The people who took part in this study are all native speakers of Kune. Most of the respondents routinely spend the dry winter months of each year ‘in the bush’, i.e. at outstations such as Buluhkaduru, and have an intimate knowledge of the landscape and place names associated with this location. This includes the names and locations of important water bodies, ritual grounds and sacred sites, some of which are to be avoided because of cultural taboos. Members of a family group frequently discuss the location and availability of traditional foods in around the outstation, and organize regular trips to nearby lakes and creeks for hunting and foraging trips, on which fish, turtles and other aquatic reptiles are caught and eaten. Whenever the author accompanied a foraging group on such trips, Kune people would always point out the various foods, along the walking track or at the destination, that were in season; often young children would point out a clump of mayaddja grass (Heteropogon triticeus), and instruct the author to chew on the stem to obtain the sweet juice inside. At other times, they would make a detour to a location known to be home to a stand of man-mobban trees (Terminalia carpentariae); once again, the children would explain to the author that the late dry season (around September) was the time to pick the sweet fruit from these trees. Younger men often go on hunting trips (nowadays with a rifle), and are expert trackers of wallabies and buffaloes, whereas men and women of all ages take an active and enthusiastic interest in looking for stingless beehives.
These observations appear to be at odds with the findings of the current study, primarily with the result that over half the plants and birds in the stimulus sets could not be named by most respondents. The younger people who took part in this study can undoubtedly name, identify and use many more ethnotaxa than the ones included in the stimulus sets, but it is nevertheless surprising that so many supposedly common plants were not known to many participants. One compelling explanation is that the type of TEK investigated in the present study was of a very specific nature, characterizable as theoretical ‘knowledge’, as opposed to practical ‘skills’ (cf. ). In particular, linguistic knowledge (i.e. the names of plants and animals) was chosen as the object of inquiry, because of its relation to the central question of the study—does transmission of language equate to transmission of TEK? Based on the data presented here, the answer appears to be that it does not. However, an important caveat is that TEK can be measured in a number of ways, and no single index can provide a complete picture of an individual’s knowledge, as it invariably spans several domains .
Despite the small number of respondents, some interesting patterns are evident in the plant and bird naming results. Three of these patterns are discussed in this and the following sections: the relationship between naming performance and respondent age, the difference between respondents’ ability to name plants and birds and differences in the salience of various plant and bird ethnotaxa, as reflected in participants’ ability to recognize and name them. Positive correlations between age and ethnobiological knowledge have been noted in many rural, minority communities around the world (e.g. [33,34,35]), but such a pattern was not seen to a convincing degree in the present dataset. Nor was it the case that knowledge levels plateaued in young adulthood (in a person’s 30s), as suggested by Koster et al. , because none of the younger participants (aged 19–56) came close to the performance of the 80-year-old participant, and some older Kune speakers were even outperformed by their much younger relatives (Fig. 2). Further discussion on this issue can be found in the section ‘Personal life history and TEK’. Comparable studies carried out with Australian indigenous communities are rare, but a TEK documentation project of the Kija and Jaru languages of the Kimberleys (also in northern Australia) showed a strong correlation between TEK levels and language proficiency . Both Kija and Jaru are highly endangered, and for Kija at least, the youngest fluent speakers were in their forties or fifties at the time of the study. Accordingly, the most proficient speakers tended to have the most TEK. The results from the Blythe and Wightman study are not directly comparable to the current Kune study, because of the very different language endangerment situation. Older Kune speakers would probably agree that their younger relatives possessed less TEK than members of their own generation, akin to the older respondents in [10, 11]. However, this cannot be blamed on an insufficient grasp of Kune, as the language is being transmitted to young children.
An interesting difference between the plant and bird naming results was the positive correlation with age for the plant data only (as long as the oldest respondent’s data point was included). A related observation that sets the two apart is the higher score for plant names, compared to birds, for the majority of respondents. Figure 2 shows that a majority (9 of 13) of respondents were able to name a greater proportion of plants than birds, often by a large margin. One respondent (the 25-year-old) had nearly identical scores for both, and only three respondents scored better at naming birds. It is possible that the differences in the level and intensity of interactions with birds and plants are responsible for the overall better performance in the plant naming task. Perhaps the same explanation could account for the overall lower performance in bird-naming, as well as the reduced ability of respondents to name plants and birds that are no longer eaten or otherwise used (Tables 2 and 3). A utilitarian or adaptationist explanation (cf. ) could account for both observations; although Hays first proposed this approach to account for patterns in ethnobiological classification, its central idea could be modified to state that people adapt to their current circumstances by preferentially talking about (and naming) those organisms that are still relevant to those circumstances. It is the names of these organisms that are acquired by children in the community. A more in-depth discussion of Kune folk classification is beyond the scope of this paper, but some indication of the lifestyle changes that have occurred in Kune society, which might explain the reduced transmission of some ethnotaxa names, is provided in the following section.
