Australia's First Naturalists: Indigenous Peoples' Contribution to early Zoology

Australia's First Naturalists: Indigenous Peoples' Contribution to early Zoology

Would Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson have ever crossed the Blue Mountains without the help of the local Aboriginal people? The invaluable role of local guides in this event is rarely recognised.As silent partners, Aboriginal Australians gave Europeans their first views of iconic animals, such as the Koala and Superb Lyrebird, and helped to unravel the mystery of the egg-la...

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Title:Australia's First Naturalists: Indigenous Peoples' Contribution to early Zoology
Author:Penny Olsen
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Edition Language:English

Australia's First Naturalists: Indigenous Peoples' Contribution to early Zoology Reviews

  • Cass Moriarty

    Despite the well-documented legacies of colonial naturalists, in recent years there has finally been increased and well-deserved recognition of the role of Australia’s Indigenous people in collecting, naming, cataloguing and sharing their understanding of this country’s native fauna. While history generally records ‘famous scientists’ from other countries as being responsible for identifying species, often naming them after themselves, it has become obvious that not only did this country’s first

    Despite the well-documented legacies of colonial naturalists, in recent years there has finally been increased and well-deserved recognition of the role of Australia’s Indigenous people in collecting, naming, cataloguing and sharing their understanding of this country’s native fauna. While history generally records ‘famous scientists’ from other countries as being responsible for identifying species, often naming them after themselves, it has become obvious that not only did this country’s first people have intricate knowledge of native fauna and its habitats and habits, but they provided an invaluable contribution to the development of western civilisation’s study of zoology. Aboriginal people knew Australia’s animals intimately for tens of thousands of years, knowledge that was passed down through the generations through song, dance, paintings and first-hand experience.

    Australia’s First Naturalists (National Library of Australia 2019), by Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell, is a well-researched and beautifully presented book that would look equally at home on a coffee table or in a scientific library, and would make a special gift for anyone interested in the history of Australian zoology and the extensive contribution of Indigenous Australians in shaping this knowledge. As author Bruce Pascoe describes the extensive agricultural practices of Indigenous people in his book Dark Emu, this book turns on its head the idea that Australian fauna was only ‘discovered’ (or catalogued) since the arrival of white people to this country, but instead describes not only the rich history of zoological knowledge before that time, but also the important role played by Aboriginal people in creating the vast store of ‘officially recorded’ knowledge since the late 1700’s, through the collection and collation of species, and through sharing their knowledge (with the colonisers) of animals’ habitats, diet, reproduction and unique characteristics. It also explains the close connection not only between Indigenous people and country, but also their spiritual ties with native animals.

    The book is divided into five chapters. The first depicts Indigenous knowledge before the arrival of colonial naturalists; chapters two, three and four demonstrate the assistance or partnerships between the newcomers and Indigenous people as they embarked on their search for details about this ‘new, undiscovered world’, and these sections also highlight noteworthy individuals and particular expeditions. The last chapter discusses the modern impact and role of Indigenous people as skilled and invested custodians of the land, making use of their age-old knowledge of flora, fauna, the use of fire, and the seasons and weather to develop sustainable contemporary wildlife procedures and guidelines.

    Printed on thick, glossy paper, the book contains reproductions of early drawings and paintings, and later, photographs, on almost every page, and includes an extensive index and notes section. And while the writing is precise and scientific, providing essential research notes, the text is written in an easy-to-read, informative and entertaining style, which makes it much more than a scientific resource. It is also the story of Australia’s first naturalists provided through fascinating anecdotal evidence.

    The two saddest things – or the information that shocked me the most – while reading this book was firstly the sheer, momentous number of animals that were killed in the name of science (and which, of course, subsequently led to the extinction of so many), and secondly, the absolute lack of recognition for so many of the often unnamed Aboriginal people who did at least the same tasks of the colonialists, and frequently did the lion’s share of the work, but without the recognition in official records or documentation. At least this book goes some way to redressing that imbalance.

  • Lisa

    The ornithologist Penny Olsen is the author of beautiful books about science and nature, and I've reviewed two of them:

    Now she has teamed up with anthropological historian Lynette Russell from the Monash University Indigenous Studies Centre to explore the contribution of Australia's Indigenous people to the body of knowledge we call zoology. Most Australians are familiar with the legacy

    The ornithologist Penny Olsen is the author of beautiful books about science and nature, and I've reviewed two of them:

    Now she has teamed up with anthropological historian Lynette Russell from the Monash University Indigenous Studies Centre to explore the contribution of Australia's Indigenous people to the body of knowledge we call zoology. Most Australians are familiar with the legacy of 19th century naturalists Joseph Banks and John Gould (and some of us who read

    also know about the contribution of Elizabeth Gould too). But the silent and mostly unacknowledged partners in this enterprise drew on a body of knowledge that was sustained over millennia.

    Through successive generations, using rock art, storytelling, dance and song, Australia's First Peoples passed on their extensive knowledge of animal behaviour, habitat, breeding habits and anatomical structures of fauna from land, sea and air, along with the seasonal appearance and uses of flora. For example,

    Even a quick flick through the copious illustrations in this book makes it obvious that colonial explorers, collectors and naturalists were documenting the knowledge and practices of Indigenous Australians in various ways. On page 14, for instance, there is a reproduction of an 1813 engraving called Smoking Out the Opossum by John Heaviside Clark and M. Dubourg (you can see a print of it

    ); and page 24 shows Nicholas Chevalier's 1862 drawing 'Aboriginal family hunting malleefowl near Echuca, Victoria (which you can see

    ). Early European explorers and settlers documented, for example, the annual feast of Bogong Moths in diaries and journals, and the ethnographers Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen made extensive records of

    In Chapter One Olsen and Russell make the crucial point that

    so while there is evidence in cave deposits of

    from small mammals, birds and lizards, if it had not been for these contemporaneous European observations there would be no archaeological evidence of insect use.

    Apart from the use of fire, other hunting methods included

    The successful hunt was not only used for food, but also for

    which obviously also involved knowledge about skins, sinews, bones and other body parts. The same was obviously also true of flora and fauna gathered by the women, who were taught from one generation to another, the sophisticated knowledge of seasonal produce across vast geographical areas and habitats. And the eel 'farms' of the Gunditjmara People of the Western District in Victoria, relied on knowledge of the predictable behaviour of the eels in order to engineer the waterways and wetlands to ensure a good catch. All of these activities required knowledge that was in the era of early zoology called 'natural history'.

    There are some claimed elements of Indigenous knowledge that are contested. Rock art in Northern Australian that depicts extinct megafauna is not necessarily accepted as evidence, because dating shows that the paintings were done after the megafauna became extinct. However,

    To read the rest of my review please visit

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