Time to recognise Australia’s first naturalists

By Australian Geographic | April 4, 2019

A new book reveals the Indigenous knowledge that led to some of western science’s greatest discoveries.

YOU KNOW THE names of early European naturalists John Gould, Joseph Banks and Carl Sofus Lumholtz, but not the Aboriginal Australians who led them to the discoveries that they’re now famous for.

These Aboriginal Australians – those whose names have been recorded – are the subject of a new book, Australia’s First Naturalist: Indigenous People’s Contribution to Early Zoology.

“I’ve written a lot of books on Australian natural history,” says author Penny Olsen, who co-wrote the book with Lynette Russell. “And the Indigenous connection just kept coming up. Over time, I thought I’d better collect these all into one book and make something of it.”

European naturalists, determined to discover and name any new animal they came across or got word of, used Indigenous knowledge to carry out their activities. But this knowledge was hardly recorded, nor were many of the names of these Indigenous guides.

The book details the names of the few Aboriginal Australians mentioned in the diaries of these early explorers, including Natty and Gemmy who helped John Gould in the study of several birds including the lyre bird, boobook owl and several species of pigeon.

The book also details the pursuits of naturalist George Caley, who was assisted by a young Aboriginal boy by the name Moowattin, who helped him for several years classifying eucalypts, as well as collecting bird and mammal skins to send back to Banks.

By the late 1800s it was common to ask Indigenous people for assistance in locating Australian animals. Museum collector Frederick Andrews used this knowledge to locate elusive night parrot specimens, and mammalogist Henley Finlayson had Aboriginal helpers to find the now extinct desert rat-kangaroo.

All of this, without formal recognition. They were often paid with tobacco and bread.

“It was very exploitative in the early days when these Europeans came in, used Indigenous knowledge to find these fabulous animals and hardly said a word about Indigenous knowledge,” Penny says.

“Then they’d give these animals names that honoured distant European earls that they wanted to carry favour with, who had nothing to do with anything.”

Such is the case of Carl Sofus Lumholtz who was informed by the Warrgamay people about Bonngary, a peculiar tree mammal. After finding and describing Bonngary he then renamed the animal the Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroo.

That many of the behaviours and names of these animals were not recorded is a great loss to science.

“Sadly, a lot of the early naturalists either didn’t take Indigenous knowledge about behaviour seriously or it was just too hard to communicate,” says Penny. “With many of the extinct animals that Aboriginal Australians lived alongside for thousands of years, we know hardly anything because of this. The opportunity wasn’t seized.”

Penny hopes that the book will go some way in giving recognition to Australia’s first naturalists. “I think we’re beginning to recognise the importance of Indigenous knowledge. The time is right, it’s the time for truth telling in terms of how much they truly did before the Europeans came.”