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Aboriginal Education

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About the Topic

The use and manufacture of technologies is an important part of the culture of Aboriginal communities. The different tools and devices used by men and women were dependent on the environment in which they lived and the purposes for which they were required. The main types of traditional tools, weapons and devices used the principles of simple machines such as inclined planes and levers. In Aboriginal communities, the art of toolmaking is an important part of survival and the techniques used are passed down through the generations as part of the Dreaming. Before European contact, items were traded, often over considerable distances, because not all tribal groups made all the tools they required.

In pre-contact Aboriginal communities, food was gathered on a needs basis but stores of some foods such as grass seeds were often left in places returned to by the clan. Various tools and weapons were carried over the long distances that communities often travelled in their seasonal movements between water supplies. However, larger and heavier devices, like the nardu stone and grinder, were normally left at camp.

Wood and stone were the main materials used in pre-contact technologies. Stone tools were mainly used for cutting and grinding. In a process known as 'flaking', stone was chipped to give it a cutting edge that was hard and sharp. Fine grained, homogeneous rocks without cleavage such as quartz, chert, flint, quartzite and obsidian were suitable for this purpose. Greenstone or ironstone was also suitable if toolmakers needed to produce an even edge for a stone axe or grinding surface. In the early period after colonisation there are many examples of Aboriginal toolmaking incorporating materials brought to Australia by the European settlers, such as glass and iron.

For the task of hunting, various implements were used including spears, woomeras and boomerangs. Spears were made from hard, straight pieces of wood or grasstree spikes with the tip of the spear either hardened by fire or manufactured with the addition of either multiple wooden spikelets or stone or bone barbs. The woomera, or spearthrower, was used to increase both the speed and accuracy of throwing a spear. But, like many items, it was a multipurpose tool. Its other uses included being a mixing bowl, a shovel, and a base on which friction was created in the making of fire.

Contrary to popular belief, boomerangs were not used in all parts of Australia. In those regions where people had the boomerang, its shape varied dramatically according to the type of wood available in the area and the use to which the boomerang would be put.

Other implements used for hunting included clubs, axes and nets. For the gathering of food, implements such as digging sticks, dilly bags, bark baskets, and other containers made from plant fibres, animal tendons and human hair were used to collect and carry food such as berries, fruit, nuts, herbs and shellfish. In coastal and river communities, fishing nets and baskets were weaved from native grasses and other local fibres. In addition to the use of spears to catch fish, traps (built with rocks) and fishing lines (made from grass fibres, animal fur, or human hair) were also used. Until the introduction of steel fishing hooks, Aboriginal people made hooks by filing and shaping shells.

It is important that student learning about Aboriginal community knowledge is developed within the cultural context, if its meaning and values are to be understood. Ideally a person with community knowledge and skills in toolmaking should be invited to guide and assist the students. Aboriginal Environmental or Site Officers and Rangers employed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service might also be available to provide advice. Within the local Aboriginal community there might be artisans willing to provide examples of tools and/or demonstrations of toolmaking.

Samples of tools may be obtained from the Australian Museum in one of their travelling boxes. Some local museums also have collections of tools, weapons and devices and might be able to provide some relevant information. If no actual artefacts are available, information can be gathered from secondary sources such as print material or the internet.

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