Materiality and design in Aboriginal engineering

Posted by : Paul Memmott May 29, 2022

Contact : p.memmott at Maps

A vast array of engineered structures were designed and employed by Aboriginal First Nations societies in pre-colonisation times. They included residential buildings, camps, ground hunting hides, bird catching hides (Memmott 2007, Ch 8), rock-wall fisheries, ground ovens, wells, storage platforms and posts, ceremonial stone arrangements, circular mounds, stone quarries, ochre pits and middens, as well as foliage walls, nets, reed and cane wicker traps, trenches and pitfalls for trapping game. Structures of the Barkandji (or Paakantyi) people of the Darling River, for example, included wickerwork and stone-wall dams for catching fish, walls of foliage to direct the movement of terrestrial animals into nets and pitfalls, and very large nets erected across streams to catch flocks of birds, while small shelters were sometimes built of timber and bark sheeting over water soakages in the dry season to prevent evaporation (Hardy, 1969 and 1976 p.7).

However, this type of categorisation represents the conservative approach of whitefellas seeing Aboriginal structures in terms of a taxonomy of civil engineering products. Some of the exemplars that are repeatedly presented and celebrated in the literature are relatively unique examples whilst others are widely distributed across Aboriginal Australia (e.g. rock-wall coastal fish traps, bird hides). There is negligible systematic analysis in the literature on innovation or design process by Aboriginal inventors as opposed to the conservatism of Aboriginal traditionalists in understanding cultural change and engineering invention over millennia on the continent.

In this chapter we reflect on and examine the more fundamental relationships of design, materials and objects, and of the types of values and knowledges that become intertwined in the processes of Aboriginal design and so adapt a more Aboriginal, epistemologically grounded, framework. Fundamental to the values and knowledge in Aboriginal sciences, are the beliefs in the Dreaming which include explanations for the origin of Country (including humans within it) and its constituent resources and energies. Such beliefs were also accompanied by an inherent conservatism to resist change amongst many in the old societies, yet ongoing archaeological and deep linguistic evidence (Memmott et al 2016), indicates there were periods of abrupt change when innovation was triggered by extreme environmental and climatic events as well as periods of slow cultural diffusion when new ideas and inventions permeated very slowly across the continent. We shall therefore initially resist the colonial engineering precepts and categories that came out from Europe with its usurping settler cultures, and start our paper with the ‘The Dreaming’ to better understand the processes of engineering innovation.

Extract from Chapter 17, 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: Paul Memmott and Alison Page


Location: University of Queensland