Anna Clark reviews 'Australia’s First Naturalists: Indigenous peoples’ contribution to early zoology' by Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell

Anna Clark reviews 'Australia’s First Naturalists: Indigenous peoples’ contribution to early zoology' by Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell

Australia’s First Naturalists: Indigenous peoples’ contribution to early zoology

by Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell

NLA Publishing, $44.99 pb, 223 pp, 9780642279378

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following article contain depictions of people who have died.


What does it mean to really know an ecosystem? To name all the plants and animals in a place and understand their interactions? To feel an embodied connection to Country? To see and hear in ways that confirm and extend that knowledge?

Indigenous ways of knowing contain such detail and depth. To the Eora people of Sydney, for example, the migratory Curriy’gun (Channel-billed Cuckoo) announced itself noisily every spring. ‘Its raucous, persistent calling alerted the Eora to the impending arrival of rain, storms and flooding.’ Similarly detailed registers of information were mapped and catalogued by songlines and knowledge systems, filling the entire continent. For the Yolŋu in Arnhem Land, flowering stringybark trees coincided with the shrinking of waterholes. And when the D’harawal people of the Shoalhaven region in southern New South Wales saw the golden wattle flowers of the Kai’arrewan (Acacia binervia), they knew that fish would be running in the rivers and that prawns would be schooling in estuarine shallows.

It was knowledge that proved valuable to colonisers, as Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell contend in their new book, Australia’s First Naturalists. The New South Wales Surveyor General Thomas Mitchell learned from Yuranigh, a Wiradjuri man who explained how curious rings of gravel and stones on the river beds were actually the nests of the eel-tailed catfish, and who showed him the leaves of the Goobang, a type of acacia that was used to poison the river to catch fish. Mitchell wrote that Yuranigh’s expertise was indispensable: ‘his intelligence and judgment rendered him so necessary to me that he was ever at my elbow’.


Subscribe to ABR


Read the rest of this article by subscribing to ABR Online for as little as $10 a month.

We offer a range of subscription options, including print, which can be found by clicking here. If you are already a subscriber, enter your username and password in the ‘Log In’ section in the top right-hand corner of the screen.

If you require assistance, contact us or consult the Frequently Asked Questions page.

Published in August 2019, no. 413
Anna Clark

Anna Clark

Anna Clark is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney. She has written extensively on history education, historiography, and historical consciousness, including: Teaching the Nation: Politics and pedagogy in Australian history (2006), History’s Children: History wars in the classroom (2008), Private Lives, Public History (2016), the History Wars (2003) with Stuart Macintyre, as well as two history books for children, Convicted! and Explored! She also recently wrote The Catch: The story of fishing in Australia.

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to comments@australianbookreview.com.au. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.