What do you mean ‘Indigenous Engineering’?


This Blog is a public access source for anyone who is interested in the work of the OLT project titled ‘Engineering Across Cultures‘. The project is focusing on  advising on ways to create inclusive learning environments for Indigenous students in Engineering Faculites. And – by extension – it aims to contribute to The field of Engineering knowledge a means of acquiring and consolidating information about the engineering expertise of Aboriginal peoples living in Australia for the more than 40,000 years prior to the arrival of Western concepts of engineering in the period after the 16th century.

The Question

The question of ‘What is Aboriginal Engineering?’ has been the most frequently asked  first question, when people hear the mention of ‘Aboriginal Engineering’ in regard to the work of this project. So it is a good place to begin.

What is Engineering?

Human beings have ‘engineered’ our environment for millennia, to create places, tools and means for safety and survival. Over time we have extended our engagement with the environment in many ways, some more destructive than others. At its most basic the term ‘engineering‘ refers to the means by which humans interact with the places where we live, in regard to altering, adjusting, building and adapting them to suit our needs.

Today, after about 250 years of formalised structuring of engineering knowledge, the generally accepted meaning of ‘engineering’ has largely come to be applied to visible, large scale alterations and adaptations of the environment. So those who feel the need to ask ‘what is Aboriginal Engineering!’ are revealing that they have no frame of reference with which to can engage with such a concept. Most, however, are quick to appreciate the explanation provided in the preceding paragraph, and then are delighted and often amazed to learn about the scope and nature of the examples of ‘Aboriginal engineering’ that we have been collating.

How is it ‘the same’?

Aboriginal engineers manipulated ‘country’ for human ends and purposes in exactly the same way as any other group of Engineers anywhere in the world  – most of the time! As tribes and nations, they cut into the earth, reshaped water flow, blended materials and manipulated them to produce new products.  What they did not share with other, more familiar forms of Engineering, were perceptions about the appropriateness of making visible the impact on the environment. Aboriginal Engineering was built on a very different set of philosophies and principles which are summarised neatly in the title of Karl-Erik Svieby and Tex Skuthorpe’s book – Treading Lightly (2006 Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe, Allen & Unwin, Sydney).

How is it ‘different’?

While there is still – too often – a public expression of the belief there is no evidence of ‘engineering’ for example, in Sydney Harbour before January 1788, there was in fact a great deal of engineering (see for example the work of Bill Zgammage in The Largest Rstate on Earth). The Difference between more ‘familiar’ examples of ‘Engineering’ and Aboriginal Engineering, is that the latter was conducted in close harmony with the land and with the guiding principle of ‘minimum impact’ – and was thus largely ‘invisible’ to those who could only see with eyes adjusted to seeing impactful constructions as signals of engineering activity. This absence of recognition could be considered as a kind of ‘perceptual blindness’.  New arrivals on the Australian continent pissessed no relevant perceptual or philosophical frame of reference for the engineering they were [not] seeing.

What was this project to be about?

The key outcomes and deliverables for this project, as stated in the original OLT application, are as follows:

  1. A set of guidelines detailing indigenous cultural values and their relationship to engineering education and engineering epistemology and design.
  2. Strategies for teaching STEM related content that will accommodate different ways of perceiving and valuing ideas, objects and contexts
  3. Strategies for restructuring highly technical subjects to incorporate deliverable 2, above.
  4. A model for the development and implementation of elective course content focusing on indigenous cultural appreciation that is applicable to other design oriented fields.
  5. An elective subject that links indigenous perspectives on country and connectedness to local engineering projects.

What is being added to the project outcomes?

As we worked we began to conclude that achieving these outcomes also, inevitably, involves developing resources to re-discover the nature of Aboriginal Engineering’ as a set of principles and practices – in their own right – and integrating these into the means by which we present the project deliverables.

Our Invitation

This Blog is a place where we will share the results of our work, and seek input from readers. We look forward to connecting with everyone who visits and/or who is interested in re-establishing a broad general knowledge of Indigenous Engineering, and perhaps re-writing some of oru nation’s history as we do so.

You are cordially invited to share the link to this site, contribute your ideas and questions, and challenge our assertions and concepts. It was through questions that we began this journey of exploration. We hope that more questions lead to new ideas, sites, concepts and a growing awareness of the amazing engineering that has influenced the Australian landscape in ways that were once well understood, and – we hope – can be again.

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