Teacher background information


Year 10 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Nature and development of science

Advances in scientific understanding often rely on technological advances and are often linked to scientific discoveries (ACSHE192 - Scootle )

  • researching how technological advances in dating methods of Aboriginal Peoples’ material culture are contributing to our understanding of the changing climatic conditions and human interaction with the Australian megafauna (OI.5, OI.9)

This elaboration describes opportunities for students to investigate how technological advances in archaeological dating techniques combined with evidence from the rich cultural heritage of Aboriginal peoples have shaped our understanding of the beginnings of human habitation in Australia and the interactions of First Australians with their environment. The ongoing debate regarding the respective roles of climate change and human agency in the extinction of the Australian megafauna sets the context for students to research some of Australia’s most significant archaeological discoveries and the arguments that surround them. Students gain an understanding of some of the scientific principles underlying modern dating techniques. They also learn how cultural histories, petroglyphs and paintings provide evidence of Aboriginal peoples’ knowledge of climatic changes and extinct animal species. Students are then able to examine how this evidence can be used to support or refute various points of view.

Some Aboriginal histories tell of a time when inland Australia was much more fertile and inhabited by giant animals. There are also many examples of rock paintings that depict long extinct animal species, such as a giant flightless bird painted on a rock shelter in Arnhem Land. Both histories and rock paintings provide evidence of the age-old knowledge held by Aboriginal peoples and of the long human presence in Australia. They continue to inform modern science of the different fauna and climatic conditions that once existed on the Australian continent. 

Most scientists today tend to agree that the spread of early modern humans reached the Australian continent at least 45,000 years ago. This understanding is based on numerous archaeological finds throughout Australia, arguably the most important one being the site of human remains at Lake Mungo in western New South Wales which has been dated to between 40,000 and 45,000 years using radiocarbon dating. Before the disinterment of human remains at Lake Mungo, most scientists estimated that humans had been living in Australia for perhaps 20,000 years. New discoveries, such as the most recent findings at the Madjedbebe rock shelter in the homelands of the Mirarr People in the Northern Territory, and advances in dating techniques including refinements of radiocarbon dating and other methods based on radioactive decay, thermal and optical luminescence, and DNA analysis, now suggest even longer habitation of Australia by Aboriginal peoples going back about 65,000 years. 

Scientists are also in agreement over the fact that numerous large animal species, including Diprotodon (‘giant wombat’), Megalania (giant monitor lizard), Thylacoleo (marsupial lion), Procoptodon (giant kangaroo) and Genyornis (giant flightless bird), once existed on the Australian continent. However, a lively and ongoing scientific debate has developed over the question of whether the disappearance of the megafauna from the archaeological record coincided with the arrival of humans and, if so, whether there is a causal link between those events. Some scientists hypothesise that the hunting and/or fire-stick farming practices of First Australians may have driven these species to extinction. Others favour the hypothesis that changing climate conditions during this period were the primary cause for their disappearance.  

By investigating the cultural, historical and archaeological evidence used in this debate and the various dating methods that underpin this evidence, students gain an insight into exciting and authentic current research. This elaboration provides opportunities for students to learn more about the rich histories and cultures of Aboriginal Peoples. It allows students to recognise how age-old knowledge about Australia’s past environment, preserved and passed on through more than a thousand generations, can serve as a valuable source of data that informs contemporary science. Students also learn to appreciate how new scientific discoveries and technological advances shape and confirm understandings of the long histories and cultures of Aboriginal Peoples in Australia.

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.

ABCTV North South Productions, Natural History New Zealand Ltd., ITEL. (1998). The future eaters [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/science/future/.

Aitken, M. J. (1999). Archaeological dating using physical phenomena. Reports on Progress in Physics, 62(9), 1333.

Barrett, C. (1929, August 21). Secrets of Great Mystery Lake: Plans for expedition to Central Australia. The Register News. Retrieved from https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/53485119?searchTerm=kadimakara&searchLimits

Bowler, J., Johnston, H., Olley, J. R., Prescott, J., Roberts, R., Shawcross, W., & Spooner, N. (2003). New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia. Nature International Journal of Science, 421, 837-840. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature01383

Choquenot, D. & Bowman D. M. J. S. (2008). Marsupial megafauna, Aborigines and the overkill hypothesis: Application of predator‐prey models to the question of Pleistocene extinction in Australia. Global Ecology & Biogeography Letters, 7(3), 167-180. doi:10.1046/j.1466-822X.1998.00285.x

Clarkson, C., Jacobs, Z., Marwick, B., Fullagar, R., Wallis, L., Smith, M., . . . Pardoe, C. (2017). Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago. Nature International Journal of Science, 547, 306-310.

Clarkson, C., Marwick, B., Wallis, L., Fullagar, R., & Jacobs, Z. (2017, July 20). Buried tools and pigments tell a new history of humans in Australia for 65,000 years. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/buried-tools-and-pigments-tell-a-new-history-of-humans-in-australia-for-65-000-years-81021

Davidson, H., & Wahlquist, C. (2017). Australian dig finds evidence of Aboriginal habitation up to 80,000 years ago. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jul/19/dig-finds-evidence-of-aboriginal-habitation-up-to-80000-years-ago

Dorey, F. (2015). The spread of people to Australia. Retrieved from https://australianmuseum.net.au/the-spread-of-people-to-australia

Flannery, T. (1998). Future eaters: Taming the fire hypotheses. ABC Science. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/science/future/theses/theses1.htm

Masters, E. (2010, May 31). Megafauna cave painting could be 40,000 years old. ABC News. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-05-31/megafauna-cave-painting-could-be-40000-years-old/847564

Miller, G. H., Fogel, M. L., Magee, J. W., Gagan, M. K., Clarke, S. J., & Johnson, B. J. (2005). Ecosystem collapse in Pleistocene Australia and a human role in megafaunal extinction. Science, 309(5732), 287.

Monroe, M. H. (2011, December 22). Aboriginal occupation of greater Australia. Australia: The Land Where Time Began - A biography of the Australian continent. Retrieved from http://austhrutime.com/aboriginal_occupation_greater_australia.htm

Monroe, M. H. (2013). Australia: The Land Where Time Began: Megafauna and the Dreamtime. Retrieved from http://austhrutime.com/megafauna_dreamtime.htm

O'Connell, J. F., & Allen, J. (2004). Dating the colonization of Sahul (Pleistocene Australia–New Guinea): A review of recent research. Journal of Archaeological Science, 31(6), 835-853. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2003.11.005

Office of Environment and Heritage. (2018). Mungo archaeology: Dating the past: Understanding Mungo. Retrieved from http://www.visitmungo.com.au/dating-the-past

Salleh, A. (2009). Giant kangaroo extinction theory disputed.  (ABC News). Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2009-06-23/giant-kangaroo-extinction-theory-disputed/1330188

Wroe, S., Field, J., Fullagar, R., & Jermin, L. S. (2004). Megafaunal extinction in the late Quaternary and the global overkill hypothesis. Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology, 28(1), 291-331.