What Is First Nations Chemistry and Why Is It Important?

Aboriginal knowledge of Australia’s natural materials, accumulated over tens of thousands of years, has too often been overshadowed by Western science. By bringing together Indigenous and Western-trained chemists, we can create shared knowledge that benefits all – while promoting greater respect for Indigenous wisdom in the academic world.

Scientific knowledge thrives in the context of Australia across a relationship that spans at least 65,000 years. It follows that examples of First Nations science abound across the continent. Consider how First Nations peoples approached land and water navigation. Indigenous peoples took to the seas, such as the vast, seemingly uncharted Pacific, guided by temporal currents and reading the stars and planets, requiring an understanding of cycles which are not obviously predictable or annual, but known as the result of generations of oral knowledge custodianship. So too did Indigenous astronomers chart and interpret celestial cycles, linking the movement of the Morning Star (Venus) with the eight-year harvest cycle.

“First Nations chemistry is important because it provides a unique perspective on the material world specific to the context of Australia.”

Alongside astronomical knowledge, First Nations peoples also developed a deep understanding of the chemical properties and behaviour of the natural materials they encountered. Indeed, First Nations chemistry is important because it provides a unique perspective on the material world specific to the context of Australia. This importance spans several areas – we’ll be specifically focusing on the physical and material world. Take ochre, for example. Ochres were traded for use in ceremony, art, medicine, and food preservation with extensive archaeological evidence of mining. Certain weaving techniques incorporated ochre, including to “cement” baskets headed into the snow or rain to safeguard dry food stores. Their use continues today. Contemporary artists, such as (co-author) Gadi woman Kate Constantine, use local ochres in their paintings and many First Nations peoples use ochres as part of honouring cultural traditions.

Today, we recognise the insights of Indigenous astronomers and chemists as those of esteemed scientists – and their knowledges and experience as profound. Indigenous knowledges are increasingly appreciated as valuable and relevant to the challenges Australia faces today in terms of environmental management, food science, and sustainable resource use. As such, the field of First Nations science is growing, with more and more Indigenous scientists bringing their knowledge and expertise to issues such as sustainable resource management, controlled burning, agriculture, and aquaculture.

Creating meaningful connections

Evidently, there is great opportunity for knowledge enhancement when First Nations scientists and Western-trained scientists come together with respect to develop shared ways forward on critical global, ecological, and financial questions. Guided by this principle, our team – which comprises both Aboriginal scholars from communities across New South Wales, as well as non-Aboriginal scholars – aims to explore the intersection of Australian Indigenous knowledge and Western scientific principles to better understand the chemical properties and value of materials.

In doing so, we seek to build meaningful connections between Indigenous Knowledges and Western scientific knowledge. The aim of such collaboration is to create a more holistic understanding of the natural world. Indigenous peoples have long used plants for maintaining health and wellbeing (preventive medicine) and also for medicinal purposes in the case of illness or injury. Understanding the chemical properties of these materials may help inform the development of enhanced medical treatments and has done so historically. Anecdotal evidence supports the idea that the eucalyptus and tea tree oil remedies available in Australian supermarkets today are strikingly similar to the recipe given to the early colonists in Sydney.

Bringing together diverse expertise across chemistry, medicine, museum and cultural studies, anthropology, history, linguistics and visual arts, our team seeks to evoke old understanding to develop new methods that respect and honour the scientific culture and cultural knowledge of First Nations’ peoples. We believe this project offers profound potential to contribute to a more inclusive and culturally sensitive approach to scientific research and education, while also promoting greater respect for Indigenous knowledge and perspectives within the academic and educational worlds.

“Fundamental to our work is the assumption that material understanding is shaped by cultural context.”

Fundamental to our work is the assumption that material understanding is shaped by cultural context. Culture shapes the values and knowledge that people draw from the material world. This is why it is important to discuss First Nations chemistry. Like all knowledge, our appreciation of scientific understanding is always growing and evolving. There is much to learn and an inherent excitement in learning – or indeed “re-learning” – new things together. Shared discovery, documentation, analysis, and testing, which allows us all to progress the discipline into the future, defines our work. We suggest that how problems are encountered and what solutions are considered appropriate depend on the context, knowledge bases, and the prevailing ideologies of the peoples involved.

As such, it is important that this work be led by, and developed in consultation with, First Nations peoples. Today these knowledges are supported through Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property. This is to ensure that knowledge is shared appropriately and that mutual benefits flow back to First Nations peoples. It is imperative that Western-trained scientists understand that the ideas and knowledge of First Nations peoples is not necessarily translatable nor is that knowledge simply there to be taken and used out of culture and context. Because, above all, the importance of First Nations chemistry lies in the call to recognise the value of Indigenous knowledges and perspectives, and – where appropriate and agreed upon – to integrate this into scientific research in a way that is respectful, collaborative, and mutually beneficial to all.

Should There Be an Indigenous Periodic Table?

The idea of an Indigenous periodic table may be another way to recognise the contributions of Indigenous peoples to the understanding of the natural world, and to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and perspectives into the teaching of science.

