Science Principles in Traditional Aboriginal Australia

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.

Traditional aboriginal shields were developed using a variety of scientific properties including strength and flexibility

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, Calamus caryotoides, 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.

Ooyurka stones were shaped to enable an efficient “pull and push’ motion

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.

Does size matter? Misidentification of, and assumptions about, the world’s largest lizard

Humans are fascinated by extremes; just consider the popularity of the Guinness Book of Records. It’s also reflected by our fascination with huge dinosaurs; think Tyrannosaurus rex and Brachiosaurus. So it is not surprising that claims that ‘giant predatory lizards 11m long once roamed Ancient Australia’ would garner attention and intrigue. In fact the lizard was appropriately given the scientific name, Megalania, meaning ‘giant ripper’. But the search for the true size and nature of this giant reptile, reveals a story of misidentification, opposing ideas, inexact science and false assumptions.

Megalania skull replica
Megalania skull replica

The story begins in the 19th Century, with a large number of fossils of a particular type being uncovered by land owners and naturalists. The size of the bones and teeth indicated that the animal was large. Many perceived the fossils to be of a dinosaur and others classified them as crocodilian. It was never dreamt of at the time that they could been the remains of a gigantic lizard (the Komodo dragon was unknown to science at that time). However, as fragments were combined and examined more closely, it gradually became clear that these were the remains of a giant extinct lizard living during the late Pleistocene, approximately 30,000-180,000 years ago.

Well actually, it wasn’t that clear. In fact the science was decidedly murky. Many of the remains were incorrectly labelled for a long time, and were actually the bones of giant land tortoises, giant flightless birds or even giant marsupials. The opposite also occurred, with many bones identified as belonging to these groups, actually being those of Megalania. Debate among palaeontologists over these matters ruffled a few feathers.

But the debate really got heated around the issue of the size of Megalania. Early estimates inferred a length of 3 m, but over time, the body length increased to 9, 10 and even 11 m—stupendously big for a lizard. It was almost as if a competition was being held: “my Megalania is bigger than yours”.

Estimated sizes of the extant monitor lizards Komodo dragon and Perentie, compared to different estimated sizes of the "Megalania" (Varanus prisca).
Estimated sizes of the extant monitor lizards Komodo dragon and Perentie, compared to different estimated sizes of the “Megalania” (Varanus prisca).

The variation in size estimates arises from assumptions that have to be made, largely due to the fragmentary nature of the evidence. For example:

  • The ratio of claw length to body length from living goannas was applied to the fossil claws of Megalania. The only problem was that it is later discovered they were giant flightless bird claws – not Megalania.
  • Determining the head length from skull remains, and then using the head-to-body length ratio of a lace monitor (alive today) to calculate a length of around 7-10 m. However, further research has identified that the ratio is much smaller in komodos and Megalania, so the size was a massive overestimate.

The confusion of the Megalania story intrigued Queensland Museum palaeontologist and Snr. Curator Geosciences, Dr.Scott Hocknull. He recognised that as a key predatory animal, gaining an accurate understanding of it’s biology is essential in understanding the ecology of prehistoric Australia. So Scott travelled the country and even overseas to examine every Megalania fossil he could find.  Meticulous measurements of the remains, and comparison with living goanna species, has helped test many of the assumptions previously made, and identified a total body length of between 5 and 6 m. This still makes it the largest lizard to have ever lived.

Snr. Curator Geosciences, Scott Hocknull, describes some fo the features of a Megalania skull.
Snr. Curator Geosciences, Scott Hocknull, describes some of the features of a Megalania skull replica.

This situation is a prime example of one of the AC: Science learning descriptors within the strand ‘Science as a Human Endeavour’.  ‘Scientific understanding, including models and theories, are contestable and are refined over time through a process of review by the scientific community’ (Yr 9). Science is not always exact, assumptions are made and formulas applied. Scientists are also human and can become attached to particular theories.

So should scientists assume anything? It’s not a very rigorous and reliable methodology is it?  Assumptions are an inescapable and integral part of scientific research. In almost all cases when not everything is known about an object or topic, assumptions simply have to be made. The challenge is to minimise the number of assumptions, and when made, to ensure they are as valid as possible. Scientific investigation in one sense is all about testing assumptions and theories—by different people, using different approaches and as new evidence and material becomes available.

Palaeontology is one area of science particularly susceptible to forming assumptions due to the fragmentary nature and scarcity of evidence. Uncovering a single bed of fossils can overturn theories held for decades. In fact, this is just what is occurring at the moment with the discovery of an enormous fossil bed at South Walker Creek. Scott and his team from QM are investigating this site, and early results indicate that it will substantially expand and change our understanding of Ancient Australian megafauna, including our very own mega-lizard.

