The ideas of classification which we use in science are not shared by Aboriginal people. Their classifications tend to be based on utility, not the same criteria which we use in the different areas of science. Here are two articles, one long and the other short, which give some idea about Aboriginal ways of organising knowledge and classifying.


[From Davis, S., Ganambarr, M., & Traynor, S. (1982). Aboriginal science teacher's handbook: incorporating the Milingimbi case study. Darwin: Northern Territory Department of Education.]

People have many ways of organising knowledge. One way scientists organise knowledge is to give all plants and animals a scientific name and then group together the ones which are alike. For example, lyrebirds, larks, swallows, cuckoo-shrikes, wrens, honeyeaters, pardalotes, finches, figbirds, magpie larks, crows and several other families of birds are grouped together and called the order of perching birds. They are all songbirds and are alike in several other ways as well. For example, they have three similar unwebbed front toes and a well-developed hind toe which is not reversible. One of the families which make up the order of perching birds is called the family of finches. This family includes Poephila personata, Poephila acuticauda and Poephila bichenovii. These three birds all share the same first name because they all belong to the same genus. Not many people would recognise these birds from their scientific name and so, like many plants and animals, they have a common name as well. The common names for these three birds are Masked finch, Long-tailed finch and Double-barred finch. The Yolngu of Milingimbi also know these three finches but do not give them each their own name. They do, however, recognise these birds as one group which they call lidjilidji in their language Gupapuyngu.

Figure 1: Yolngu classification groups together as lidjilidji, three species of finches that Western science sees as different.

Scientists try to give everything a name. Indigenous people usually only give a specific name to those things which have a special use or are significant to them in some way.

The Yolngu of Milingimbi have a highly structured system of classifying plants and animals. Like the scientists' taxonomy, the Indigenous taxonomy groups things in levels where each higher level includes all the ones lower down. The finches called lidjilidji are one of the groups which make up the category of small birds called djikay, which in turn is part of the total group of birds called warrakan.

Figure 2: Part of Yolngu classification structure for birds.

As can be seen in Figure 2 above, warrakan can be used to mean all birds as well as large birds only. It is quite common for words to have different meanings at various levels in the Arnhemland Indigenous taxonomy. In some cases Indigenous classes are equivalent to scientific classes. For example, gurrutjutju is the name of the group of all hawks and falcons which occur in Arnhemland. Gurrutjutju is also the name of the whistling kite at the specific level. This could be called an indigenous scientific classification.

Within indigenous classification there are several levels of knowledge which can generally be delineated by age groups. Warrakan, for example, is used by children up to 10 years of age to refer to large birds, in contrast to djikay which refers to small birds. From 11 to 18 years, warrakan is used to refer to both large and small birds. From 19 to the early 30s warrakan refers not only to all birds but mainly to large edible birds classified by their habitat from sea to bush. Older persons use warrakan to refer to large land animals, reptiles, bats, echidnas, birds.

Similarly miyapunu is used by children up to 5 years of age to refer only to the flat back turtle. From 6 to 10 years of age, children refer to all species of turtles as miyapunu. From ages 11 to 16, miyapunu refers to all turtles and dugongs. From ages 17 to 23, miyapunu becomes turtles, dugongs and dolphins. After 23 years of age whales are included as miyapunu, but only by men, as they become part of religious knowledge.

Figure 3: Classification of Miyapunu for Yolngu men aged 23 and over.

In the same way that most Western people prefer to use common names for plants and animals in everyday social situations rather than complex scientific names, Indigenous people in Arnhemland also use names in ways other than the strict scientific sense. Warrakan, as we have seen above, is often used to refer to animal meat rather than large birds, so that beef is warrakan in the sense that it is edible raw meat. Another example is ngatha which is generally used to mean all food. However, in the strictest sense it means only root crops such as the various types of yams, while borum refers to crops which fruit above ground. These are examples of social classifications.

There is one further way in which Indigenous people in Arnhemland classify knowledge. Religious categories may recognise many of the same things as the scientific categories, but label them in a different way. Many plants and animals, for example, possess a subsection and hence a moiety which detail relationships and ownership by particular clans. For example, Damala, the white-breasted sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) is Gamarrang subsection of Yirritja moiety and is owned by the Murrungun clan, while Wakwak the giant water lily (Nymphaea gigantea) is Bangadi subsection of Yirritja moiety and is owned by Ganalbingu clan. The religious knowledge and ceremonies attached to these plants and animals are the responsibility of the people of the same clan as the plant or animal in question. Clans then combine in song cycles, where each clan sings their portion of the cycle. This can involve plants, animals, tracts of land or events which they own. Some information in religious categories is open to all people, but much is considered restricted and sacred by Indigenous people and will not be further mentioned here.

Indigenous people have complex classificatory systems which can illustrate the structure of their worldview. These classificatory systems are not restricted to plants and animals. For example, seasonal cycles are found to be relevant to and characteristic of all groups of Indigenous people in all environments. Diagrams of such cycles are highly simplistic because they are dissected from the holistic system of knowledge in which they are embedded. Such illustrations serve as beginning sketches to help educators from a Western science tradition understand that there are other systems of knowledge.

Mark Linkson's story

As a person of Western culture, my expectations were often different from the realities of Indigenous cultures and this has had many impacts on my work as an educator. As a teacher education lecturer in Arnhemland, I watched a science lesson being taught in a junior primary classroom at Galiwinku. Students had the task of sorting a pile of shells. Now, how could this be done? Colour, shape, size? I watched bemused as students made two piles that I could not identify. Their Yolngu teacher was quite pleased. Her explanation to me afterwards was that the shells were sorted by moieties, Dhuwa and Yirritja, the two halves into which Yolngu people place just about everything: people, plants, animals, landforms and physical phenomena. The Indigeous science in this lesson was excellent – but where did it fit into a Western curriculum?

Linkson, Mark. (1999). Some issues in providing culturally appropriate science curriculum support for Indigenous students. Australian Science Teachers’ Journal, 45(1), 41-48.]

How the kangaroo got its (European) name

When Captain Cook sailed up the east coast of Australia, he had very little contact with the Aboriginal people along the coast, except at Botany Bay (near Sydney) and the Endeavour River (near Cooktown in Queensland). After the “Endeavour” ran onto a coral reef on the Great Barrier Reef, it was taken ashore for repairs on the Endeavour River. Here one of the scientists on board, Joseph Banks, started recording local Aboriginal names for plants and animals. He did not realise that he was recording only local Guugu Yimidhirr names, including gangurru for a local type of kangaroo.

When white settlement began in Sydney Cove eighteen years later, some of the colonists tried using these words with the local Aboriginal people, the Eora. This led to confusion because they had other names for their local animals and they thought that these must have been names for the colonists’ animals. The only animal which the two groups had in common was the dog, which the Eora called dingo.

We continue to use many Indigenous names as the names of plants, animals and objects like boomerangs, as well as for many of our cities, towns and landscape features, even though we may no longer be sure of their origins.

Back to Areas of interest Last updated: 25 June 2005