Teacher background information


Year 3 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Physical sciences

Heat can be produced in many ways and can move from one object to another (ACSSU049 - Scootle )

  • investigating the production and transfer of heat in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ methods of cooking, such as the use of ground ovens (OI.5)

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to investigate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ understanding of the concept of heat transfer through the context of cooking methods such as the use of ground ovens. Over millennia, heat has been produced through various methods to initiate combustion and utilised for many purposes such as the production of heat for cooking. Combustion and the transfer of heat from one object to another, such as from hot stones to food in an oven, was utilised by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples prior to colonisation. Across Australia ground ovens remain an important cooking method for many people. Through this elaboration students can investigate methods of heat transfer in cooking practices that have long been understood and implemented by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have a long-held scientific understanding of the techniques that can produce heat and the knowledge that heat can be transferred from one object to another. For millennia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have used a variety of techniques to make fire by friction, including methods of generating heat through the friction between two pieces of wood (fire drill, fire saw, fire plough) or between two rocks (percussion), resulting in the production of heat. Generation of heat through friction is used to initiate combustion (the rapid oxidation of such materials in air); however, sufficient heat must be attained to reach an ignition point that results in flames. The process of initiating combustion has long been understood and employed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to produce fire for many purposes, including the generation of heat for cooking processes.

Heat transfer is the process whereby heat (thermal energy) moves from a warmer object to a cooler object until thermodynamic equilibrium is reached, that is, the objects are at the same temperature. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long used this fundamental scientific concept to transfer heat from one object to another for specific purposes. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ methods of cooking provide clear examples of the knowledge, understanding and application of heat transfer between objects.

For example, for millennia the Barindji Peoples of south central New South Wales built a substantial fire to heat stones for cooking large animals in a ground oven. Immense heat is applied to the stones until they glow red hot. Such stones have considerable thermal inertia and long radiate (transfer) heat to their surroundings. The hot stones are placed into a pit oven and the animal is then placed into the oven on the hot stones. The oven is covered with grass, more hot stones placed on top and the oven completely enclosed with earth. The process of using hot stones both underneath and above the meat ensures that heat is transferred from the stones in both directions so that the meat is cooked through without needing to be dug up and turned.

The success and efficiency of ground ovens is due to the heat transfer principles of conduction and convection. The method of transferring heat from one object such as hot stones, to another object, such as food, is called conduction. Convection is the process of heat transfer due to the bulk movement of particles within fluids such as liquids and gases. Cooking food in a pit oven acts in a very similar manner as a pressure cooker on a stove. The stove conducts heat into the pressure cooker and the contents are cooked evenly and efficiently through the convection of gases that form within the cooker. Similarly, the earth that encloses a ground oven acts as a lid that retains the heat and pressure generated by the hot stones.

The Bindal and Wulgurukaba Peoples of far North Queensland also cook meats in earth ovens, digging a hole in the ground and setting a large fire in the pit. Stones are placed in the fire, heated until they are red-hot, then removed from the pit and the fire is extinguished. Once the fire is cleared away a number of the hot stones are returned to the pit, the uncooked meat is placed on leaves covering the hot stones, and the remaining hot stones are placed on the top of the meat. Again, the practice of surrounding the meat with hot stones ensures that heat is transferred to the meat to thoroughly cook from all directions. This cooking process rests on a thorough understanding of the process of heat transfer, as using only a single layer of hot stones may result in only one side of the food being cooked due to an uneven transfer of heat. 

Ground ovens have long been used, and continue to be used, widely on the Torres Strait Islands. Amai in the Meriam Mir language of the eastern Torres Strait Islands and ame or netebu in the Kala Lagaw Ya language of the western Torres Strait Islands, that translate to “earth oven” in English, consist of a large shallow hole built in sandy soil lined with stones. A large fire is set on top of the stones and is kept burning until the stones are red hot. The fire is then extinguished and some of the stones are removed from the oven. Food is layered alternately with hot stones, and the number of layers depends on the amount of food that is to be cooked. Stones are not the only material that can be heated to facilitate cooking of food through the process of heat transfer. The Wik-Mungkan Peoples of the western Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland use heated pieces of termite mound (ant-bed) to cook food. A fire is set in a hole in the ground containing the termite pieces, and once they are sufficiently heated, food is placed on top and the hole is enclosed with earth and bark to create a hot oven for cooking. Industrial steel offcuts are frequently used, in combination with rocks or as substitutes for rocks, in many contemporary ground ovens to take advantage of their excellent thermal properties.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples also employ heat transfer by convection when heating liquids over a fire. When air is heated by fire, the warmer air becomes less dense than the cool air and it rises, and is then replaced by the cooler air underneath. Placing a vessel of water over a fire allows the heat energy from rising air to contact the vessel and transfer heat to the object. The water closest to the heat source in the vessel warms and rises, being replaced by cooler, more dense water molecules to create a convection current. The continual exchange of water molecules in this way results in the entire vessel of water being heated to the desired temperature. Prior to colonisation, the Kuku-Yalanji Peoples of the rainforest region of far north Queensland used large bailer (melon) shells or bark troughs for boiling water over a fire. The Meriam Peoples of Mer Island in the Torres Strait boil water or coconut milk in a bailer shell over a fire, with the large shell supported over the fire on stones. Alternatively, water is heated by adding hot stones into the vessel of water. Tubers, roots, fish and meats are then cooked or boiled in the heated liquid. These processes require an understanding of the transfer of heat through both convection and conduction processes.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to investigate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Peoples’ long-held scientific understanding and utilisation of methods of heat production and heat transfer. For many thousands of years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have produced and controlled heat in a variety of ways, including the use of different fire-starting techniques. Fire has long been used as a source of heat and the understanding of methods of heat transfer, including convection and conduction, is evidenced in cooking methods. Through exploring this context students can learn that heat can be produced in many ways and can move from one object to another.

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.

Dyson, L. (2006). Indigenous Australian cookery, past and present. Journal of Australian Studies, 30(87), 5-18.

Haddon, A.C. (1890). The ethnography of the western tribe of Torres Straits. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 19, 297-440.

Khan, K. (1993). Catalogue of the Roth collection of Aboriginal artefacts from north Queensland: Vol. 1. Items collected from Archer River, Atherton, Bathurst Head, Bloomfield River and Butcher’s Hill, 1897–1901. Technical Reports of the Australian Museum, 10, 1-205.

Lumholtz, C. (1889). Among cannibals: An account of four years' travels in Australia and of camp life with the Aborigines of Queensland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McConnel, U. (1930). The Wik-Munkan tribe of Cape York Peninsula. Oceania, 1(1), 97-104.

McConnel, U. (1953). Native arts and industries on the Archer, Kendall and Holroyd Rivers, Cape York Peninsula, North Queensland. Records of the South Australian Museum, 11(1), 1-42.

Roth, W. (1901). North Queensland ethnography: Food: its search, capture, and preparation (Bulletin No. 3). Brisbane: G. A. Vaughan, Government Printer. 

Smyth, R. (1878). The Aborigines of Victoria: With notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.