Aboriginal Classification and Taxonomy
Aboriginal ways of organising knowledge are very different to the ideas of classification used in western science. Western society has often tended to think of Aboriginal taxonomy as primitive (or nonexistent). Yet Aboriginal people have complex classification systems that are not restricted to plants and animals. They also deal with societal structures and kinship relationships, and the complexity of Aboriginal social organisation is relevant to the landscape as well as to people. Many classification systems embrace the spiritual domain as well as the natural, which shows that for Aboriginal people the physical and spiritual are appreciated simultaneously.
Aboriginal systems of classification are regionally and culturally specific, but in general the systems of classifying plants and animals are complex and highly structured. Waddy (1988) says that Aboriginal people classify plants and animals in various ways, with the simplest being binary classifications of plants and animals as being edible or inedible, or as being totemic or non-totemic. The Aboriginal classification of edible plants and animals has similarities to western taxonomy in that it is hierarchical with things being grouped in levels and each higher level containing the ones below it.
Aboriginal people also have totemic (or symbolic) classification. This refers to the recognition of plants, animals and natural phenomena as belonging to particular social groups or moieties. Aboriginal communities are divided in complex ways, with all individuals belonging to one or more social groups as determined by descent from either their mother or father. These moieties also include animals and plants, and they guide people in all aspects of their social life, especially their roles, responsibilities and obligations. Maintaining knowledge about the plants and animals, and the ceremonies associated with them, is the responsibility of the people of the social group to which the plants or animals belong.
In Aboriginal systems there may be different levels of knowledge, which are generally demarcated according to age. The Yolngu classification of birds is an example of this, according to Davis, Gnambarr and Traynor (1982). The word warrakan is used by children up to 10 years old to refer to large birds. From 11 to 18 years of age, warrakan is used to refer to both large and small birds. From 19 to the early 30s, warrakan refers to all birds and mainly to large edible birds (which are classified by their habitat from the sea to the bush). Older people use warrakan to refer to large land animals, reptiles, bats, echidnas and birds.
While the example above demonstrates that levels of knowledge can be delineated by age, they can also be determined by gender, kinship and other social structures. From the Aboriginal point of view, the ways of classifying plants and animals are many and complex. Significantly, these ways of understanding the natural order are not limited to the identification of plants and animals as objects. They are also used to interpret and construct social positions within communities.
Greg Simms, elder, Mt Druitt community, talks about totems
A totem is an animal or plant.
Totems, we can't eat our totems, we can't abuse them and totems protect us from inbreeding.
Totems are special because it gives Aboriginal people recognition and it also gives different tribal areas indication of where you are actually located.
Waddy, JA, 1988, Classification of Plants and Animals from a Groote Eylandt Aboriginal Point of View, Australian National University North Australia Research Unit, Darwin.
Davis, S, Ganambarr, M & Traynor, S, 1982, Aboriginal Science Teachers Handbook: Incorporating the Milingimbi Case Study, Northern Territory Department of Education, Darwin.