Teaching kids to be scientifically discriminative

It’s the school holidays in Queensland and the seconded teachers at QM are taking a well-earned break. This provides me with an opportunity to pen a few words whilst our teaching experts are away!

Coral Reef damage in neigbouring Indonesia

Science has been at the forefront of local news lately, particularly in relation to conservation issues. The Courier Mail had a headline Reef at Risk blazed across the front page on 21st June highlighting a United Nations report declaring Australia’s failure to properly protect the  World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef (GBR).  Scientists have reiterated their concerns at the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium held at Cairns. Dredging in close proximity to the GBR is a contentious issue.

The day before on the inside pages of the Courier Mail, the headline declared, “Red List shows world biodiversity in crisis as animals and plants vanish”The article referred to the declaration made prior to the UN Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio that, of 63,837 species assessed, 31% (19,817) are threatened with extinction. 2000 of the species listed live in Australian habitats. Queensland’s northern hairy-nosed wombat, mahogany gliders and cassowaries are among the animals whose numbers in the wild have been reduced to vulnerable levels.  

The Northern-Hairy-Nosed wombat is critically endangered

Happily, the news is not all bad on the conservation front as the Australian federal government announced in June the creation of a very large network of marine reserves. Perhaps mindful of presenting a balanced picture about successful conservation efforts, on 29th June the Courier Mail showed photos of a newborn Sumatran rhino calf born in Way Kambas National Park in Lampung, Indonesia.  Andatu, as he was named, was only the fifth calf born in captivity; there are estimated to be fewer than 200 Sumatran rhinos in the wild. Video footage of the baby rhino can be viewed from this link as Reuters syndicated this good news story around the world.

Andatu – a rare Sumatran Rhino calf born in captivity

A question posed in my mind about this concentrated and contrasting coverage of local and international conservation matters is how should we go about sharing and discussing the implications of these stories with our children, as parents or teachers, in a balanced and non-biased way? Many children and young people have a passion for animals and are keenly aware of, and participants in, local initiatives such as litter collection around our parks and creeks and caring for injured wildlife. Their sources of information about conservation issues are likely to be gleaned from social media, ABC3 and the Discovery Channel as well as news digests tailored for young people.

So how do we teach kids to be scientifically discriminative about what they read and hear from secondary sources? At what stage do school students begin to understand that the adult world is full of contrasting viewpoints based on a similar set of facts or events?  The term discriminative is defined as being “capable of making fine distinctions and expressing careful judgment.”  We would argue that many students form an ability to discriminate right from wrong, and weigh up fact from fiction, and rhetoric from reality, far earlier than they are given credit for.

Interestingly the new Australian Curriculum for English which is being trialled in QLD this year has several references to developing  discriminatory reading skills from an early age. For example, under sub-strand “Texts in Context”, Year 3 children should be able to “identify the point of view in a text and suggest alternative points of view”. And under the literature and content sub-strand, Year 4 students should be able to “make connections between the ways different authors represent similar storylines.”

A close scrutiny of ACARA’s Australian Curriculum: Science document reveals similar discriminatory expectations, albeit at a higher level. For example, under Science Inquiry Skills, Year 9 and 10 students should be able to “evaluate conclusions, including identifying sources of uncertainty and possible alternative explanations.

Science and conservation news is an ideal “real world’ information source for children and young people to develop their knowledge and understanding as well as powers of discrimination. And this approach is not new.  As a young teacher, I vividly recall facilitating several enjoyable and highly engaging lessons which were based around a courtroom setting. The class was split into two, character roles were assigned and the “defence and prosecution” were expected to present different views and interpretations of the evidence. Young children love role play and dressing up; the research the children undertook (with the help of parents) in presenting their case was deep and impressive.

Many children are capable of weighing up the merits of a debate

There is plenty of current (and often politically controversial) material in the news that lends itself to debate and raising student’s awareness of the complex, inter-weaving nature of science and conservation issues. For example, exploring the United Nation’s concern about protection of the GBR versus the federal and state government’s need for mining revenue and plans for QLD port and rail expansion; the protection of old-world growth forests in Tasmania advocated by conservationists versus the need to generate new forestry and wood processing jobs in a state with high unemployment.

As a conversational stimulus around the kitchen table or in your classroom, I wonder whether the world-wide depiction of a cute newborn Sumatran rhino is designed primarily to make the general population “feel better” about our efforts to ameliorate the alarming depletion of the world’s endangered wildlife and their habitats?  To discuss.

But I eat lots of carrots!

