Navigating our way through country

Navigating our way through country

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge of the features of the world and navigation methods involved geographical, astronomical and environmental knowledge that was transmitted by various means, including narratives, songs, star maps, and visual designs.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people developed and used expert knowledge to navigate through country for many reasons – to trade, to find materials for tools, in search of seasonal foods, for social interactions and to find reliable sources of water. This knowledge also had to be shared with others and mapping techniques were developed to achieve this. Significant markers such as the direction of sunrise, unusual geological outcrops and stars were often used for this purpose. Many elements of the dreaming contain oral maps which allowed the transfer of this map information

Navigating using songlines or Dreaming tracks

For many thousands of years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have navigated their way across the lands and seas of Australia using paths called by some, ‘songlines’ or ‘dreaming tracks’1 but which have their own names in Indigenous languages. A song series (or ‘song line) is based around the creator beings and their formation of the lands and waters during the sacred creative period when ancestral beings shaped the world (‘the dreaming’). The religious and philosophical origin narratives maintained by many groups explain the creation of people, the landmarks, rock formations, watering holes, rivers, trees, sky and seas. Symbols were also used to map the locations or directions of certain places, for example waterholes, seasonal food sources (plant and animal), or ceremonial sites. 

Song series may convey oral maps of country at different scales to cover different regions. Earth, sky and water song series provided, in some cases, memory aides to assist people to travel often vast distances. They highlight the connections that Aboriginal people have with the earth, water, and seas. Song series are a precious but endangered legacy of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life and deserve to be preserved as one of the cultural treasures of the world’s oldest living cultures.

Navigation for trade

Trade was practised between neighbouring language groups as well as over vast distances between language groups of different environmental regions2. Stones, ochres, tools, ceremonial items and other resources that were not normally available within one area could be obtained through trade with another area. Trade was not only a method of sharing resources but also a form of social control and law. Trade required people from different areas and different cultures to respect each other’s rights, boundaries and cultural differences. Trade also enabled members from different language to share aspects of the sacred narratives and ceremonies that explain the origins of people and the natural and spiritual world. Specific cultural knowledge and practices were shared and strengthened during meetings and ceremonial gatherings. Great respect and social bonding were developed through an understanding of cultural differences and religious traditions.

Classroom activity - Mathematics Year 4

In this classroom activity, students will study a map provided which shows the relationship between a campsite, several waterholes and a range of significant environmental features in the area. The map includes a key to the map symbols, a scale for distance units and a scale for area measurement units. 

The students will investigate a series of questions relating to distances, the art of map drawing, directions and features shown on the map to understand the concepts of scale and learn how useful it is to be able to navigate. A discussion of the techniques used will enable student to understand the importance of navigation and the methods by which this information can be recorded and passed on. The suggested discussion elements of the tasks are included to emphasise the importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of being able to memorise information and to effectively communicate and pass on this information to others. The discussion can also highlight that these techniques and skills are still relevant and important for us today.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • Use simple scales, legends and directions to interpret information contained in basic maps (ACMMG090)
  • Use scaled instruments to measure and compare lengths, masses, capacities and temperatures (ACMMG084)
  • Compare the areas of regular and irregular shapes by informal means (ACMMG087)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 4 in Mathematics:

  • compare areas of regular and irregular shapes using informal units
  • interpret information contained in maps

Activity 1 - Understanding a map of country

Individually or in small groups students can study the map (see below) and do the following tasks:

  • Colour each feature (e.g. blue for waterhole, yellow for honey ants) to develop a better visual appreciation of the map area.
  • Identify the camp site area and the nearest waterhole.
  • Use a ruler to measure the distance units required to travel from the campsite to each waterhole on the three marked tracks. Highlight the shortest track. (Note some estimation will be required where the tracks are not exact multiples of the distance units).
  • Describe what features you would be likely to see along the journey.
  • How long do you think it would take to walk to the nearest waterhole if 1 distance unit equals 1 kilometre?
  • Discuss how important this knowledge would be for survival, especially in desert areas where water sources may be great distances apart and some water sources may also dry up in drought periods.
  • Why do you need to be able to pass on this information to other people, and discuss the oral tradition and use of navigation markers. Compare this to how you might tell your friend where to meet at lunchtime in the school yard.
  • Using the fresh map copy draw lines to connect the three waterholes. What shape does it make? Use the unit area scale to measure how many area units it is. (Note this triangle will require some estimation of area units along the hypotenuse).
  • Draw lines to connect around the 4 sets of hills. What shape does this make? Use the unit area scale to measure how many area units it is.



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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.