Lifestyle change and TEK
Proximity to the town of Maningrida allows many indigenous groups the opportunity to access cash and services, such as banking, government aid, a clinic, a school, an airstrip and a post office. Two supermarkets and a small general store provide access to a wide range of mainstream, urban foods, shipped in by barge from the Northern Territory’s capital, Darwin. The author has accompanied the Buluhkaduru family on numerous shopping trips, and noted that the most commonly purchased staples were flour, butter, sugar, milk powder and tea. The flour is used to make damper—a kind of bread prepared over a campfire—which is eaten with butter, while tea with milk and sugar is the staple hot drink consumed every morning. Tinned corned beef is a much loved food item, but one that is not consumed very frequently, due to its high price. Frozen beef and chicken are regularly purchased from the supermarkets, to supplement the fish and bushmeat available at the outstation. Another important source of meat is the local ranger group called Bawinanga Rangers (formerly Djelk Community Rangers). Among their many land management activities is the control of the feral buffalo population through culling. Animals that are shot are butchered, and the meat is shared with nearby outstations. For this reason, the traditional owner of Buluhkaduru normally has a stock of buffalo meat in the freezer he keeps in his house.
Altman  describes three phases in the history of north-central Arnhem Land, while focusing on the experiences of the Kuninjku people, who speak a language closely related to Kune. These were ‘precolonial’, when indigenous people of the region were nomadic, and entirely dependent on hunting and gathering prior to the establishment of a government township at Maningrida in 1957, ‘colonial’, between 1957 and 1972, when indigenous people were settled in Maningrida, and expected to assimilate into mainstream Australian culture, and ‘postcolonial’, marked by a change in government policy towards self-determination, and a general movement of indigenous people towards outstations and traditional lifestyles. For the Kune at Buluhkaduru, food security is higher nowadays than in the recent past, when people had to be more self-sufficient, and the bulk of the family group’s nutrition was derived from hunting and gathering. In spite of the abundance of food available at Buluhkaduru at certain times of the year, such outstation locations are invariably associated with ‘a degree of seasonal precarity’, as ‘making a living out in the bush during the wet seasons is difficult because of seasonal flooding and inaccessibility of wildlife’ (, p. 172). The older people who currently reside at Buluhkaduru speak of frequently going hungry when they were young, a situation that started to change when the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation in Maningrida initiated a system of regular food deliveries by truck to pre-determined locations in the late 1970s.
It is likely that prior to achieving regular access to mainstream foods, Kune people had to rely on a much larger array of plant and animal species for food, medicine and raw materials than they do today. Table 1 shows that the vast majority of plant species included in the stimulus set have potential uses for indigenous people. Note, however, that most of the plants with edible fruit (i.e. a resource that is relatively easy to find and gather) could be identified and named by the majority of participants. The plants further down the table, that could be identified by only one, or a handful of, participants, tended to be used more for medicinal, construction or other purposes. It is likely that potential famine foods, that often require arduous or time-consuming labour for a small reward, are among the first plants to be overlooked by younger people. An example of this would be Acacia holosericea, the seeds of which can be ground to make flour, which is in turn baked to produce damper . While this species can be found at Buluhkaduru, and was called man-merrulk by the oldest respondent, the author has never seen any Kune person collect or consume the seeds of any Acacia species. Smith also notes that certain species of Acacia, such as A. holosericea and A. auriculiformis, provide treatments for ailments such as skin sores, and contain saponins which help in washing hands or clothes; the leaves of these plants can also be crushed and thrown into small water bodies to stun fish. The therapeutic uses of such plants have nowadays been taken over by modern medicines and artificial soaps, whereas fishing is done almost solely with a hook and line. Moreover, specialist knowledge about the medicinal or magical uses of this and other plants may have resided within ‘clever men’, an Aboriginal English term for what anthropologists call ‘sorcerers’ or ‘medicine men’ . Most published accounts on ‘clever men’ from the Northern Territory focus on people who have passed away (see  for some examples), and the likelihood is high that few, if any, such people are currently practicing their art. It is perhaps not surprising then, that younger Kune people no longer distinguish between the different species (and ethnotaxa) of Acacia, preferring instead to use the umbrella term man-djoh (which for older people, is the name for A. difficilis only). Incidentally, man-djoh was probably chosen as the prototypical ethnotaxon because it is the most common local Acacia, such that the place name Buluhkaduru (which is actually buluh ka-duru in the neighbouring Rembarrnga language) can be translated as ‘A. difficilis stands (here)’.
