Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 25, 2019

Australia’s First Naturalists (2019), by Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell

The ornithologist Penny Olsen is the author of beautiful books about science and nature, and I’ve reviewed two of them:

Now she has teamed up with anthropological historian Lynette Russell from the Monash University Indigenous Studies Centre to explore the contribution of Australia’s Indigenous people to the body of knowledge we call zoology.  Most Australians are familiar with the legacy of 19th century naturalists Joseph Banks and John Gould (and some of us who read The Birdman’s Wife also know about the contribution of Elizabeth Gould too).  But the silent and mostly unacknowledged partners in this enterprise drew on a body of knowledge that was sustained over millennia.

Through successive generations, using rock art, storytelling, dance and song, Australia’s First Peoples passed on their extensive knowledge of animal behaviour, habitat, breeding habits and anatomical structures of fauna from land, sea and air, along with the seasonal appearance and uses of flora.  For example,

Among the Yanyuwa people of the Gulf of Carpentaria, to become a dugong hunter an ‘apprenticeship’ must be served, during which an understanding of the animal’s behaviour, habitat and anatomy is gained.  To become a maranja, the term given to a skilled hunter, the apprentice must show that he has:

absorbed all of the teachings associated with the activity and can demonstrate the knowledge in all its areas, from hunting, butchering [which requires anatomical knowledge] and distribution of meat to aso knowing the more esoteric spiritual matters associated with the way of Dugong and sea turtle hunting.  (p.11)

Even a quick flick through the copious illustrations in this book makes it obvious that colonial explorers, collectors and naturalists were documenting the knowledge and practices of Indigenous Australians in various ways.  On page 14, for instance, there is a reproduction of an 1813 engraving called Smoking Out the Opossum by John Heaviside Clark and M. Dubourg (you can see a print of it here); and page 24 shows Nicholas Chevalier’s 1862 drawing ‘Aboriginal family hunting malleefowl near Echuca, Victoria (which you can see here).  Early European explorers and settlers documented, for example,  the annual feast of Bogong Moths in diaries and journals, and the ethnographers Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen made extensive records of the role of insects in the diet and cosmology of Central Australian Aboriginal groups. In Chapter One Olsen and Russell make the crucial point that the harvesting of insects is often ephemeral, leaving no tangible remains, so while there is evidence in cave deposits of charred remains and fragments of prey from small mammals, birds and lizards, if it had not been for these contemporaneous European observations there would be no archaeological evidence of insect use.

Apart from the use of fire, other hunting methods included pursuit with Dingoes, spearing, ambush, encirclement, stockades, pitfall traps and battues, where beaters drive game towards the hunters.  The successful hunt was not only used for food, but also for making tools, utensils, clothing, waterbags and decorations – which obviously also involved knowledge about skins, sinews, bones and other body parts.   The same was obviously also true of flora and fauna gathered by the women, who were taught from one generation to another, the sophisticated knowledge of seasonal produce across vast geographical areas and habitats.   And the eel ‘farms’ of the Gunditjmara People of the Western District in Victoria, relied on knowledge of the predictable behaviour of the eels in order to engineer the waterways and wetlands to ensure a good catch. All of these activities required knowledge that was in the era of early zoology called ‘natural history’.

There are some claimed elements of Indigenous knowledge that are contested.  Rock art in Northern Australian that depicts extinct megafauna is not necessarily accepted as evidence, because dating shows that the paintings were done after the megafauna became extinct.  However, this does not preclude the suggestion that it is a remembered image handed down through the generations.

Having established the credentials of Indigenous People as Australia’s First Naturalists, the authors go on to demonstrate how the Europeans now credited with developing early Australian zoology, relied on the help of the local Aboriginal people as teachers and guides, and they were routinely engaged by collectors, illustrators and others with an interest in Australia’s animals.  As it says on the blurb from the publisher’s website:

As silent partners, Aboriginal Australians gave Europeans their first views of iconic animals, such as the Koala and Superb Lyrebird, and helped to unravel the mystery of the egg-laying mammals: the Echidna and Platypus.

