Teacher background information


Year 6 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Nature and development of science

Science involves testing predictions by gathering data and using evidence to develop explanations of events and phenomena and reflects historical and cultural contributions (ACSHE098 - Scootle )

  • learning how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ knowledge, such as the medicinal and nutritional properties of Australian plants, is being used as part of the evidence base for scientific advances (OI.9)

Many First Peoples of the world, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, have been observed by Western scientists to have sophisticated health therapies and low rates of dietary deficiencies. Students will have the opportunity to learn how contemporary scientists in many fields derive important data from First Nations Peoples’ scientific knowledge of plant species that contain medically and nutritionally important ingredients. Western scientists have long understood that the pharmacopoeia and diets of Indigenous peoples have already undergone testing and trialling for efficacy. Biochemists and medical scientists continue to screen the diet and pharmacopoeia of Indigenous peoples globally to identify important constituents responsible for resolving various natural phenomena (i.e. effective health therapies and absence of dietary deficiencies). Many contemporary medicinal and nutritional developments are founded on the scientific knowledge and understanding of First Nations Peoples. This elaboration is about how scientists work and where their inspiration originates. It provides students with the opportunity to learn how the scientific method, that is the process of observing, predicting and experimenting, may be initiated by observations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ use of native Australian plants. Contemporary pharmaceutical and nutritional science in Australia after colonisation has frequently turned to the knowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have of the medicinal and nutritional properties of native Australian plants. This has provided, and continues to provide, scientists with a basis for the formulation of research questions that are designed to investigate potential pharmaceuticals and nutritionally important ingredients.

Scientists gain ideas for research questions through observations of phenomena and events that occur in the world.  Modern science has globally acknowledged that a potential avenue for developing new effective medicines and pharmaceuticals is to look to the traditional uses of plants. There is now recognition that much of the knowledge pertaining to the medical and nutritional properties of plants already exists, and that much of the process of research in identifying and optimising the use of such plants has already been done. Scientists acknowledge that “even in the era of cheap powerful molecular biology, traditional knowledge can make bioprospecting programmes more effective” (Yong, 2012).

Anecdotal observations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ use of plants have led scientists to predict that useful pharmaceuticals may be found in the pharmacopoeia and diets of First Nations Peoples. Scientists gather data to test such predictions through studies such as the 1946 Australian Phytochemical Survey, a 25-year study to evaluate the chemical constituents of native plants. This, and similar studies, have been undertaken for the purpose of identifying plants that have the potential for new drugs or contain other important substances such as vitamins. Today, scientists are developing predictions and undertaking research projects based on observations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ pharmacopoeia and traditional uses of plants.

Observations of the effectiveness of traditional use of plants by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have led to the production and commercialisation of modern pharmaceutical products. For example, the Wiradjuri Peoples of central New South Wales were observed to treat colds by building steam pits that were heated by fires, lined with Eucalyptus spp. leaves and overlaid with possum-rugs. Such observations led Western scientists to formulate predictions about the medicinal potential of Eucalyptus spp. and gather data to test these predictions. The observations of how the Wiradjuri Peoples used Eucalyptus spp. informed Western scientists about the specific plant to use, the condition it treated and how to prepare the plant for effective use. Today commercial products containing Eucalyptus spp. oil are manufactured for the treatment of colds in the same manner as the Wiradjuri Peoples have done for thousands of years.

In an endeavour to (re)discover effective pharmaceuticals, scientists are looking to the knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Eremophila spp. are native Australian plants that have long been observed to be used medicinally by Aboriginal Australians. The Arrernte Peoples of the southern central desert region in the Northern Territory use Eremophilia spp. as a topical treatment for skin sores and wounds. This observation has led scientists to suggest that Eremophilia spp. may be useful as an antimicrobial. Current research, in collaboration with Aboriginal communities, includes gathering data to evaluate this prediction. Furthermore, observations of the Kamilaroi Peoples, whose Country encompasses northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, who used this native plant to sterilise surgical instruments has led to research proposals investigating the potential of Eremophilia spp. to sterilise surgical implants.

