Indigenous inventor David Unaipon
Indigenous inventor David Unaipon seen on the $50 note. (Image: AAP/Dan Peled)

Indigenous Australians are the oldest civilisation in the world, here since the earliest humans left Africa to traverse and settle across the globe. They arrived in a single, epic migration, which took advanced planning. More than 1000 people made the treacherous journey, island-hopping from south-east Asia to arrive in northern Australia. 

Spiritual teachings say Indigenous people “have always been here since the beginning of the dreamings”. DNA tests and carbon dating suggest this equates to around 65,000 years of history, culture and innovation, passed down through generations. 

Recently, the ABC reported early discoveries in Australian Indigenous astronomy preceded modern science by thousands of years. With the recent celebration of NAIDOC week, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the lesser-known teachings and inventions of the world’s oldest civilisation. 

Astronomical discoveries

Move over, Aristotle — astronomical discoveries by Indigenous communities are thought to predate ancient Greece and Egypt by millennia

Variable stars: These are stars that fluctuate in brightness due to shrinking, swelling, or eclipses. Associate Professor of Indigenous Astronomy & Science Duane Hamacher says that descriptions of these stars are embedded in Indigenous oral traditions going back thousands of years. 

“We don’t know who the first [people to discover them] were, but we do know they have observed and recorded variable stars before they were known to Western society,” he says. 

Hamacher studies knowledge passed down through oral tradition. As our solar system slowly moves through the galaxy, and as stars go through their life cycle, and as the shape of Australia changes and islands separate, descriptions of specific stars and their locations allow scientists to date stories. 

Oldest observatory in the world: Nestled in the mountains north of Geelong is the sacred Wurdi Youang site. A team of archeologists believe an egg-shaped ring of stones, 50 metres wide and containing more than 100 dark mineral boulders, helped track the movement of the stars. Areas of the egg point to where the sun sets at winter and summer solstice, and during the equinox. While the area hasn’t yet been dated, other archaeological sites go back 11,000 to 14,000 years, says Hamacher. This could make the formation older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. 

Spherical Earth: Even in 2019, there are some who still don’t know — or are unwilling to admit — that Earth is round. But Indigenous societies had an understanding of the way the night sky moved as their latitude on the ground changed, which indicated to them a spherical planet.

History and culture

Gender equality: As Western societies grapple politically with the existence of intersex and transgender people, some Aboriginal communities have embraced the idea of multiple genders for millennia. 

“There were over 250 different Aboriginal groups, so there were differences between communities,”Hamacher says. “But in some, gender wasn’t recognised until initiation into adulthood, with boys and girls treated the same. Some Indigenous cultures recognise seven different genders. On top of that, many cultures had strong matriarchal formations.” Another study found in Aboriginal culture, men and women have traditionally had equal standing and status

Social-scientific knowledge: Millions of years ago, up until about 12,000 years ago, Earth was trapped in an ice age, followed by huge floods as the glaciers melted. Eras of climate change are documented in traditional oral narratives, with stories referring to “the cold, dark time,” and “before there were clans”. They describe the importance and struggle of keeping fires going in icy regions and describe the massive floods. Backed by science in modern times, it suggests that Indigenous Australians carried a deep knowledge of geological history.

“There are stories about megafauna and flora dying off,” Hamacher says. “Chances of these stories surviving are better than people think.” 

Trade routes: With an impressive knowledge of the giant island, sophisticated trade routes were developed across the entire country. Ochre, a clay earth pigment used in art and ceremonies, is being studied to map ancient trade routes. The trade of twine, Bogong moths, quartz crystals, and swan eggs, along with songs and stories, has been documented in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.

Agriculture and Technology

Farming and Irrigation: Deliberate lies and misinformation means most Australians think Aboriginal cultures were solely hunter-gatherers. As outlined in Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book Dark Emu, colonial explorers documented farming techniques ignored by modern history books. Sophisticated fish traps were built into river beds, complex aquaculture systems were used, and cereals were harvested and baked into cakes.

Thermoplastic resins: By melting grass trees and porcupine grass, Indigenous Australians were able to invent glue which was soft and putty-like when warm, but hard and durable when cool. This was used to bind stone weapons to sticks and build tools.

The inventions of David Unaipon: The smiling face on our pineapple-yellow $50 note is David Unaipon, sometimes referred to as Australia’s Leonardo Da Vinci. Born in 1872 and passing away in 1967, he was the first Aboriginal person to have a book published. In his late thirties he patented an improved handpiece for sheep shearing. In 1914, he predicted the development of polarised light, used in LCD TVs, and helicopter flight. He patented a centrifugal motor, which can automatically start and stop devices; a multi-radial wheel; and a mechanical propulsion device. 

With so much lost and still to be learned, Australia has a long way to go to preserve Indigenous knowledge before it is rewritten and forgotten. “Preservation comes from working directly with the communities, and work with the elders, to try to preserve this knowledge,” Hamacher says. 

What other notable Indigenous innovations or inventions have we missed? Let us know by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name.

Peter Fray

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