Image of Quentin the Quoll
Quentin the Quoll talks about nocturnal animals

Did your mum ever tell you to eat lots of carrots because they would help you to see better in the dark? Whilst carrots and other orange and yellow fruits and vegetables will help to prevent certain eye ailments, to see really well at night you actually need special eyes.

Like other nocturnal animals, Quentin the Quoll was able to find food and evade prey even on the darkest of nights. In fact before the disappearance of dinosaurs, most land mammals were nocturnal since dinosaurs were their main predators. Today there is more of a balance but animals such as owls, possums, gliders, many frogs, bats, wombats, koalas, phascogales, many wallabies and geckoes are but a few of the Australian animals that still use the cover of night to survive.

So how do nocturnal animals see so well in the dark?                  Eye of Tawny Frogmouth chick

Of course there are variations in eye features across different animals but scientists have discovered some common characteristics. The most obvious one is eye and pupil size. Some animals like owls, frogs and geckos have eyes that take up a much larger percentage of their skull compared with diurnal (daytime active) animals. Their large eyes and pupils give them large lenses and therefore bigger retinas so that they maximise the amount of ambient light they collect. However, larger eyes means reduced space for each eye to move within the skull, so these nocturnal animals have developed the ability to rotate their necks way past their shoulders to compensate.

Sugar glider

As well as eye size, nocturnal animals have retinas which are filled with rods, the eye cells which detect low light levels. They often have few or no cones which are the eye cells responsible for detecting bright light and colour. Again this helps to maximise the amount of light being collected but as a result, nocturnal animals are thought to have little colour vision and things probably look blurry.

Consequently, nocturnal animals also rely on their senses of smell and hearing.

One final common characteristic in nocturnal eyes is a thick, reflective membrane directly beneath the retina. This membrane, called the tapetum lucidum, collects and resends light back to the retina a second time, giving the rods another chance to absorb the image information. This also explains why some nocturnal animals’ eyes seem to glow in the dark when a light is shined on them. Cats too have nocturnal glow in the dark eyes, which explains why they are such a threat to wildlife at night.

Image of the Graceful Treefrog
Graceful Treefrog

The purpose of this blog is two fold. Firstly, it is hoped that this information will support the delivery of the Australian Curriculum: Science. It is most directly linked to the Year 5 Science Understandings (Biological sciences — Living things have structural features and adaptations that help them to survive in their environment) and Science as a Human Endeavour (Use and influence — scientific knowledge is used to inform personal and community decisions). However, it is also a real life example of the Year 5 Science Understandings (Physical sciences — Light from a source forms shadows and can be absorbed, reflected and refracted) and will provide teacher background information for Science Understandings in Year 1(Earth and space sciences — Observable changes occur in the sky and landscape) and Year 3 (Biological sciences — Living things can be grouped on the basis of observable features…)

The second purpose is to make you aware of a new Queensland Museum digital resource called Squawks in the night. It is a slide show designed specifically for Early Years learners, with simple text that relates directly to the photos and a few animal calls. The resource is located on the Queensland Museum website via the following link.

http://southbank.qm.qld.gov.au/Learning+Resources/~/media/Documents/Learning%20resources/QM/Resources/Kids%20collection/squawks-in-the-night.ppt

We welcome any feedback or requests for particular topic discussions/resources. Please contact QM teachers 07 3842 9835.

Indigenous Science: “Australia Had Ancient Trade Routes Too”

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.

Red Ocre

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.

Aboriginal Stone Axe from the QM Collection

 

 

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.

Backyard Explorer North Queensland May 2012

Catching insects during the “hands-on” BE workshop

Queensland Museum scientists will conduct free workshops this week in Atherton, Innisfail, and Cairns dedicated to assessing local biodiversity and the effect of human impact using data from insect trapping. These workshops will be funded with assistance from Landcare through Fiona George (Regional Landcare Facilitator, Terrain Natural Resource Management, Innisfail).

The Queensland Museum Backyard Explorer North Queensland May 2012 workshops will include a free full day workshop held at the CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Atherton facilities on Thursday 17th. During this workshop we will be completing a study with Yungaburra Landcare and other interested community members at the Lower Peterson Creek re-vegetation site.

Participants from teachers to local naturalists, council representatives, Landcare members and staff, and interested community members will attend a program that encourages the region to become more involved in science. Backyard Explorer shows community groups how to complete a survey of their property, work site, even backyard, incorporating scientific examination of habitat, vegetation and wildlife using the techniques museum scientists use in research including identifying any insect finds and interpreting the bio-health of the area.

Landcare have also funded an after school session for teachers, Landcare members and staff, and other interested community at the training room at the Disaster Management Centre in Innisfail on Wednesday May 16th.

