to region because they describe the journeys of ancestral spirits who created the features of a particular area. But not just the geographical features. Helen Nunggalurr from a clan in north–east Arnhem Land explains, “First all things in our environment were created by spirit beings which we call Wangarr. They created the different tribes and their languages. During their creation journeys they created animals, plants, waterholes, mountains, reefs, billabongs and so on. Today we can see their tracks in our land and where they stopped we can see their signs. These are the features in our landscape. This is why these places are our sacred areas which we must respect and care for” (Smyth, D.,1994, p 3).
At Queensland Museum and Sciencentre you can see many examples of message sticks and engravers in the Dandiiri Maiwar Exhibition. In some cases, the museum has acquired the stories associated with particular sticks. For example, Bishop White of Carpentaria described how he delivered a message stick on behalf of an Aboriginal boy in Darwin to a boy in Daly Waters. Bishop White asked the Darwin boy to explain the message. The boy read the message symbols which requested headbands and boomerangs from Daly Waters. The Bishop delivered the message stick (shown below) and asked the recipient to tell him what the message was. The boy interpreted the message stick exactly as the Darwin boy had explained it.
The essence of message sticks, apart from their obvious purpose, is the way they signify the carrier’s identity with a particular group (the senders). As a result of the WIK decision of 1996, Queensland Museum invited school groups to make message sticks called WIK sticks so that others could glean a sense of who they are just by viewing the stick. This idea could easily be replicated in schools and WIK sticks could be shared between schools from very different regions. Individually, students could create small WIK sticks on thick cardboard to represent their own unique identities.
In summary, message sticks are a rich source of historical and cultural learning for Foundation to Year 3 students in particular. Along with the many other artefacts on display at QM & S, the online resources and the various relevant loans kits, teachers can go a long way to developing an appreciation and respect for the great diversity and richness of Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders cultures and histories.
Below you will find some interesting contemporary representations of message sticks with some useful reference sources and information to use with students in the classrooms or at home with your children.
This article continues the theme of early indigenous scientific knowledge which often centred around the collection of food. Most shell middens were created in ancient (pre-European contact) times and can provide valuable information about Aboriginal hunting and gathering practices.
For thousands of years, Aboriginal people caught and ate large numbers of shellfish species in and around the mangrove mud flats and coastal areas along the Queensland coast. Often they would cook the meat and use the shells for a number of different purposes, or dispose of the shells in large dump sites. These dump sites would normally be near where they were camped and eventually form what is called shell middens. Shell middens have provided important information and clues for researchers about the Aboriginal people and the environment they lived in. They tell the story of the Aboriginal peoples’ diet, food sources for that particular area, what species were available, the impact of biodiversity, environmental changes and marine ecosystems.
Different species of food sources found in shell middens include, mussels, oysters, clams, crabs, fish. These food sources were highly prized as today we know they contain valuable nutrients such as zinc, iron, calcium and vitamins such as A and B. These would have been hunted and gathered according to the seasons and particularly when they were in abundance. The Aboriginal people would have known when the oysters were at their fattest, the crabs were at their heaviest, the mussels in abundance from reading the seasonal signs around them. This practice is still used today by many Aboriginal people.
Some of the species found included Geloina coaxan (Mud Clam), Nerita balteata (Lined Nerida), Telescopium Telescopium (Telescope Mud Creeper. Most of the food sources were collected during low tide as that was the time they were exposed in the mud or sand or attached to rocks and branches of the mangrove trees.
Once they were collected they would have been immediately eaten and then discarded in a nearby heap eventually forming into a midden. The Aboriginal people also found uses for the shells and used them for cutting and slicing or decoration. Every year at the same time the shell midden would grow in size. In the Hinchinbrook area, between the North Queensland towns of Cardwell and Ingham shell middens sites have been found and from the research tells the story that it is a particular area that would have supported a large number of people. Whilst middens are found there, a number of fish traps have also been found which reinforces that the area was a valuable nutrient rich environment. All shell middens and fish traps today are protected sites. They are protected under the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2003 and Torres Strait Islander Cultural heritage Act 2003. One area protected for artefact scatters, shell middens and fish traps is an area at Palm Island.
