Teacher background information


Year 3 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Biological sciences

Living things can be grouped on the basis of observable features and can be distinguished from non-living things (ACSSU044 - Scootle )

  • investigating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ systems of classifying living things and how these systems differ from those used by contemporary science (OI.2, OI.3, OI.5)

For millennia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have used observable features of organisms to classify and group organisms and distinguish living and non-living things from each other. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to investigate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ systems of classifying living things based on observations of features or behaviours of organisms. While some systems of classification are similar to the Linnaean system of classification, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples also have ways of classifying organisms that differ from western science. Such classification systems reflect long-held cultural, scientific and practical understandings of the complex interrelationships of organisms within an environment. This Teacher Background Information considers how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples classificatory systems compare and contrast to the Linnaean system. In this elaboration students can investigate the various systems of classification used by Australia’s First Nations Peoples and compare and contrast these with that used in western science.

Classification of living things by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples reflects the complex interrelationships of organisms within the environment. For millennia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have made observations of the natural world and have used commonalities between organisms to group and classify living things in the environment. Organisms may be classified based on physical features, habitat or purpose with sub-classifications that may incorporate life cycle stage, sex, age or reference a particular custom or practice. Western systems of organism classification are based on Linnaean taxonomy, a hierarchical naming convention that conveys information about the species and its relatedness to other organisms. The Linnaean system of classification, developed in the 18th century, initially evaluated organisms based on their structural similarities. The system now ranks organisms by domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species and strain. Contemporary western science continues to classify organisms based on their relatedness. Modern scientific technologies now enable scientists to evaluate the genetic relatedness (DNA) of organisms, in addition to structural similarities.

There are similarities between the western system of classification and some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ systems of classification. For example, when it was first developed, Linnaean classification described only two distinct kingdoms – plants and animals. Similarly, many Aboriginal Peoples also recognise two main distinctions of living organisms – animal and vegetable. The Barngarla Peoples of the Eyre Peninsula region in South Australia classify all animal matter as paru and all vegetable matter as mai. A similar distinction is made by the Ngaanyatjarra Peoples of the Western Desert region who classify animals as kuka and vegetable materials as mirrka. Like Linnaean taxonomy, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander classification systems of edible plants and animals are hierarchical, with organisms grouped in levels, and each of the higher levels encompassing the levels below.

The diverse classification systems of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples also differ in many respects from western systems of grouping and classifying animals. Living things were sometimes put into groups based on features, such as form and function, and not always according to relatedness as 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. In a further example of difference in classification systems, the Eora Peoples of the Sydney Basin area in New South Wales do not classify the flightless emu (maroang) as a bird but as a land animal, whereas by western classification the emu is classified within the Linnaean class Aves (birds) due to the presence of physical characteristics, including wings, feathers and beak.

In many of the classification systems of Aboriginal Peoples organisms are grouped based on function and use. For example, the classification of wood-bearing plants may have the same name as the function of the finished object such as spear trees, string trees, shield trees, canoe trees or resin trees. In other function-based classifications, organisms may be placed in a group identified as material for use in the construction of tools or implements. The Gurindji Peoples of the Victoria River region in the Northern Territory group the three main types of wattle that are found in the area collectively as parrawi. The straight sections of the parrawi are used to make small spears. The Pitta Pitta Peoples of the Boulia region of Queensland classify both the tree Erythrina vespertilio and shields constructed from Erythrina vespertilio as koon-pa-ra.     

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long used botanical and zoological knowledge of Australian native plants and animals to classify organisms in diverse systems that were often ignored or misunderstood by early European naturalists. The term ganguru from the Guugu Yimithirr Peoples of far north Queensland specifically refers to the eastern grey kangaroo. This term was recorded by European naturalists early after colonisation, who failed to understand that this classification referred to a specific species, and assumed that it was a general term, in universal use, to describe all kangaroos. When the term kangaroo was used in communications with the Eora Peoples in New South Wales, whose language is vastly distinct from that of the Guugu Yimithirr Peoples, the Eora Peoples believed they were being taught the European term for ‘edible animal’, as the word does not exist in their language. The Eora Peoples began to apply the term kangaroo to other mammals, causing much hilarity and confusion when cattle were unloaded from ships in early European colonisation, as the Eora Peoples enquired whether they were kangaroos. The Eora term for the eastern grey kangaroo is in fact patagarang, and the species is part of the goa-long, the land animals, in the Eora Peoples’ classification system.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and their knowledge were, and continue to be, instrumental to scientists endeavouring to apply western classification systems to Australian native plants and animals. 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 members of the expedition. For example, the first inclusion of Bennett’s tree kangaroo into the Linnaean taxonomy was made possible through the astute observations and contributions of an integral Aboriginal member of the 'Northern Expedition' to southern Cape York Peninsula in 1872.

