Teacher background information


Year 8 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Nature and development of science

Science knowledge can develop through collaboration across the disciplines of science and the contributions of people from a range of cultures (ACSHE226 - Scootle )

  • investigating how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples connect knowledge from the disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology and geology in the development of material culture (OI.3, OI.5)

This elaboration allows students to explore the stone tool material culture in Australia’s First Nations societies and develop an understanding of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples connected knowledge from a variety of scientific disciplines to develop technologies and processes that enabled the creation of highly specialised tools for a variety of purposes 

Contemporary science disciplines are highly specialised and increasing collaboration across disciplines can be a challenging process for many current scientists. Knowledge within Australia’s First Nations’ scientists allowed for specialist knowledge and expertise, but was intimately connected through a holistic worldview and a practical need for multidisciplinary knowledge and skills to allow individuals to contribute to the sustainability of communities. This multidisciplinary approach can be understood through the examination of the processes involved in the creation of Australia’s First Nations’ rich stone tool material culture

Material culture is a term used by archaeologists, anthropologists and other scientists to refer to the physical aspects of the objects that surround people. It includes the creation and use of objects such as tools, housing and clothing, including the trade of articles, as well as the behaviours, norms and rituals associated with these objectsThis elaboration focusses on the scientific knowledge and understanding that were required to create many of the objects of material culture found in Australia’s First peoples societies.  

Stone tools provide sophisticated examples of material culture that required the confluence of geological, chemical, biological and physical knowledge. Creating highly efficient stone tools requires knowledge from: the geological sciences in understanding the location, composition and qualities of different types of rocks and stones; the physical sciences in developing and utilising effective stone knapping techniques; the biological sciences in understanding how the tools needed to be crafted for their uses in hunting, skinning, harvesting, peeling and surgical procedures; and the chemical sciences in the treatment of certain types of rocks to transform their physicochemical properties for technical purposes. 

Expertly crafted stone tools were, and in some places continue to be, a highly prized commodity. In traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies these were an important part of day to day life. Their production first involved geological expertise in identifying suitable rocks and in the establishment of quarries and processing sites to provide raw materials. 

The lithic raw materials (stones) were then reduced by percussion techniques into a variety of tools and blades that could be used either for highly specialised or general purposes. Throughout the lithic reduction process in the production of certain tools, heat treatments were regularly applied at different stages to improve the flaking qualities. In addition to the chemical and physical knowledge involved in this process, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples relied on, and built upon, an expert level of geological knowledge to help identify which rocks formed the necessary conchoidal (Hertzian) fractures for tool making. Conchoidal or Hertzian fracture is a technical term used to describe the way that brittle materials such as obsidian, flint, quartzite, chert and other minerals break or fracture in the absence of any pre-existing fault lines or planes within the material. Some modern-day science disciplines, such as contact mechanics and ballistics, aim to understand the incredibly complex physics of this long-standing process, which involves the analysis of different types of shock waves in the formation of characteristic Hertzian cones.  

Percussion flaking, pressure flaking and grinding were the principal methods of creating stone tools.  

In percussion flaking, a fine-grained quartz-rich block of rock, known as the ‘core’ was selected. Suitable raw materials for the core included the mineral, quartz, the metamorphic rock, quartzite, and the sedimentary rocks, chert and silcrete.  

The core is struck with a second stone - the ‘hammerstone’ - the aim being to produce sharp stone fragments called ‘flakes’. These flakes are very sharp and can be used as tools. When they become blunt through use, the flakes can be ‘retouched’, a process that involves applying pressure using a hard, sharp object to detach smaller flakes. In this way a range of hunting weapons, such as spear tips, knives for butchering game and preparing and cleaning animal skins, and tools for shaping objects made of wood, bark and bone, could be fashioned. 

Pressure flaking involves the removal of flakes by pressure using a tool often made from wood or bone. It is the process employed for the more delicate flaking procedures required for the finishing and retouching of the tool (see, for example, Kimberly Points). It provides additional leverage so that the body energy can be used with more efficiency, which allows for greater control and precision of the flaking process. 

