Addressing the biggest misinformation in Australia – Terra Nullius


If Indigenous science is to take its rightful place in solving our climate and biodiversity crisis,  then truth-telling must be at the forefront of our nation’s conversations.

Written by Luke Briscoe, CEO at Indigilab.  June 2020

What we’re witnessing in today’s news and social media channels is the tug-o-war between media censorship and the right-to-free speech. If anything, an important lesson the current pandemic has taught us is this: who controls the narrative wins. On one hand, there is the fight against the proliferation of misinformation and toxic internet. And yet despite the science, the views of climate-change skeptics are openly touted and advocated through pockets of mainstream media and by those in power. I argue, perhaps, the biggest misinformation that has yet to be addressed in this nation, and a subject that is often glossed over, is that Australia is founded on ‘Terra Nullius’, Latin for  “No Man’s Land”.  For genuine and meaningful reconciliation to happen, we must acknowledge the role of truth-telling for the spiritual and physical healing of our land.  Today we are the only Commonwealth nation that does not recognise First Nations peoples in its constitution. And this says a lot.  This deep-seated lie must be dismantled.
What is the opposite of truth? From a young age our children are taught that the opposite of a truth is a lie. If this belief holds true, then through systemic failure and complicity, we have deprived our children of the facts surrounding our nation’s birth. I believe it’s incumbent upon us to teach them about the violent and nuanced history of how Australia was founded. This painful truth-telling will determine how our children will grow up to forge a cohesive, inclusive and equitable society in the years to come.
What does truth-telling look like through the lens of Australian science?  If our aspiration is to be a global leader in innovation, don’t you think it is important that we ask ourselves this question “How did we come to this point?”. There is no denying that the treatment of First Nations peoples in Australia was brutal and disturbing. Their first contact with colonial scientists during the 1800s and the early 1900s was shameful and morbid. Historical records revealed the racist ontology practices of Western institutions in their research and cataloguing of Indigenous cultures. These ontologies can still be found in many of our museums and galleries. The recent repatriations of First Nations peoples’ sacred remains and artefacts from foreign ownership is now part of a growing movement to ‘decolonise’ museums and galleries. It’s a symbolic act of handing back control of the sentimentalised narrative of our history to its Traditional Owners.  Whilst social Darwinism played an important part in shaping Australian colonist attitudes towards First Nations peoples, it was Captain James Cook’s bold declaration of “Tera Nullius” that was the foundational lie, and this lie continues to reverberates in our education curricular. The twin impact of Darwinism and Terra Nullius paved the way for deeply rooted prejudice against Indigenous science, even till this day. 
David Unaipon – proof of Indigenous genius  It was not until the early 1900s, through David Unaipon, a Ngarrindjeri man, that public perceptions began to shift in recognition of Indigenous intelligence. Dubbed ‘Australia’s own Leonardo Da Vinci’, his inventions forced colonial Australians to accept Aboriginal intelligence and reconsider the science of the world’s oldest culture. Some of David’s registered inventions included the centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel and a mechanical propulsion device. He is also widely said to have contributed to the invention of the helicopter, having designed its rotors pre-World War I based on the principle of the boomerang and his fascination with perpetual motion. Today David’s legacy continues to inspire future generations of young Indigenous people to advocate for Indigenous knowledge in mainstream science.
David Unaipon
The interdependence between Indigenous culture and climate preservation As climate change becomes a focal challenge of the 21st century, we are now witnessing an increased recognition and awareness of Indigenous knowledge systems in sustaining complex ecosystems the last thousands of years. Recently researchers in University College London found a direct correlation between the genocide of First Nations peoples globally and the acceleration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which may have caused the mini ice age.  In Australia, our climate vulnerability can be linked to the loss of Indigenous languages spoken. In 1788, it was recorded that there were more than 250 Indigenous Australian languages, including 800 dialects. Today only 150 languages are still being spoken, of which 95 are facing extinction. With 80 per cent of the world’s land-based biodiversity found on Indigenous lands, we must work harder at preserving Indigenous culture which holds vital clues to environmental restoration.

Where to from here?

Disappointingly, the knowledge extraction and application of Indigenous science continue to remain untapped.  And this is a big problem. 

Despite being the original engineers, Indigenous science is still left out of the nation’s science conversations, especially in addressing the climate and biodiversity crisis as we have seen in the recent bushfires of 2019/20.

For this to change, we each need to do our part in laying down the foundation of truth-telling in science. We want a country that prides itself in First Nations cultures, sciences, and ways of knowing, in order to pave the way for a sustainable and regenerative future.

To do this, you can start by learning what Traditional Lands you are on, who are the Traditional Owners, and even try to reconnect with your own ancient cultures to uncover cross-cultural paradigms. And importantly, do continue to ask yourself daily in your professional practice, what are you doing to enable positive change in science? 

Luke is a digital producer and Indigenous science educator and CEO of Indigilab.  Indigilab is an organisational signatory of Australian Engineers Declare and was invited to provide some reflections as part of Reconciliation Week 2020.  You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_briscoe79 
Luke Briscoe

Australian Engineers Declare a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency