Learning about Nanotechnology and spinifex grass

Posted by : Paul Memmott May 29, 2022

Contact : p.memmott at uq.edu.au Maps

The authors of the work summarised here are members of a transdisciplinary research team who evaluated the use of spinifex grass through traditional Aboriginal knowledge, on a project funded under the Australian Research Council Discovery Projects scheme.

Spinifex is a collective term for 69 (or more) species in the genus Triodia which are widespread throughout semi-arid Australia. The project was set up to understand Aboriginal knowledge of spinifex as well as how to develop the biomimetic theory, drawing from nature to find new technical solutions, in the research of Australian flora and fauna. This chapter provides a report on some of the project team’s findings with particular emphasis on the ethical application of the ethnographic knowledge to the broader problem framework.

Spinifex was often used as cladding for house construction in Aboriginal settlements pre-invasion as shown in the book ‘Gunyah, Goondie and Wurley’ (Memmott, 2007) where Memmott and Go-Sam provided a case study of a semi-sedentary Yankunytjatjara camp in the central north of South Australia, where there were domed structures clad with spinifex grass. The architectural performance of the domes has been studied for their internal temperatures and responses to rainfall and strong desert winds and dust storms. They are weatherproof and comfortable in the extremes of desert weather. The project to look at spinifex started from these insulation and rain-shedding properties.

The high resin content of spinifex is hypothesised as contributing to its waterproof property and rain shedding. This resin is highly sticky so is used as an adhesive in tool making by Aboriginal people for binding stone axe heads to a shaft and coating the twine bindings of spear heads, and for mending cracks, etc.

Aboriginal knowledge about spinifex is held in the stories that tell of how to gather the right kinds of grass for different applications and how to maintain healthy spinifex by burning off the old dead rings (centre right of Figure 1). A research partnership was built up between a group of traditional tribal owners from the upper Georgina River and a team of scientific researchers from the University of Queensland (UQ). Through this work, the knowledge of the spinifex was conveyed to non-Aboriginal researchers and to facilitate opportunities for community projects to develop.

The research project was shaped within the Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation representing the Indjalandji peoples, in partnership with the UQ team. On the one hand, the project was looking for low-tech applications suitable for local Aboriginal communities in Central Australia, so initially focused on the traditional uses such as bough shed roofs, then applying this to modern technology such as compressed grass for insulation batts, adobe walls and slabs reinforced with spinifex, and using resin coating on timber for durability and to protect from white ants. The research team then became particularly interested in novel applications that could generate commercial access to international markets, concentrating on an abundant species in the Georgina Basin area, Triodia pungens.

The knowledge of spinifex is linked to two sacred sites in the area, with their Dreamtime stories providing a narrative to the peoples’ spiritual beliefs and values in the spinifex. By learning these stories, the researchers were able to link the project to Aboriginal law.

Extract from Chapter 19, Indigenous Engineering for an Enduring Culture, edited by Cat Kutay, Elyssebeth Leigh, Juliana Kaya Prpic and Lyndon Ormond-Parker. Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Authors: Colin Pwerle Saltmere, Paul Memmott and Nasim Amiralian

Location: Indjalandji-Dhidhanu community Dugalunji Camp near Camooweal