Western science and Aboriginal people

Title_Western Science

Aboriginal weapons drawn by T R Browne and published in Thomas Skottowe’s Select Specimens from Nature in 1813 (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW – PXA 555)

Author: Steven Ross

Imperialism has devastating effects on Indigenous peoples the world over, and science is often used to ‘prove’ western superiority over so-called ‘primitive’ Aboriginal groups. This justified the conquering of Aboriginal people by white invaders, resulting in the breaking down of traditional social, political and economic structure: cultural and physical genocide.

It has long been held that western science is the great producer and indicator of progress and development. Most lives have been affected by western science in the 20th and 21st centuries as we become more reliant on science in our work, and in our leisure. There is an expectation of finding a technological fix for most problems.

Western science has a long history from Pythagoras to Newton, but has grown rapidly for at least the last 300 years. This growth is paralleled by European expansion around the world.

European scientists were endlessly fascinated and puzzled by Aboriginal customs. This 1874 lithograph depicts Aboriginal methods of punishment by spearing. If Europeans found such customs abhorrent, Aboriginal people were equally revolted by some of the white man’s ways of punishing offenders (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW – Montagu Scott, ‘Customs of Aboriginals in NSW – V / 168)

This process of imperialism is relevant to all branches of science, from physics and medicine, to the relatively new sciences of anthropology and archaeology. Scientists’ involvement in colonial processes has tended to be obscured through the establishment of a perceived exclusive and elite realm of ‘scientific’ endeavour. This is alleged to operate outside the influences of Christianity and broader social attitudes, employing the language of ‘rational thought’. This claim to rationality stems from liberal thought, which also claims objectivity. It asserts that science is free of biases of race or colour.

However, Edward Said makes the point that colonialism and racism are part of the liberal tradition:

If there was cultural resistance to the notion of an imperial mission, there was not much support for that resistance in the main departments of cultural thought. Liberal though he was, John Stuart Mill… could say, ‘The sacred duties which civilised nations owe to the independence and nationality of each other, are not binding towards those to whom nationality and independence are certain evil, or at best a questionable good’… Almost all colonial schemes begin with the assumption of native backwardness and general inadequacy to be independent, ‘equal’, and fit (Said, 1994: 96).

The development of western scientific thought and social institutions have as a foundation, the assumptions of traditional liberalism because they are developed within the context of a liberal democracy. By implication these scientific epistemologies and institutions also inherit a legacy of racism and oppression.

Therefore, the notion that science and scientists are objective and free from the constraints and values of broader society is false. Science is a socially constructed discipline and therefore inherently based around the attitudes and desires of the broader community.

To anthropologists, Aboriginal people were passive subjects of scientific enquiry, rather than individual people, as seen in this 1855 illustration engraved by James Redaway entitled ‘Aborigines of Australia: heads and implements’ (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW – PXE 864)

A prime example of this is the fledgling anthropologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When these scientists investigated Aboriginal culture they were at the mercy of public perception about Aboriginal people and did not seek to subvert popular attitudes, but perpetuated them:

For a society bent on the dispossession and control of the Aboriginal inhabitants, anthropology served as an eminently ‘practical’ discipline. It did not challenge prevailing attitudes as confirm and legitimate beliefs… Social anthropologists inherited a belief in black inferiority so powerful as to determine their whole methodology (Kociumbas and Glover, 1999).

For the First Nations peoples of the Sydney region, European contact proved to be particularly devastating. Captain James Cook’s voyage of 1770 and the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788 introduced many scientists, including botanists and medical men, to the local community. Sydney’s Aboriginal people were the first Indigenous Australians to be subjected to the full scrutiny of the white European gaze and to scientific analysis.

This distorted portrayal of Aboriginal people by T R Browne appeared as the Frontispiece of J Skottowe’s ‘Select Specimens from Nature…’ in 1813. It depicts Aboriginal people as curiosities of nature. (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW – PXA 555)


This photograph and associated caption from a 1923 scientific journal article by Professor Griffith Taylor demonstrates scientific racial bias in the categorisation of so called ‘primitive’ peoples: ‘Description of Plate 7: The lowest race is the Tasmanian woman “Wapperty”. An allied negrito is the Semang from Perak. The primitive negro woman (head index about 73) has curly hair, like her congener the Sakai. Then, nearer Asia, is the Malay zone, of which a primitive type (Sumatra) is shown, with a head index about 75. Higher again, and about our own ethnic level (76-79) are the Maori and the Tikopian… The Malay shows some Mongol traits… Somewhat above our ethnic level are the higher Polynesians (Tongan, 89) and the high-class Javanese woman (82). The high Amerind from British Colombia is added to show his Polynesian “European” appearance. The latest evolved races (of Central Asia) are not shown.’ (Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Proceedings, Vol. 16, Jan 1923, p. 480, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)

European scientists had mixed reactions to Aboriginal people, but the overwhelming opinion was that the Aboriginal people were backward. They came with some history of this kind of attitude. A century earlier, the Dutch explorer William Dampier had judged them to be ‘the most miserable people in the world’. Descriptions of Aboriginal men and women, particularly those around Sydney, were often derogatory. Francois Peron, a French visitor to the new colony in 1802, provided a description of an Aboriginal woman:

The colour of the skin, the nature of her hair, the proportion of the body, of this woman, perfectly resembled that of the other savages of New Holland, … She was uncommonly lean and scraggy, and her breasts hung down almost to her thighs (Peron, 1809, 1975).

