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Aboriginal Inventions


When the first Aboriginal people arrived in Australia over 40,000 years ago they were among the most technologically advanced people in the world at the time having made several over the horizon sea voyages to reach here. Yet by the time of European contact Aboriginal people had made very few technological advances and were still using stone tools in a metal rich country.

David Unaipon on the $50 note

The $50 note

There is a certain irony that one of Australia's great inventors appears on the $50 note, because David Unaipon (1872-1967) was never able to attract enough money to have his inventions developed. Unaipon was of the Ngarrindjeri people, and his Myths and Legends of Australian Aboriginals (1930) was the first published book by an Aboriginal author. He was active as a spokesman for Aboriginal people and his inventions included  a multi-radial wheel, a centrifugal motor and an improved shearing handpiece.
At the first federal election in 1901, Unaipon was entitled to vote and become a member of parliament. Later changes in federal electoral law stripped him and other Aboriginal people of this right for many decades.

Why was this? It certainly wasn't due to lack of intelligence. Aboriginal people had a rich culture, a complex social structure and advanced skills that allowed them to survive in hostile environments as well as the qualities we have mentioned on What Makes a good Australian Inventor. Indeed, many Aboriginal people placed among European implements quickly became very inventive (see for example David Unaipon in the box on the right). The complex question of what environmental conditions lead to technological advances and inventiveness in certain societies and why these conditions were not present in Aboriginal Australia is examined in Jared Diamond's excellent book, Gun Germs and Steel (see below).

Some notable Aboriginal inventions

Guns, Germs and Steel

by Jared Diamond

This important book written by a person Professor Tim Flannery has called "the greatest living scientist" attempts to analyse why different societies and races developed in different ways. Why did certain societies excel in technology, inventiveness and the arts while others remained static for many centuries? What enabled certain races to over-run others. This is no simplistic racial supremacy polemic, but a serious scientific attempt to analyse what conditions allow certain peoples to flourish and what conditions might cause them to languish.

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