Plants of the genus Ipomoea are used globally in traditional medical practices to treat a range of conditions and ailments. The peoples of Mer Island in the Torres Strait use heated leaves of Ipomoea spp. (wakor in the Meriam Mir language of the Eastern Islands of the Torres Strait) as an analgesic to relieve pain. The observations of Ipomoea spp. being used for this purpose has stimulated scientific research that has identified the analgesic compounds in the leaves. These observations continue to initiate research into the pharmacological properties of the plant to better understand its medical potential.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples also have extensive knowledge of the nutritional properties of native plants that is informing developments in the health industry. Early observations of the diet and preparation of foods by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples demonstrated a clear understanding of nutritional requirements and the food sources best able to provide those requirements. The Garrwa and Wardaman Peoples of the Northern Territory were observed to not overcook meat “to get the most benefit from their foods” and the absence of a particular vitamin from their foods “drove them elsewhere to procure the needed diet” (Harney, 1951). Such observations by Harney provide insight into an applied understanding of food procurement and careful processing to ensure important nutrients are not destroyed and a complete diet is maintained. Observations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples harvesting and preparing plant foods has provided the stimulus for western science to investigate and gather data to provide more detail of the nutritional analysis of many native Australian plants. Native Australian millet (Panicum spp.) has long been used by Aboriginal Peoples in the arid regions of Australia as a cereal source. The Paakantyi Peoples of the Darling River region in New South Wales harvested and processed millet to produce a type of bread, and dried and stored millet for times when the seasonal plant was not available. Recently, scientists have turned to this traditional knowledge in the search for alternative grain sources that are resistant to climate change. Observations of Aboriginal use of native millet has led scientists to predict that native millet may be a useful grain suitable for producing breads with dietary benefits. The researchers acknowledge that they need to “look to the past and conduct research alongside Australia’s original farmers to inform the way forward” (The University of Sydney, 2017).

Students will learn that contemporary scientists in many fields initiate research (formulate predictions and gather data) founded on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ scientific knowledge of native Australian plants that contain medically and nutritionally important ingredients. Students will learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have made, and continue to make, significant contributions to scientific advances.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

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.

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Allen, H. (1974). The Bagundji of the Darling Basin: Cereal gatherers in an uncertain environment. World Archaeology, 5(3), 309-322. https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.1974.9979576

Barr, A. (1988). Traditional bush medicines: An Aboriginal pharmacopoeia: Aboriginal Communities of the Northern Territory of Australia. Richmond, Vic.: Greenhouse Publications.

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Richmond, G. S. (1993). A review of the use of Eremophila (myoporaceae) by Australian Aborigines. Journal of the Adelaide Botanic Garden, 15(2), 101-107.

Sadgrove, J., Lloyd Jones, G., & Greatrex, B. W. (2014). Isolation and characterisation of (-)-genifuranal: The principal antimicrobial component in traditional smoking applications of Eremophila longifolia (Scrophulariaceae) by Australian Aboriginal Peoples. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 154(3), 758-766.

Sadgrove, N. J., Hitchcock, M., Watson, K., & Jones, G. L. (2012). Chemical and biological characterization of novel essential oils from Eremophila bignoniiflora (F. Muell) (Myoporaceae): A traditional Aboriginal Australian bush medicine. Phytotherapy Research, 27(10), 1508-1516. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.4889

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Terra, L., Dyson, P. J., Hitchings, M. D., Thomas, L., Abdelhameed, A., Banat, I. M., …  Quinn, G. A. (2018). A novel alkaliphilic inhibits ESKAPE pathogens. Frontiers in Microbiology, 9, 2458. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2018.02458

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Yong, E. (2012, September 11). Evolutionary trees of traditional medicine plants provide hints for drug-makers [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/09/11/evolutionary-trees-of-traditional-medicine-plants-provide-hints-for-drug-makers/#.XFtoOFwzY2y