As scientific knowledge about living things continues to emerge, the classification of organisms is continually refined to reflect current understandings. In today’s Linnaean system, the classification of organisms may shift due to new developments in genetic analysis that reveal the phylogenetic relatedness of organisms not previously known. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ classification systems also shift, but unlike Linnaean systems, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ classification systems organisms can move between categories depending on their current conditions or circumstances. For example, the Yanyuwa Peoples of the Northern Territory have two broad categories that 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. Organisms may be reclassified in Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ systems of classification based on sex, age, condition, size or the life cycle stage of the organism.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to investigate how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ diverse classification systems compare and contrast with contemporary classification systems. Students can compare and contrast these systems with the Linnaean system of classification and investigate the similarities, differences and underlying rationale between the systems of classification. Students can learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ ways of grouping and classifying organisms are unique, complex and sophisticated and reflect a deep scientific understanding of the interrelationships within ecosystems.

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.

Abbott, I. (2009). Aboriginal names of bird species in south-west Western Australia, with suggestions for their adoption into common usage. Conservation Science Western Australia, 7(2), 213-278.

Art Gallery of New South Wales. (n.d.). Art of the Torres Strait Islands. Retrieved from https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/artsets/hav5uo

Australian National University. (2010). Borrowings from Aboriginal languages. Retrieved from http://slll.cass.anu.edu.au/centres/andc/borrowings-aboriginal-languages

Banks, J. (1771). The Endeavour journal of Sir Joseph Banks, 1768-1771. Sydney: University of Sydney Library, Scholarly Electronic Text and Image Service.

Bradley, J. & Yanyuwa Families. (2007). Barni-Wardimantha Awara Yanyuwa Sea Country plan. Atherton: Mabunji Aboriginal Resource Association.

Bradley, J. (2006). Yumbulyumbulmantha ki-Awarawu = All kinds of things from country: Yanyuwa ethnobiological classification. (Research Report SeriesNo. 6). Brisbane, Qld.: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, University of Queensland

Clarke, P. (2018). The Ngarrindjeri nomenclature of birds in the Lower Murray River region, South Australia. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 143(1), 1-29.

Clarke, P. (2012). Australian plants as Aboriginal tools. Dural: Rosenberg Publishing.

Clarke, P. A. (2003). Australian Ethnobotany: An overview. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2, 21-38.

Davis, S., Ganambarr, M., & Traynor, S. (1982). Aboriginal science teacher's handbook: Incorporating the Milingimbi case study. Darwin: Northern Territory Department of Education.

Douglas, W. (1988). An introductory dictionary of the Western Desert language: A three-part dictionary based on field notes collected over a period of years at Warburton Ranges and in other parts of the Western Desert language area. Perth: Institute of Applied Language Studies, Western Australian College of Advanced Education.

Dwyer, P., & Duhnam, M. (2005). Ethnoclassification, ethnoecology and the imagination. Journal De La Société Des Océanistes, 120(1), 11-25.

Haviland, J. (1974). A last look at Cook’s Guugu Yimidhirr word list. Oceania, 44(3), 216-232.

Olsen, P., & Russell, L. (2019). Australia's first naturalists: Indigenous Peoples' contribution to early zoology. Canberra, ACT: NLA Publishing.

Pohlner, H. (1986). Gangurru. Milton, Qld: Hope Vale Mission Board.

Roth, W. E. (1901). North Queensland ethnography (Bulletin No. 2). The structure of the Koko-Yimidir language. Brisbane: George Arthur Vaughan.

Rudder, J. (1983). Qualitative thinking: An examination of the classificatory systems, evaluative systems and cognitive structures of the Yolŋu People of north-east Arnhem Land. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/110248?mode=full

Smith, N. (1991). Ethnobotanical field notes from the Northern Territory, Australia. Journal of the Adelaide Botanic Garden, 14(1), 1-65.

Waddy, J. (1982). Biological classification from a Groote Eylandt Aborigine’s point of view. Journal of Ethnobiology, 2(1), 63-77.

Watson, J. J., & Hitchcock, G. (2015). The terrestrial vertebrate fauna of Mabuyag (Mabuiag Island) and adjacent islands, far north Queensland, Australia. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, Culture, 8(1), 35-54.