However, I felt that the authors’ concern to correct the record occasionally became dismissive of modern science.  While it is true that the Indigenous cultural system worked for thousands of years’, and it is only right and proper that this should be acknowledged and respected, and it is also certainly true that European interest in Australian flora and fauna was not always high-minded and was often crudely exploitative for economic gain, nevertheless it seems to me that it is not necessary to be dismissive of the achievements of modern zoology and biology like this:

…late eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century European scientists were obsessed with describing and classifying the natural world in a way that required a world view and a standard rationale and methodology.  It was considered quite a prize to discover, name and describe a species that was new to science and identify its place in the great pantheon of creatures.  (p.35)

One of the aspects of this book that I really like is the extent to which Indigenous men are named, even if it is unfortunate that their Indigenous names were not always recorded. The young man depicted on the book cover is ‘Desmond’, an Awabakal man who assisted in the collection of specimens for the taxidermist Lieutenant William Sacheverell Coke in the late 1820s. There is also a portrait of Biraban, another Awabakal man, who also provided specimens for Cole, and worked with a Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld as well.  The contribution of Bungaree of the Kuringgai people of the Broken Bay area north of Sydney usually focusses on his assistance to explorers and his role as a community leader, but his assistance to collectors on board the Vostok and the Mirnyi from the Russian Antarctic expedition in 1820 is little known.  Bungaree also was an aide to Allan Cunningham, the botanist who accompanied Philip Parker King in HMS Mermaid.  It is likewise interesting to learn about Turandurey, a Muthi Muthi woman, who accompanied Thomas Mitchell on his inland expedition in the Riverina, in 1836.  In Mitchell’s drawing, she is carrying her daughter Ballandella, who looks to be about five or six, making her mother’s contribution even more remarkable.

In Chapter Two we learn of a naturalist named George Caley who was more interested in forming good relationships with Indigenous people whose knowledge was useful, than in being a ‘gentleman.’  He formed a productive relationship with a youth called Daniel Moowattin, only to lose him when he became the first Aboriginal person to be legally executed in Australia.  He was hanged because the court ruled that he understood that the crime of rape and robbery was wrong whereas his accessory who had not been Europeanised walked free because he was assumed to be primitive and therefore amoral.  

Chapter Three covers the period from 1830-1887—an intense period of scientific discovery, with the development of classification contributing to big ideas such as the theory of evolution.  In Australia, interest grew in the areas inland, where Indigenous contributions to exploration and natural history was invaluable.  In this period Governor George Grey was notable for naming the Indigenous people who helped: Kaiber, Imbat, Noogongoo, Jeebar and Warruop; Yenmar, Nganmar, Kurral, Jeebar and Dudemurry.  Edward Eyre was similarly respectiful when he wrote about Indigenous lifestyle and culture and praised their abilities. Eyre is notable for arranging a lifetime pension for Wylie, his loyal companion on the distrastrous 3200km crossing from Adelaide to King George’s Sound. Thomas Mitchell also wrote admiringly of his guide, Yuranigh. Extensive references from European journals in this chapter makes it very clear that Europeans credited with advancing knowledge about Australian flora and fauna could not possibly have done it without the knowledge and skills of their Indigenous companions who often included women and children.  And as Chapter Four shows, dependence on Indigenous knowledge continued into the first decades of the twentieth century.  This chapter is notable for the photographic evidence as well.

Chapter Five introduces the role of Indigenous people in contemporary work as land and sea managers in Indigenous Protected Areas and rangers On Country.  Despite significant changes to the landscape since European settlement, they monitor and protect animal populations, and undertake research, and have been particularly active in using traditional forms of land management using fire.  Increasingly, Indigenous calendars and seasonal information are recognised as significant because they validate surveys and research, synthesising Indigenous knowledge with Western science.

As a teacher before my retirement, I can recommend this book as a reference text for teachers of science and Australian history, but I’d also like to see a shorter version for use by students.

Authors: Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell
Title: Australia’s First Naturalists, Indigenous People’s Contributions to Early Zoology
Publisher: NLA (National Library of Australia) Publishing, 2019, 224 pages
ISBN: 9780642279378
Review copy courtesy of NLA Publishing

Available from the NLA Bookshop, Fishpond: Australia’s First Naturalists and good bookshops everywhere.



  1. What an interesting book – and one that must have entailed a lot of research. I’ve dipped into several explorer diaries and you really have to read and read and read to find particularly references (though digitisation and the ability to search text would help I suppose.)


    • One of the Rare Book Week events I’m going to is about how digitisation allows researchers on different continents to discover and ‘stitch together’ fragments from old illuminated manuscripts. Such an exciting development!


      • Yes, I think reducing the need for researchers to travel which is very costly is a wonderful side benefit of digitisation isn’t it.


        • I’ll tell you more about it once I’ve been to the session.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has already reviewed this book! […]


  3. […] that Indigenous guides were usually not named.  If it had been available then, I could have used Australia’s First Naturalists (2019) as a reference. This is from the AC […]


  4. […] Australia’s First Naturalists, by Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell […]


  5. […] Australia’s First Naturalists by Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell […]


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