Aboriginal men were often described as being less masculine than white men, in that they were allegedly not as strong, nor as well-endowed. This was inconsistent with other early journal observations of the Aboriginal body as being very athletic, agile and quick, good climbers, powerful swimmers, and tireless travellers. This level of fitness was such that it could cause anxiety in the beholder (Konishi, 1998: 32).

In his journal, Watkin Tench describes his travels with Sydney men Colbee and Boladeree:

They walked stoutly, appeared but little fatigued, and maintained their spirits admirably, laughing to excess when any of us either tripped or stumbled, misfortunes which much seldomer fell to their lot than ours (Tench, in Flannery, 1996).

The diet which sustained the Aboriginal body was explicitly described, although again through a veil of western horror. It was assumed that, because the Europeans were unable to find sufficient food and water, that Aboriginal people must subsist off what they scavenged. However, this assumption is contradicted by explorers’ accounts of meeting Aboriginal people who were well fed. Many accounts record them eating fish and shellfish, and there are also some descriptions of vegetables and nuts (Konishi, 1998: 33).

The dominant scientific discourse which informed these descriptions of Aboriginal peoples in the 19th century was ‘The Great Chain of Being’ which arranged all living things in a hierarchy, beginning with the simplest creatures, ascending through the primates to man. From the 17th century onwards, it was the practice to distinguish between different types of man, with Europeans at the top of the chain.

Such ideas were widely disseminated in the Australian colonies. Most colonists placed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lowest link in the chain, as evidenced in this statement by W C Wentworth, commenting on the Aborigines Evidence Bill in 1844: ‘… [it would be] quite as defensible to receive as evidence in a Court of Justice the chatterings of the ourang-outang as of this savage race’ (cited in Reynolds, 1974: 46).

In their research on comparative racial characteristics, anthropologists examined and measured Aboriginal skulls and teeth. Scientists added Aboriginal heads to their private collections or sent them to British and European museums. Aboriginal people are still trying to get back the skeletal remains of their ancestors so they can be given appropriate burial rites. (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW – W Ramsay Smith, ‘The Place of the Australian Aboriginal in Recent Anthropological Research’, Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Proceedings, 1907)

‘The Great Chain of Being’ was readily used by Darwinists who foretold the demise of the Aboriginal race. This discourse was used to justify any number of draconian policies, including the forced removal of Aboriginal children. And the use of ‘science’ to dispossess and denigrate Aboriginal peoples still continues. In the media storm around the Mabo decision in 1992 and the fear that Aboriginal people would claim everyone’s backyard, the then Leader of the National Party, Tim Fisher stated:

…at no stage did Aboriginal civilisation develop substantial buildings, roadways or even a wheeled cart… I would strongly make the point that rightly or wrongly dispossession of Aboriginal civilisation was always going to happen (Fisher in Birch, 1995: 33).

These attitudes had of course more immediate and direct consequences for Sydney’s Aboriginal population, being the first Indigenous Australians to have full contact with the invaders. Sydney’s Aboriginal people were the first to be dispossessed, to have their language and traditional practices banned, to be rounded` up onto missions and to have their children taken away.

However, contrary to western scientific beliefs, Sydney’s Aboriginal people farmed the waters of Sydney Harbour and surrounding rivers, and maintained kangaroo feeding grounds, such as those near today’s Victoria Park near the University of Sydney. The Gadigal people traded with other Aboriginal groups and maintained religious, social and political systems, which included complex cosmological and botanical information. And Sydney Aboriginal people did not die out despite the predictions of Darwinists, as evidenced by the strong and proud descendants still living and working in the Sydney area.

About the author

Steven Ross is Wamba Wamba from Deniliquin and has bloodline connections to the Wiradjuri, Mutthi Mutthi and Gunditjmara peoples. He is a cultural producer and curator, and throughout his career has been a dancer, published writer and storyteller.


Birch, Tony, ‘A Mabo Blood Test’ in The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 1995, Vol. 6, No 1 and 2, pp 32-42.

Kociumbas, Jan & Glover, Richard 1998, Maps, dreams, history: race and representation in Australia, Department of History, University of Sydney, Sydney http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/46663286

Konishi, Shino, ‘Mapping the Metamorphosed Body: A Case Study in Aboriginal Health’ in Black on Black, Vol. 1, 1998, pp. 29-38.

Reynolds, Henry, ‘Racial Thought in Early Colonial Australia’, in Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 20, no.1 1974, pp. 45-53.

Péron, François & Marsh Walsh Publishing 1975, A voyage of discovery to the southern hemisphere: performed by order of the Emperor Napoleon during the years 1801,1802, 1803 and 1804, Marsh Walsh, North Melbourne, Vic.

Said, Edward W 1994, Culture and imperialism, Vintage, London.

Tench, Watkin & Flannery, Tim (ed.) 1996, 1788: comprising a narrative of the expedition to Botany Bay and A complete account of the settlement at Port Jackson, Text Publishing, Melbourne.