Additionally Landcare have organised for the Queensland Museum scientists to visit schools and provide students and teachers hands on experiences with collecting and identifying insects. The Juniors from St Rita’s school in South Johnstone doing Mini Beasts will be involved on Wednesday morning May 16th. All Year 3 classes at Bentley Park College south of Cairns will be working with the Queensland Museum  scientists on Friday 18th May.

Watch this space for reports on the Queensland Museum Backyard Explorer North Queensland May 2012 workshops.

Further reports, photographs, and resources from Backyard Explorer community sessions held in 2011 can also be accessed from this Queensland Museum Talks Science page.

Christine Lambkin is leading the BE workshops and will be joining the QMTS writers group as a guest author.  She is the curator of Entomology responsible for the Queensland Museum collections of Diptera (flies), Coleoptera (beetles), Orthoptera (grasshoppers), Hemiptera (bugs), Phasmatodea (stick insects), and a number of smaller insect orders. Her main research interest is the systematics, evolution, taxonomy, and biodiversity of Diptera, specialising in combined molecular and morphological phylogenetic analyses and monographic revisions of beeflies (Bombyliidae) and stiletto flies (Therevidae).

Chris Lambkin

New Ways of Looking at Old Treasures

The recent opening of Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb exhibition prompted delight on the faces of QM staff and the visiting public.  In addition to supervising the opening of the exhibition, British Museum expert Dr John Taylor identified a very significant old treasure. The piece of papyrus laying quietly in the display of QM artefacts has now been identified as part of an important Book of the Dead belonging to Amenhotep, a chief builder in the 15th century BC. For many adults such discoveries are pretty amazing; but for primary school learners it is hard for them to really grasp the magnitude of these and other historical items. Time has little meaning beyond last week and tomorrow, and old is someone in their forties!

So how can we engage young learners in the appreciation of artefacts? Teachers could get very excited and tell their students about an amazing new discovery of a piece of papyrus written some 3500 years ago. They could explain how Books of the Dead contained magical spells and were entombed with the mummified bodies of Egyptians to ensure their safe passage from one life to the next. But this one-directional sharing of knowledge rarely produces long-term retention in Early Years children’s brain storage system. Teachers know the importance of fostering the processes of inquiry. As the Australian Curriculum states, inquiry develops transferable skills, such as the ability to ask relevant questions; critically analyse and interpret sources; consider context; respect and explain different perspectives; develop and substantiate interpretations, and communicate effectively (Australian Curriculum: History accessed on 30/4/12).

So what can Queensland Museum do to help? Well firstly, we have an abundance of real objects which can be explored. If you visit the museum, you can book a school program which, at a current cost of $5 per student, gives your class a 45 minute session with a museum staff member presenting in an allocated room with museum artefacts which students can handle. The current programs are on our website and can be tweaked to meet specific curriculum intent if you book early and explain what your particular focus is. There are teachers-in-residence at QM who can advise staff about the Australian Curriculum and C2C lessons which we can address – so let us know how we can make your visit really valuable. In addition, Queensland Museum loans offers a wide range of objects many of which students can actually handle and are related to many aspects of the National curriculum. (http://www.qm.qld.gov.au/Learning+Resources/QM+Loans). Of course, local museums and historical societies will also be willing to enrich your classroom learning.

Unfortunately, some objects cannot be handled. Handing around the piece of the Book of the Dead or the mummified hand of a very young child pictured here is not possible. Therefore the way we engage  students in interpreting these objects becomes the crucial factor as to whether the learning is of long-term value. The key to this engagement is enticing the students to co-construct the story around the object. Providing a picture of the artefact and an actual papyrus painting (cheaply purchased online) to each small group of students, with the instruction to share what you know or can deduce, begins the process of inquiry (explore before explain). Then the trick is to ask questions which look at the bigger picture and link this object to customs/ objects that the students can relate to. For example, do people today have things placed with them when they die? What book or item from today do you think people in the 30th century might want to see in a museum? Do we need to collect old things and why? Will we still be writing using an alphabet in 3000 years time? If you could be mummified, would you want to be? Do you think Amenhotep would be happy for us to have a piece of his scroll? Do you think this piece of papyrus will exist in another 3000 years? The factual knowledge about the objects emerges through the conversations but more importantly, the students are engaging in the processes of inquiry. Finally, if you come on an excursion to the museum, the students will take a new look at these old treasures and see much more than a fragment of papyrus in a glass cabinet!

To help teachers deliver the national curriculum, QM teachers are developing resources based on objects/images in our collection and from QM loans. Visit http://www.qm.qld.gov.au/Learning+Resources/Resources and search for Australian curriculum to find the current range so far. If you have specific objects you would like us to put high on the priority list please let us know by emailing or calling discoverycentre@qm.qld.gov.au