Other tools such as grindstones or millstones and their associated mullers would also undergo lithic reduction before they could be used for crushing, grinding or pounding a range of different food materials. These implements were generally made from highly abrasive rocks such as sandstone or quartzite. 

Through interconnected relationships between cultural groups, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples shared new discoveries and understandings about rock types and their usages. Each respective cultural group holds detailed geological survey knowledge that  identifies and locates valuable rock types. Although most tools were made from readily available local stones, highly specialised tools and blades made from particular lithic materials (for example, volcanic greenstone and natural glass, such as obsidian and tektites) were traded across extensive distances and used only by highly skilled and knowledgeable people.   

To this day, no surgical tools have exceeded the efficiency of obsidian blades. There are still some surgeons who use obsidian scalpels as they can cut down to a single micron and leave considerably less scarring as a result. This demonstrates the value of shaping and treating natural occurring materials when compared to modern day manufactured tools, such as surgical steel. 

Despite stone-age tools once being regarded as ‘primitive’, many scientists today understand that they reflect an elegance and simplicity that can only be achieved through complex multidisciplinary understandings. 

By investigating traditional tool-making techniques of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, students deepen their understanding of how science knowledge can develop through collaboration across the disciplines of science and also observe how interdisciplinary knowledge is essential in many occupations. Students also gain an appreciation for the highly developed knowledge and skill that are required in the creation of stone tool material culture and for the contribution of this knowledge to contemporary society through the continued use of certain stone tools as high-precision instruments.

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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Buck, B. A. (1982). Ancient technology in contemporary surgery. Western Journal of Medicine, 136(3), 265-269.

Byous, J. (2013a). Hertzian fractures and related terms: A glossary. Savannah, CA: A.T. Dowd Research/AAtR Publishing.

Byous, J. (2013b). The physicalities of Hertzian fractures. Savannah, CA: A.T. Dowd Research/AAtR Publishing.

Delacey, L. (2015, March 12). Aboriginal inventions: 10 enduring innovations. Australian Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2015/03/aboriginal-australian-inventions/

Domanski, M., Webb, J. A., & Boland, J. (1994). Mechanical properties of stone artefact materials and the effect of heat treatment. Archaeometry, 36(2), 177-208. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4754.1994.tb00963.x

Domanski, M., & Webb, J. (2007). A review of heat treatment research. Lithic technology, 32(2), 153-194.

Flenniken, J. J., & White, J. P. (1986). Australian flaked stone tools: A technological perspective. Records of the Australian Museum, 36(3), 131-151.

Hranicky, W. J. (2013). Archaeological concepts, techniques, and terminology for American prehistoric lithic technology. Bloomington, United States: AuthorHouse.

Jones, E. (2015, August 17). Insights from Australia's first scientists set in stone. The University of Sydney News & Opinion. Retrieved from https://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2015/08/17/insights-from-australia-s-first-scientists-set-in-stone.html

Krehl, P. O. K. (2008). Percussion in the evolution of technology. In History of Shock Waves, Explosions and Impact: A Chronological and Biographical Reference. Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media.

Lynn M. (Ed.). (2010). Flint knapping: Articles, tips, and tutorials from the internet. Retrieved from http://flintknappinginfo.webstarts.com/uploads/Onl ine_Flintknapping_Articles9-30-11.pdf

McCarthy, F. D., Bramwell, E., & Noone, H. V. V. (1946). The stone implements of Australia. Australian Museum Memoir, 9, 1-94.

Mercieca, A., & Hiscock, P. (2008). Experimental insights into alternative strategies of lithic heat treatment. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35(9), 2634-2639. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2008.04.021

Nazarchuk, Z., Skalskyi, V., & Serhiyenko, O. (2017). Propagation of elastic waves in solids. In Acoustic Emission. Methodology and Application (pp. 29-73): Springer International Publishing.

Shadbolt, P. (2015, April 2). How stone age blades are still cutting it in modern surgery. CNN International Edition. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/02/health/surgery-scalpels-obsidian/index.html