Whilst shell middens have survived over thousands of years they are exposed to threats. Threats include cyclones, (a shell midden at the Townsville Town Common was damaged by a cyclone), erosion from water and wind, vandalism and development.
During traditional times, Aboriginal people showed an ingenious mastery of physics to create hunting equipment and labour-saving tools. They demonstrated knowledge of chemistry, held a deep understanding of biology through powerful observation and using all the senses to predict and hypothesis. Additionally, they were competent at testing through trial and error, making adaptations and retesting to achieve a final result. Aboriginal people were experts at reading signs signalling seasonal changes and life cycles. They understood that the entire environment around them was intertwined and depended on careful stewardship of their custodial area to survive and thrive.
Traditional knowledge held by Aboriginal people demonstrated an ingenious mastery and deep understanding of Biology and Chemistry. From generations of knowledge passed down orally, they invented labour-saving tools and techniques aimed at making food gathering easier. The rainforest people knew how to make multiple uses of plants such as the buttress roots of the fig tree, lawyer cane, seeds, palms and vines.
For example, they were able to understand that grinding toxic seeds on the morah stone would break down cell membranes and when put in running water the toxins would leach out. They discovered that heating up toxic seeds would also break down cell membranes and remove the poison. The Aboriginal people of the rainforest invented the bicornual basket to act as a sieve for the ground seeds. They knew that placing the basket in running water, loaded with the ground seeds, the toxins would leach out. The cleverly woven basket could stay for days at a time in the water without disintegrating because of the vine’s strength. These baskets made from lawyer cane, Calamuscaryotoides, which is a prickly climbing vine were ergonomically designed to endure and withstand many functions.
The rainforest is a veritable supermarket, abundant in plant and animal food sources. Aboriginal people of the rainforest used their spearthrowers, firesticks, morah stones, nutstones, bicornual baskets and ooyurka stones to make hunting and the preparation of food easier.
The spear thrower (also called a woomera) is used with a spear. It acts as a lever to project the spear with force and speed. This enabled the thrower to increase the spear’s trajectory over a longer distance.
The morah stone was designed to grate or grind down toxic seeds in preparation for leaching. A push and pull motion was used on the stone with the topstone as it broke down the seed on the morah stone
The bicornual basket has an ergonomical design. The Aboriginal people of the rainforest designed it to fit securely and comfortably on their back whilst the handle part is hung from the forehead. From this position, the basket user could carry a controlled weight easily while having their hands free.
The t-shaped ooyurka stone was designed as a scraper and was used with a push and pull motion to remove seed residue from the morah stone. It was also used to make a groove in a stone axe head and could be bound easily with twine.
The nut stone was designed to make cracking open the hard exterior of nuts easier. The grooves etched in the nutstone allowed less force to be exerted.
Firesticks usually consisted of two long drill sticks and a case that protected the drill parts. The firemaker would use friction between the two drill sticks to make heat and a fire would result.
The Rainforest people built strong shelters made with lawyer cane, fan palm leaves, blady grass, rushes and barks. Knowledge of tight weaving and thatching handed down through generations gave them the skills to waterproof their shelters against heavy tropical rains. Inside the shelters the people kept their precious shields, swords, baskets, axes, firesticks, ochre, boomerangs. Outside sat morah stones and nut-stones. For many generations this lifestyle was maintained.
Without this deep scientific knowledge and understanding, Aboriginal people would not have survived for thousands of years.
Trade and trading routes have developed and existed for many thousands of years all over the world. In the period when Europe and Asia had the Silk Road and Spice Trade, Australian Aborigines were also using trade routes along overland pathways. These trading routes connected Aboriginal groups throughout the entire landscape of the country including the Torres Straits. Routes intersected and criss-crossed at significant sites such as waterholes and rivers, where a particular material, such as red ochre was found in abundance, and at places created by the spirit ancestors.
Whilst there were caravans of camels and horses loaded with silks and spices and maps to guide the traders in Europe and Asia, the Aboriginal people developed a thriving bartering and exchange system by using their sacred pathways and songlines to guide them in their trade exchanges.
