Putting Australian Indigenous knowledge on the world map

By Mary O'CallaghanJuly 28th, 2015

Indigenous knowledge could soon sit side-by-side with western science in the world’s most comprehensive repository of information about Australia’s plant and animal species—the Atlas of Living Australia. Pilot projects in Arnhem Land and Cape York are revealing how the Atlas might support the needs and aspirations of different Traditional Owner groups.
An orange and blue coloured insect on a branch with small green leaves

Leichhardt’s grasshopper, as seen in Arnhem Land. Image: Emilie Ens.

Cherry Wulumirr Daniels, now 71 years old, can remember as a child being told not to touch the strikingly coloured orange and blue grasshopper because of its cultural significance. The Ngandi woman, founder of the Yugul Mangi Rangers, is one of only a few people from the Aboriginal community of Ngukurr in south-east Arnhem Land who recognised the grasshopper when rangers came across it on a hot November day last year.

The grasshopper – known as Alyurr in western Arnhem Land and Leichhardt’s Grasshopper to western science – is rare. The first western scientific record was by its namesake, European adventurer Ludwig Leichhardt, in 1845 and it was scarcely recorded thereafter – when J.H. Capalby spotted one in Arnhem land in 1971 it had been 70 years since the previous recorded sighting. So when the rangers made the first recorded sighting of the grasshopper in south-east Arnhem Land, they were justifiably excited.

The Yugul Mangi Rangers were out on country with two ecologists when they spotted the grasshopper. Together, they were recording species of plants and animals using a combination of Indigenous knowledge and Western survey methods.

This biodiversity survey is part of a pilot project (one of two) exploring two-way learning and sharing of knowledge between south-east Arnhem Land Traditional Owners and the online Atlas of Living Australia—a vast repository of information about Australia’s plants and animals, which anyone can access for free.

The type of knowledge that can be shared may include a species’ Aboriginal name(s), information about its biology, where it’s found, its use in bush medicine or as bush tucker, and any cultural significance.

“We want to make the Atlas more useful to Indigenous communities,” explains Rebecca Pirzl, Team Leader at the Atlas of Living Australia. “We recognise the importance of Indigenous people’s ecological knowledge and their perspectives on biodiversity, and we want to give it prominence alongside western science, in partnership with Traditional Owners and in a way that supports their aspirations. These two pilot projects will shape our understanding of their needs and desires.”

What’s in a name?

Emilie Ens and Mitchell Scott, from Macquarie University are cross-cultural ecologists, working alongside the Yugul Mangi Rangers to gather the knowledge. Much of their time is spent talking to the old people, trying to find out species names and stories.

Matching a species’ Aboriginal name with its scientific name can be tricky because each of the region’s seven clans has its own traditional language.

“All the old people are multi-lingual; some of them have 5, 6, 7, up to 10 languages,” says Emilie. “But only the old people are fluent, so this knowledge is highly threatened. Out on country, we carry local language dictionaries with us so we can look up names.”

The entire Ngukurr community is engaged in the pilot, she says.

“They love it. They’re really proud to share their knowledge. They want to teach other Australians how connected they are with their country and share the cultural meaning of species for their totem, their ceremonies, their family.”

The schools, the youth centre and the women’s centre all have internet facilities so the Atlas will be a place where everyone can access information about their country, their community.

A group of women sitting in a circle with books

Cross-cultural botany session: recording names and knowledge about plants from Aboriginal and western science. (Left to right) Emilie Ens, Salome Harris, Marjorie Daniels, Pollyanne Ponto, Maritza Roberts, Keisha Thompson. Image: Gillian Towler.

Reconnecting with country

Ngukurr is about a 7-hour drive south-east from Darwin, often on dirt roads. The town sits on the northern bank of the Roper River, which flows east into the Gulf, and is surrounded by coastal floodplain, savannah woodlands and the Arnhem Land escarpment.

Due to its remoteness, many parts of south-east Arnhem Land have never been surveyed by biologists, so the pilot is also an opportunity to discover new species. But the benefits go well beyond science.

