Teacher background information


Year 8 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Use and influence of science

People use science understanding and skills in their occupations and these have influenced the development of practices in areas of human activity (ACSHE136 - Scootle )

  • investigating how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples used scientific understandings of complex ecological relationships to develop specific fire-based agricultural practices (OI.2, OI.3, OI.5)

This elaboration provides a context for students to investigate how the practice of fire-stick farming, the oldest known farming practice in the world, grew out of the sophisticated knowledge and science understanding of biotic and abiotic relationships and interdependencies of plant and animal communities within ecosystems possessed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

Early anthropologists who witnessed fire stick-farming often concluded that it was simply a hunting method used by Indigenous peoples. Although it did serve this purpose, it was also a significant factor in agriculture and in the sustainable ecological management of country. For example, in addition to the agricultural practices of tilling, replanting, transplanting and weeding, Aboriginal people of northern Australia used controlled fires to promote the growth of yams. The use of fire is essential for the successful cultivation of this crop, as without the application of well-timed and cool-burning fires, other species such as grasses and bracken would overgrow and smother its plantations.  

Carefully controlled fires are also used to promote the growth and distribution of cycads, resulting in dense groves and improving the quality and yield of crops. In the cultivation of cycads, an important source of carbohydrates, fire has also been shown to be an important trigger in the timing and production of fruit. Through cultivating discrete groves of cycads and through the understanding of how to control fruit production, some Aboriginal communities were able to plan for and produce enough resources to meet peak demands, including for large gatherings. There is scientific evidence that has quantified the increase in productivity per area of this crop as a result of this agricultural practice. Interestingly, the productivity per acre is comparable to that of well-known contemporary commercial crops. 

Many Australian ecosystems rely on fire to promote new growth and distribution of plant life. Many plants in these ecosystems have evolved to become highly pyrophilic, like the cycads mentioned above. This means they not only have become fire tolerant, but some species also rely on fire for propagation. Some Australian native plants, including species of Acacia and Banksia, require the heat from a fire to crack their hard, outer shell. Moisture is then able to reach the embryo inside, enabling germination to occur. The germination of these and other genera of Australian plants has also been found to be responsive to molecules in bushfire smoke. Furthermore, low intensity fires replenish the soil with nutrients locked in dead plant material, allowing them to become available to foster the growth of seedlings and fresh grasses.  

First Nations peoples also understood that fire could alter the landscape by changing the structure and mix of vegetation. In particular, fire can be manipulated to provide small clumps of favourable habitat for game species and it can be used to remove the smothering effects of a canopy, conferring an advantage to understorey species of important staples such as grasses and yam species. The rejuvenated perennial grasses and yams are also sources of carbohydrate for people, with the grass grains being used to make a form of damper. 

In-depth knowledge of seasonal change allowed Aboriginal people to select the best times of the year to utilise fire for specific purposes. This knowledge of seasonal change was based on detailed observations of patterns in the physiological responses of flora and fauna and in meteorological and astronomical changes. Which flowers were blooming, which insects were appearing or aestivating, which animals were entering their mating seasons, and the positions of stars and constellations all contributed to accurately predicting conditions in the ecosystem which could be exploited.  

By investigating the topic suggested in this elaboration, students learn about the diverse farming practices employed by First Nations’ Australians, such as burning, tilling, planting, transplanting, watering, irrigating, weeding, thinning, cropping, storing and trading. Students also have opportunities to appreciate how the detailed knowledge and deep understanding of the relationships that exist within an ecosystem integrate scientific knowledge from a range of disciplines, and are used to inform the development of practices in areas of human activity.

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.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2017). Fire stick farming. Tools and Resources. Retrieved from https://www.aitsl.edu.au/tools-resources/resource/fire-stick-farming-illustration-of-practice

Beaton, J. M. (1982). Fire and water: Aspects of Australian Aboriginal management of cycads. Archaeology in Oceania, 17(1), 51-58.

Bowman, D. M. J. S. (1998). The impact of Aboriginal landscape burning on the Australian biota. New Phytologist, 140(3), 385-410. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.1998.00289.x

Chivers, I. (2012, 26 Jul). Splendour in the grass: New approaches to cereal production. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/splendour-in-the-grass-new-approaches-to-cereal-production-8301

Gammage, B. (2011). The biggest estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Headland, T. N., & Bailey, R. C. (1991). Introduction: Have hunter-gatherers ever lived in tropical rain forest independently of agriculture? Human Ecology, 19(2), 115-122.

Hill, R., & Baird, A. (2003). Kuku-Yalanji rainforest Aboriginal people and carbohydrate resource management in the wet tropics of Queensland, Australia. Human Ecology, 31(1), 27-52.

Hill, R., Baird, A., & Buchanan, D. (1999). Aborigines and fire in the wet tropics of Queensland, Australia: Ecosystem management across cultures. Society and Natural Resources, 12(3), 205-223.

Jones, R. (1969). Fire-Stick farming. Australian Natural History, 16(7), 224-228.

Pascoe, B. (2016). Dark Emu: Black seeds, agriculture or accident? Broome, WA: Magabala Books.

Russell-Smith, J., Diane, L., Minnie, G., Billy, G., Nipper, K., George, N., . . . George, C. (1997). Aboriginal Resource Utilization and Fire Management Practice in Western Arnhem Land, Monsoonal Northern Australia: Notes for Prehistory, Lessons for the Future. Human Ecology, 25(2), 159-195.

Tuechler, A., Ferrier, A., & Cosgrove, R. (2014). Transforming the inedible to the edible: An analysis of the nutritional returns from Aboriginal nut processing in Queensland’s wet tropics. Australian Archaeology, 79.