For the Aboriginal people, trade wasn’t just associated with physical objects but included songs, dances and art, stories, rituals and ceremonies. These connected the people to the land and sky and animals. Trade exchanges happened either with just one person or with large groups at market places and trading centres. A flourishing economy existed through the people trading their commodities for items they didn’t have.
Mining for much sought after items as red ochre occurred around north western South Australia. Greenstone was needed to create stone axes and this was obtained from Mount Isa and Cloncurry district and then transported and exchanged along the trade routes.
Research and artefact evidence suggests that the Baler shells Melo amphora or northern baler shell, from the East Coast of Australia was exchanged at trading centres, such as Lake Nash and Camooweal for ironwood spears, wooden shields, ochres, fish hooks, Spinifex gum resin, stone axes or boomerangs.
Just as marketplaces and trading centres were central points for the European and Asian civilizations these too were pivotal to the Aboriginal people. The sight, sounds, smells, tastes and colours of a bustling marketplace was just as vibrant in the Australian landscape during ancient times.
Greetings from the Museum of Tropical Queensland (MTQ). My name is Letitia Murgha and I am a member of the Strategic Learning team which is comprised of four seconded teachers from Education Queensland. We do lots of things across the museum network as you will have read in previous blogs. As an indigenous elder and experienced teacher, my main role is to work alongside Trish Barnard (Senior Curator for Cultures & Histories Customs, Cultures and Country) at MTQ to develop new learning resources from an indigenous knowledge perspective. These resources are aligned with the new Australian Curriculum. I’d like to tell you about an aboriginal object from the state collections that I have been investigating that will be included in a set of new Aboriginal Science kits. The special object is called a Morah stone.
To the casual observer it may seem to be a stone with scratches all over it but to the Aboriginal people of the North Queensland rainforest this stone aided their ability to survive, sustain themselves and to prosper. It is known as a Morahstone and is a specialised type of grooved grindstone formed from sedimentary rock, such as grey slate. It was an integral tool used by Aboriginal people, especially the women, of the rainforest who used it to process particular plant types such as the Zamia Palm (Lepidozamia hopei) and Black Bean (Castanospermum australe). These distinct plant types while abundant in the rainforest are highly toxic. The rainforest people knew about the toxicity of these plants and through scientific processes discovered how to extract the toxin from them. The stone was invented as an aid in extracting toxins from the seeds of the toxic plants. The rainforest might look and feel cool and inviting, but there lurks many hidden dangers.
Of the many rock types slate was chosen because it formed into smooth flat sheets. Slate has a low water absorption index. It is also fireproof and has a level of resistance to breakage and is easily portable. It is a very handy tool. Most morahs have roughly parallel incised grooves running across the grinding surface perpendicular to the axis of the stone. These grooves or incisions would most likely have been made with a pointed bone, sharp stone or piece of sharp coral.
You may wonder how aboriginal people used the Morahstone. The seeds/kernels were placed on the incised Morahstone and the moogi, usually a harder stone, placed on top and in a rolling pushing and pulling motion grated the seeds/kernels. This motion allowed for a quantity of meal, mashed seed kernels, to be crushed in a short time as the next step in the process was to leach this meal inside a basket in running water. Using this motion across the stone the incised grooves facilitated the breakup of the starchy kernels.
How do we know which seeds were ground and leached? Results of scientific analysis on residue analysis from the Morah stones suggest that Aboriginal groups settled on a more permanent basis in the rainforest. The residue analysis from some Morah stones found in North Queensland revealed the specific types of seeds which were ground down. Food sources such as the Zamia seeds provided a high carbohydrate, protein and energy diet as well as being low in fat. Six species of toxic plant sources in the rainforest provided and formed part of the Aboriginal people’s staple food source thatup
The Morah stone is no ordinary stone.
The Morah stone along with other tools invented by Aboriginal people will feature in the new loans kits developed by Queensland Museum. Multiple Learning Kits will be available for loan by metropolitan and regional borrowers. The resources will be of particular interest for local area studies in schools, embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives into the curriculum and most importantly being aligned with the new Australian Curriculum: Science.
We are custodian of Queensland's natural and cultural heritage, caring for more than a million items and specimens in collections that tell the changing story of Queensland.