The families of the seven clans—Marra, Ngandi, Ngalakan, Nunggubuyu, Alawa, Ritharrngu, Wandarrang—all now reside in Ngukurr and have done since at least 1908 when they went to live at the mission settlement. For these families, getting out onto their ancestral lands is difficult and expensive. The prospect of a helicopter flight to Ngandi country to survey biodiversity was a welcome opportunity to reconnect with country and cultural practices.

Two women with navy blue shirts on in the bush

Cherry Wulumirr Daniels (left), founder of the Yugul Mangi Rangers and senior Ngandi woman, with Edna Nelson, one of the Yugul Mangi Rangers. Image: Emilie Ens.

Four generations of Ngandi people from the community made the trip. Both Cherry Wulumirr Daniels and Winston Thompson are senior Ngandi Traditional Owners and they directed who came, where everyone would camp and which areas would be surveyed.

Cherry had thought she might never return to Ngandi country; she had only been there twice in her life – once in 2004 and once when she was in her 50s. Her daughter Marjorie had never been there.

Marjorie Daniels: “Well for me I reckon it was really good to go out there… look all the different place, look all the different plants and different animals. That environment is a bit different to where we stay in the community [Ngukurr]. It was cool out there, not hot. It was lovely to sit down under the shady tree and cook… fishing… I just liked looking at that whole place… [The kids] they felt they were home with their grandmother. Their real home. It was sad going away from there for me and mum… and the kids. We couldn’t stop talking about it when we came back down at Ngukurr.”

A return to Olkola country

In December 2014, nearly 700,000 hectares of ancestral land on Cape York was handed back to the Olkola people who are now beginning to return.

Aerial view of a wetland and surrounding forests

Olkola country: rich in biodiversity. Freshwater ecosystems including permanent springs, wetlands, lagoons, floodplains, creeks and rivers are a feature. Image: Andrew Picone.

Olkola country sits along the northern end of the Great Dividing Range, at the source of six rivers. The extensive wetlands, rare and unique tall open forests, remnant rainforest and savannah woodlands will be managed by the Olkola people. Here, in the area of Killarney Station, the second pilot project is taking place.

CSIRO researchers, including social scientist Pethie Lyons, and ethnobotanist Gerry Turpin from the Tropical Indigenous Ethnobotany Centre have just been out on country with Olkola elders and rangers, starting to build relationships with them, recording their knowledge and getting an understanding of how they may want to engage with the Atlas and use it to represent their knowledge.

The idea of sharing their knowledge required discussion, Pethie explains: “Some elders hadn’t been there since they were young, mustering on cattle stations. It was their first time back after 30 years. So their first priority is to collect their information for themselves.”

The Olkola people have yet to decide how they want to work with the Atlas but Olkola knowledge holders have expressed interest in how it might be able to contribute to Olkola’s aspirations for managing their land, developing enterprises and rejuvenating their culture.

Paving the way

Already, it is clear that the Atlas of Living Australia, which is currently designed around western scientific information, will require changes to support the needs of Indigenous communities. Examples include support for multiple languages, audio/video, and the interconnections between biodiversity, people, place and culture.

An important outcome from each pilot will be a case study that will not only shape the design of the Atlas, but will guide other Traditional Owners who choose to travel the same path. Cultural sensitivity and intellectual property are just some of the considerations.

“The majority of this process is about relationships, understanding belief systems, and technology,” says Pethie Lyons. “It’s not just a science question.”


More information


  1. exciting work, great article. Thanks

  2. Forward together crossing the bridge between traditional knowledge and science – Ancient Futures! Proven over time.
    Catherine van Wilgenburg

  3. I have some important documants of research into Western Australian Aboriginal Medicinal plants and would like to see them made widely available. Be free to contact me.

  4. I am interested in how Aboriginal people used grains to make flour for cooking.
    Any help would be appreciated

Commenting on this post has been disabled.