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Cultural Background

Aboriginal Technologies

In the year 2000, Philip Ruddock, then the Federal Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, stated in relation to Aboriginal technologies, ‘We’re dealing with people who were essentially hunters and gatherers. They didn’t have chariots. I don’t think they invented the wheel’ (cited in Muecke, 2004, p 14). These comments, repeated later that same year, appeared to cause little consternation among commentators and federal parliamentarians who seemed to accept the colonial doctrine that civilisations are in constant competition with each other, and that European (or ‘western’) culture and technology are of a higher order than those of indigenous people. However, research by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people has finally put to rest the view that traditional communities had little technological or scientific knowledge.

Aboriginal technology was not simple. Tools, weapons and other implements were developed over thousands of years to be ideally suited to carrying out particular tasks in specific circumstances. Aboriginal people also had sophisticated techniques, which varied according to the environment, to make the most of the resources they had available to them. The tasks of hunting-gathering communities include hunting animals (for example, kangaroos, emus, snakes, lizards and birds), collecting bush foods (including plants and plant products such as bush fruits and nuts) and catching aquatic life (such as fish, crustaceans and molluscs).

Aboriginal people made implements from locally available materials. Across the diverse environments of Australia, implements varied according to the material available as well as the implement’s use. For example, a wide variety of spears was developed in different locations across Australia, with different types of spears having different purposes (such as hunting animals compared to spearing fish). And across vast distances, there were trade links where all manner of implements, ornaments, and ochres were traded.

Aboriginal technologies were based on an understanding of a complex knowledge system and associated processes – including laws of physics and the complexities of aerodynamics, a deep understanding of biology and chemistry, and a highly developed knowledge of the dynamic ecology of Australia (Indigenous Australia, 2005).

While the broad array of technologies used by Aboriginal people had a primarily practical function, their construction and use had (and continues to have) a close relationship to the Dreaming. An ecologically sustainable lifestyle was possible due to ancient Aboriginal knowledge of the land and climate (see the cultural background document, ‘Aboriginal Cosmology and Environmental Knowledge’), and this knowledge was handed down by the ancestors in songs and stories of the Dreaming (see the cultural background document, ‘Cultural Representation of the Landscape and the Dreaming’). The materials used to make tools and weapons, for example, were taken from the land by ancestral beings who dictated the ways they should be used. The lores of the Dreaming stipulated the rights of clan groups or of particular people (for instance, men or women or Elders) to make, use and/or develop particular forms of technology. Within and beyond clan groups, individual people earned the right to develop and use particular forms of technology, with pertinent information about technology passed on by Elders at appropriate times in a person’s life.

Recent discoveries by anthropologists, assisted by Aboriginal site officers and working with various government agencies and community informants, have finally put paid to the view that traditional communities had little or no technological knowledge.

References:

Indigenous Australia, 2005,
www.indigenousaustralia.frogandtoad.com.au/technology.html

Mueke, S, 2004, Ancient and Modern: Time, Culture and Indigenous Philosophy, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

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