Aboriginal people – how to misunderstand their science

By Ray Norris, CSIRO

Just one generation ago Australian schoolkids were taught that Aboriginal people couldn’t count beyond five, wandered the desert scavenging for food, had no civilisation, couldn’t navigate and peacefully acquiesced when Western Civilisation rescued them in 1788.

How did we get it so wrong?

Australian historian Bill Gammage and others have shown that for many years land was carefully managed by Aboriginal people to maximise productivity. This resulted in fantastically fertile soils, now exploited and almost destroyed by intensive agriculture.

In some cases, Aboriginal people had sophisticated number systems, knew bush medicine, and navigated using stars and oral maps to support flourishing trade routes across the country.

They mounted fierce resistance to the British invaders, and sometimes won significant military victories such as the raids by Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy.

Australian aborigines knew more about tides than Galileo Galilei (engraving from about 1662).
Iryna1 / Shutterstock.com

Only now are we starting to understand Aboriginal intellectual and scientific achievements.

The Yolngu people, in north eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, long recognised how the tides are linked to the phases of the moon.

Back in the early 17th century, Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was still proclaiming, incorrectly, that the moon had nothing to do with tides.

Some Aboriginal people had figured out how eclipses work, and knew how the planets moved differently from the stars. They used this knowledge to regulate the cycles of travel from one place to another, maximising the availability of seasonal foods.

Why are we only finding this out now?

We owe much of our knowledge about pre-European contact Aboriginal culture to the great anthropologists of the 20th century. Their massive tomes tell us much about Aboriginal art, songs and spirituality, but are strangely silent about intellectual achievements.

They say very little about Aboriginal understanding of how the world works, or how they navigated. In anthropologist Adolphus Elkin’s 1938 book The Australian Aborigines: How to Understand Them he appears to have heard at least one songline (an oral map) without noting its significance.

[…] its cycle of the hero’s experiences as he journeyed from the north coast south and then back again north […] now in that country, then in another place, and so on, ever coming nearer until at last it was just where we were making the recording.

How could these giants of anthropology not recognise the significance of what they had been told?

The answer dawned on me when I gave a talk on Aboriginal navigation at the National Library of Australia, and posed this same question to the audience.

Afterwards, one of Elkin’s PhD students told me that Elkin worked within fixed ideas about what constituted Aboriginal culture. I realised she was describing what the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn referred to when he coined the term “paradigm”.

The paradigm problem

According to Kuhn, all of us (even scientists and anthropologists) are fallible. We grow up with a paradigm (such as “Aboriginal culture is primitive”) which we accept as true. Anything that doesn’t fit into that paradigm is dismissed as irrelevant or aberrant.

Only 200 years ago, people discussed whether Aboriginal people were “sub-human”. Ideas change slowly, and the underlying message lingers on, long after it has been falsified.

As late as 1923 Aboriginal Australians were described as “a very primitive race of people”.

Not so primitive

The prevailing paradigm in Elkin’s time was that Aboriginal culture was primitive, and Aboriginal people couldn’t possibly say anything useful about how to manage the land, or how to navigate.

Aboriginal culture is more than just cave painting and artwork. We need to learn more about their scientific knowledge.
Kitch Bain

So an anthropologist might study the Aboriginal people as objects, just as a biologist might study insects under a microscope, but would learn nothing from Aboriginal people themselves.

Even now, the paradigm lives on. In my experience, well-educated white Australians, trying so hard to be politically correct, often still seem to find it difficult to escape their childhood image of “primitive” Aboriginal people.

We must overcome the intellectual inertia that keeps us in that old paradigm, stopping us from recognising the enormous contribution that Aboriginal culture can make to our understanding of the world, and to our attempts to manage it.

As Thomas Kuhn said:

[…] when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them.

Still to learn

In recent years, it has become clear that traditional Aboriginal people knew a great deal about the sky, knew the cycles of movements of the stars and the complex motions of the sun, moon and planets.

There is even found a sort of “Aboriginal Stonehenge”, that points to the sunset on midsummers day and midwinters day. And I suspect that this is only the tip of the iceberg of Aboriginal astronomy.

So in the debate about whether our schools should include Aboriginal perspectives in their lessons, I argue that kids studying science today could also learn much from the way that pre-contact Aboriginal people used observation to build a picture of the world around them.