There is potential for an Indigenous periodic table to enhance accessibility for students learning chemistry. For example, a periodic table in a local language can encourage student ownership of the knowledge, in a way that makes sense and speaks to the land upon where that learning is based, just as do, for example, the English and German versions to those students. Creating a meaningful way of describing the elements from a uniquely Australian perspective can help people understand what the periodic table means here in Australia. By providing students with local, nuanced Australian cultural context for their studies, it also has the potential to strengthen the practice of local chemists by providing a lens for their work that its uniquely connected to place.

While there is no single perspective on chemistry worldwide, Indigenous cultures across the globe have developed deep understandings of the properties and behaviour of natural materials. Some proponents of an Indigenous periodic table argue that this knowledge could be integrated into the existing periodic table to create a more holistic and culturally sensitive approach to teaching chemistry. There is also a trend of translating the chemical elements into Indigenous languages, such as Kichwa, Náhuatl, and Māori.

“We know it is not enough to simply include Indigenous knowledge in existing curricula, there is also a great need to Indigenise curricula.”

However, there are also concerns about the idea of an Indigenous periodic table. It could be seen as a form of cultural erasure if Indigenous ideas about the elements and their significance are downplayed while the tabulation of elements is prioritised. Another concern is that an Indigenous periodic table could be understood as an attempt to separate Indigenous knowledge from mainstream science. There is also the question of practicality in developing and using a new periodic table. We know it is not enough to simply include Indigenous knowledge in existing curricula, there is also a great need to Indigenise curricula.

The idea of an Indigenous periodic table raises important questions about the relationship between science and culture. Ultimately, it is up to Indigenous peoples themselves to decide whether they want to develop and use such a tool, and how it might best be integrated into the teaching of chemistry and other sciences.

Elements of Country

As a step to towards a greater appreciation of First Nations chemistry in Australia, we are working with local Indigenous Knowledge Holders to consider chemical knowledge in more detail. We start this process in the place between knowledge systems. Professor Martin Nakata has identified this contested space as ‘the cultural interface’. Bringing Indigenous Knowledge Holders and chemists into a shared space to consider ideas and share perspectives offers the potential to create new knowledge that benefits all.

“Learning a different language challenges us to expand our understanding of ourselves and the world around us through the physicality, the sounds, and the patterns of that language.”

An important part of this process is thinking about language and identity. Language is a clear expression of culture. Language is embodied. To communicate effectively, we must physically hold ourselves in precise ways to facilitate the shapes of words, sounds, movements and gestures. Language is identity. Learning a different language challenges us to expand our understanding of ourselves and the world around us through the physicality, the sounds, and the patterns of that language. There is also the opportunity to expand our understanding of the elements through the local Aboriginal language. By doing so, we embrace Aboriginal ways of knowing, being, and doing.

Our consideration of the material world including the elements through local Aboriginal languages is a step towards deepening appreciation for the way that different knowledge systems draw upon different ideas and values as part of the meaning-making process. Spoken words, mark-making, dance, and communication through gesture such as signed languages, are all part of the broader suite of meaning-making to consider when turning our attention to the elements. The possibility for building a new shared understanding between knowledge systems is exciting and First Nations chemistry has an important role to play in this future.


The authorship team thanks Jennifer Barrett and Cameron Davison for their valuable contribution to the journal article on which this blogpost is based.

[Title image by sebastianbourges/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

Anthony Masters

Tony Masters is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Sydney and past Chair of the University’s Academic Board. He co-chairs the University’s Science Australia Gender Equity Team and is on the Australian Research Council’s College of Experts.

Peta Greenfield

Peta Greenfield holds a PhD in Classics and Ancient History and led a secondary English department for seven years. She is the co-host and co-producer of The Partial Historians podcast and thrives in translating research for public understanding.

Janelle Evans

Janelle Evans (Dharug) is an exhibiting artist, writer and curator based in Melbourne. She is Head of the Master of Contemporary Arts degree at Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne and also lectures in Critical and Arts Theories.

Alice Motion

Alice Motion is Associate Professor and Deputy Head of School, School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney. Alice leads the Science Communication, Outreach, Participation and Education (SCOPE) Research Group whose aim is to enrich connections between people and science.

Jakelin Troy

Professor Jakelin Troy, is Ngarigu of the Snowy Mountains in south eastern Australia. She is Director, Indigenous Research at The University of Sydney and a linguistic anthropologist who works with Indigenous communities worldwide to support the maintenance and renewal of language and cultural practises.

Kate Constantine

Konstantina (Kate Constantine) is a proud Gadigal woman of the Eora nation and a neo-contemporary Indigenous artist. She is re-imagining the traditions of her peoples’ dot painters, providing a modern narrative to better understand a First Nations perspective of Australia.

Lisa Jackson Pulver

Professor Jackson Pulver AM FRSN FADC is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Services at the University of Sydney and a Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology. Lisa advocates for education and health to ensure both are inclusive for all.

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