Indigenous Australians: The First Scientists

Indigenous Australians: The First Scientists

Marinda Pattison

Honours Student

I am Marinda Pattison, a proud Yorta Yorta woman from the Barmah Lakes area of the Murray River. I grew up on Dja Dja Wurrung country and now work and study on Boonwurrung and Woiwurrung country. I studied Environmental Science with a focus on animal biology at RMIT and became involved with the Marine Mammal Foundation with whom I am currently completing an honor’s project. Although I have always been passionate about understanding and protecting the environment, I also feel as though I have a duty to do so, as not only an Indigenous person but also simply as someone lucky enough to enjoy this amazing blue planet we live on. I am so honoured to be a part of the MMF team and to help protect a unique, endemic species, the Burrunan dolphin, named by Boonwurrung elders.

Indigenous Australians are known as the longest living continuing culture in the world. Through the discovery and scientific analysis of findings such as charcoal, stone tools, cookware, ancient campfires, artwork, bones, wooden implements, shells and middens modern scientists estimate that Australian Aboriginals have inhabited the continent for over 65,000 years (Clarkson et al. 2017).

Unlike the written record keeping we use today, the history of Aboriginal people has been passed down for generations in the forms of arts, song, dance, storytelling and a spiritual belief system known as the Dreaming. Although initially thought by settlers to be nothing more than the songs and made up stories of ‘native savages’, ‘modern’ Australia has been slow to recognise the importance of such traditions and the value of this oral history (Ross 1986). The Dreaming explains everything, from creation, to how to live co-operatively and sustainably, from how to assist natural processes to care for the land in order for it to flourish, to rules for whom individuals are permitted to talk to and marry, in order to prevent inbreeding.

Science, as defined in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2020), is – ‘any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation.’ Aboriginal Australians had been using fire regimes, built dams and weirs, and practiced aquaculture and agriculture for tens of thousands of years, shaping the Australia that was colonised in 1788 (Pascoe 2014; Ross 1986). They have been observing, experimenting and documenting the physical world around them and the consequences of their interactions for as long as they have been doing so. They indeed could be considered the world’s first scientists – just not in the way the scientific community were taught to consider it. As modern technology advances and we are able to look back on snapshots of ancient history, time and time again, it has been found to match up with Dreaming stories (Holdgate, Wagstaff & Gallagher 2011; Sharpe & Tunbridge 2003).

Below is a Dreaming story that speaks about the creation of Nairm, or Port Phillip Bay, accompanied by the scientific evidence that corroborates its accuracy.

Nairm (Port Philip Bay)

The Dreaming (Briggs 2014)

The story that the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin nation tell of the formation of Nairm, or Port Philip Bay, Victoria, describes a once peaceful, grassy plain with woodlands, emus and kangaroos. The people cultivated yam daisies and collected food from the Birrarrung, or Yarra River, which flowed through their land. Eels migrated to and from the sea and were traded throughout the Kulin Nation. They obeyed the laws of their creator, Bundjil, a wedge tailed eagle and Waang, the crow, until one day came a “time of chaos” and crisis; the Boon Wurrung were in conflict with the other Kulin Nations and as they fought and argued they neglected the land and their crops. Excess animals were killed but not eaten, fish was caught during spawning season and the eels were not harvested. As the chaos grew the sea became angry and started to rise, before flooding and covering the grassy plain with water. Their whole country was threatened, so the people begged Bundjil to stop the sea from rising further. However, he was angry at their behaviour, and told them they would have to change their ways if they wanted to save their land. They promised to do so, then so Bundjil walked out to the sea and directed it to stop rising. He would not send the water back, so it stayed to create a large bay that was named Nairm. The water covered much of the land and Boon Wurrung country was reduced to a narrow strip of coastline around its edge (Appendix A). The Birrarrung still flows out to sea beneath Nairm.

Scientific evidence

Cross section across the Nepean Bay Bar: evidence of channelling (Holdgate, Wagstaff & Gallagher 2011).

Until around 14,000 years ago, sea levels were approximately 50 m below what they are now, and Tasmania and the Bass Strait islands were still attached to mainland Australia (Lambeck & Chappell 2001). It was thought, that as the earth moved away from a glacial period, melting ice resulted in rising sea levels and the flooding of the bay around 10,000- 8000 years ago. Sampling of the composition of the Bay floor revealed the presence of three types of vegetation dispersed in specific areas; land-based vegetation, fresh-water vegetation, and saltwater vegetation (Holdgate et al. 2001, Holdgate, Wagstaff & Gallagher 2011, Marret & Zonneveld 2003). The locations of each of these vegetation types reflects the layout of the Dreaming story, wherein grassy woodlands and freshwater river deltas covered the Bay area. Assessment of the geographic profiles of the Bay floor and samples of the sediment, along with the deposition of marine mud in the central basin and the base of the channels, correspond to a period of relatively recent channelling of water into the Bay. This would have occurred as a great flood, reflecting the Boon Wurrung story of the ‘time of chaos’. As the basin filled, there is no evidence to suggest it exceed today’s current sea level. This corresponds with Bundjil directing the water to stop rising, yet refusing to send it back, resulting in the present landmass and reducing Boon Wurrung country to the narrow strip of coastline it is today.

The alignment of the order of events described by the Dreaming story with the empirical evidence scientists have been able to gather about the formation of Port Phillip Bay shines a light on the importance of being open to alternative ways of history keeping, and of the knowledge that could be gained from listening to Dreaming stories from what were the world’s first scientists.


Briggs, C 2014, The journey cycles of the Boonwurrung: stories with Boonwurrung language, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, Fitzroy, Victoria.

Clarkson, C, Jacobs, Z, Marwick, B, Fullagar, R, Wallis, L, Smith, M, Roberts, RG, Hayes, E, Lowe, K & Carah, X 2017, ‘Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago’, Nature, vol. 547, no. 7663, pp. 306-310.

Encyclopædia Britannica 2020, Science, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., viewed 20 March 2020 <https://www.britannica.com/science/science>.

Holdgate, GR, Geurin, B, Wallace, MW & Gallagher, SJ 2001, ‘Marine geology of Port Phillip,

Victoria’, Australian Journal of Earth Sciences, vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 439-455.

Holdgate, GR, Wagstaff, B & Gallagher, SJ 2011, ‘Did Port Phillip Bay nearly dry up between ∼2800 and 1000 cal. yr BP? Bay floor channelling evidence, seismic and core dating’, Australian Journal of Earth Sciences, vol. 58, no. 2, pp. 157-175.

Marret, F & Zonneveld, KA 2003, ‘Atlas of modern organic-walled dinoflagellate cyst distribution’, Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, vol. 125, no. 1-2, pp. 1-200.

Pascoe, B 2014, Dark emu: black seeds: agriculture or accident?, Magabala Books, Broome, Western Australia.

Ross, MC 1986, ‘Australian Aboriginal oral traditions’, Oral Tradition, vol. 1, pp. 231-271.

Sharpe, M & Tunbridge, D 2003, Traditions of extinct animals, changing sea-levels and volcanoes among Australian Aboriginals: evidence from linguistic and ethnographic research, Archaeology and Language I: Theoretical and Methodological Orientations, Routledge, London.

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