This “ethno-science” is similar to modern science in many ways, but is couched in appropriate cultural terms, without expensive telescopes and particle accelerators.

So if you want to learn about the essence of how science works, how people learn to solve practical problems, the answer may be clearer in an Aboriginal community than in a high-tech laboratory.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Australia falling down on progress to close the gap for Indigenous people

The Closing the Gap report was released Thursday morning. Surprise surprise there had been no real change in the indicators being looked at. The following is a reprint of an article found at theconversation.com

By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The latest Closing the Gap report, tabled in federal parliament on Wednesday, shows poor progress on improving the situation of Indigenous Australians on many key indicators.

Only two of the targets set in 2008 by the Council of Australian Governments are on track.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament that in many respects the report was “profoundly disappointing”, despite the concerted efforts of successive governments.

Declaring that more work was needed, Abbott also urged Aboriginal people to have high expectations for themselves and especially their children in the effort to make greater progress.

There had been some improvements in education and health outcomes, Abbott said, and “we are on track to halve the gap in year 12 attainment rates for [those] aged 20-24”.

The target to halve the gap in mortality rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children looked achievable by 2018.

A new target of closing the school attendance gap within five years should be also achievable.

“However, the other targets – to close the gap in life expectancy within a generation; to ensure access to early childhood education for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four-year-olds in remote areas; to halve the gap in reading and numeracy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students; and to halve the gaps in employment outcomes – have either not been met or are not on track to be met.”

What had to be changed was entrenched and multigenerational disadvantage.

“This won’t happen overnight and it may not ever happen unless we continue to place high demands on ourselves of what we can achieve together.”

Outlining some success stories, Abbott said that in every community the foundations for success were education, jobs and a safer living environment, underpinned by better health. The key was the practical delivery of programs and policy.

But while government policies could be a catalyst, where success was achieved it was due to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who wanted better for themselves.

“Governments can fund and governments can urge but governments can’t change attitudes and behaviours. It’s those who make the choice to send their children to school, those who make the choice to attend school and stick to it, those who make the choice to get a job and stick to it and those who choose to abide by the law who are the ones closing the gap.

“Closing the gap is not something granted by this parliament to Indigenous Australians. Closing the gap is to be grasped by them and closing the gap starts with getting the kids to school – and it starts with expecting much of them while they are there.”

Abbott said that while most Indigenous families did make sure their children attended school regularly, “too many are still missing too much school, especially in remote areas”.

Some Coalition MPs walked out when opposition leader Bill Shorten referred to the government’s funding cuts.

Shorten told parliament the Closing the Gap framework stretched beyond the life of any government. “This is an endeavour where every opposition wants the government to succeed,” he said.

“But when a government cuts $500 million from essential services, we are compelled to point out what these cuts mean.”

Vital organisations didn’t know whether their funding would be continued or withdraw. Cuts would mean shelters for those fleeing from violence would be closed; they would rob Indigenous Australians of legal aid; preventive health programs would be hit.

Shorten appealed to the government to reverse the cuts and “seek to repair the harm”.

The Australian Council of Commerce and Industry said businesses, governments and Indigenous people must redouble efforts to improve employment outcomes for Indigenous Australians. “The private sector has a major role to play in providing sustainable employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians rather than jobs that are dependent on government programs.”

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Tangentyere Women’s Group Community Day

Tangentyere Council This short video of the Tangentyere Women’s Group community day may offer a different perspective to the town camps in Alice Springs as well as the strength and resilience of the community members – particularly the women – who in some cases have been living in the town camps for four or more generations.

The open day celebrates the work of the women’s group in areas such as women’s and family safety.

Ngaya ngalawa

Ngaya ngalawa (I stay) is a new artwork commissioned by Mirvac for their new 8 Chifley building in Sydney.

You won’t find me writing of Sydney and property developers very often but this artwork is worth a mention.

On an electronic display fitted to four sides of a 19 metre steel column are pieces from nearly 300 songs, poems, stories and autobiography from 80 Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. These include authors, poets, playwrights, activists and songwriters.

You can read more about it from the Mirvac press release and please take a look at the I stay website.

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