Another example of the use of an ethnotaxon label being extended to include a distinct ethnospecies is that of Pandanus spiralis, the seed kernels of which can be eaten raw or roasted. The tough outer covering of the fruit has to be removed first, and the seeds seem to be eaten only infrequently nowadays. A related species is Pandanus aquaticus, the seeds of which are not consumed. Two of the oldest males who took part in the current study provided different names for P. spiralis and P. aquaticus—these were man-dayarr/kun-dayarr and man-djimdjim respectively. All other respondents, however, named both species with the name label man-dayarr/kun-dayarr, although they knew that only the seeds of P. spiralis were edible. Here too, it seems that a traditional distinction between two ethnotaxa is slowly being lost due to lack of use.
There are significant exceptions to the trend of disuse of a plant leading to the loss of the relevant name from the active lexicon of individual speakers. One such example is the cycad ‘palm’ Cycas angulata (and possibly also C. armstrongii), which was accurately named by 11 of 13 respondents, even though it is rarely eaten nowadays. The toxic seeds need to be prepared appropriately over several days to render them edible, and the end product, again a kind of damper, has an unpleasant smell. However, the name remains in current use, probably because of the importance of the damper in ceremonial exchanges , where large numbers of people need to be fed . The observation by earlier researchers  that the consumption of cycad seeds was never really widespread in western Arnhem Land (where Buluhkaduru is situated) makes it all the more remarkable that the name of this plant is still widely known among younger people. One well-known plant that is not even found on Kune traditional lands is the cabbage palm Corypha utan, which was identified and named by 10 participants (Table 1). This tree only grows in eastern Arnhem Land , within the territory of the unrelated Yolngu languages, but is known to Kune speakers because of its totemic significance.
It is a more difficult matter to offer an explanation for the loss of certain bird names from the active lexicons of some respondents. As with the plants, many of the well-known birds in this study are frequently consumed, or are considered to be desirable food items. In Table 3, most of the birds (8 out of 12) considered to be ‘staple’ or important’ foods (sensu ) could be named by six or more participants, while only 4 appeared to be largely unknown. Foremost among the well-known edible birds is the Magpie Goose, whose flesh is sought after whenever flocks gather on swamps and other bodies in the wet season; others include the Emu, Australian Bustard, various ibises and storks, Brolga and perhaps also the Australian Pelican. It is likely that many other birds—such as the Pheasant Coucal, and perhaps smaller species including pigeons, cockatoos and parrots—were hunted for their flesh, or had their nests raided for their eggs. Many other birds could also have been hunted and eaten in times of need, but it is difficult to say anything conclusive on this subject, as not much has been published on the interactions of Australian indigenous people and the smaller avifauna in their environment, and it is unlikely that any of the respondents in this study would have regularly consumed smaller birds in the past. Boys and young men at Buluhkaduru often hunt smaller birds for sport with a slingshot, but rarely do people nowadays make a concerted effort to travel to a location where, for instance, large waterbirds (other than Magpie Geese) might be found.
Some birds may be known to many respondents due to their distinctive calls and/or behaviours or their ritual/totemic associations. The Bush Stone Curlew, Barking Owl, Eastern Koel and Blue-winged Kookaburra are prominent within the former category, as they are well known to call loudly at certain times of the day or of the year. The Great Bowerbird makes unusual, decorated nests on the ground, while the Brown Goshawk (and possibly also other species, such as the Red Goshawk) is known among all Arnhem Land communities for picking up burning twigs and setting bushfires in new locations, so as to flush out its prey consisting of reptiles and small mammals . These birds are also celebrated in myth and ceremony, as is the Torresian Crow, which is an important totemic animal for the neighbouring Marrangu Djinang people . Ultimately, however, it is likely that many bird names are being forgotten, or not being learnt, by younger people because they are no longer relevant to people’s lives in modern times. The observation that a smaller proportion of bird species, compared to plant species, were known to all participants suggests that people are interacting with plants to a greater degree than with birds.
As with the plants, there was some tendency among younger participants to generalize the name for a single well-known ethnotaxon to include other, similar-looking birds. This happened most frequently with the name dedded, which the oldest participant used to label the Rainbow Lorikeet only. Among the responses of the younger participants, dedded was offered as a name for a variety of colourful birds, such as parrots, lorikeets and rosellas. The labels korloddoddok (Peaceful Dove) and bokkodjbokkodj (Bar-shouldered Dove) were also frequently used by younger participants to label other pigeons and doves.
Although mammals were not included in the current stimulus sets, it is very likely that younger Kune speakers—especially young adults and children—would struggle to name all but the largest mammals that are present on their lands. While assisting an elderly Kune speaker in a language and culture class at Maningrida College in 2014, the author noted that the children in the mixed-age classroom (the eldest child being around 14 years old) labelled all local kangaroo species with the general term kunj ‘wallaby/kangaroo’, instead of using the highly specialised terminology that would presumably be known to their parents. Kune and related languages recognize several kangaroo and wallaby ethnotaxa, and have distinct words to describe the different life stages and gender of each kangaroo/wallaby species, as well as distinct verbs to describe their hopping action . However, it appeared that the children in that classroom were hearing many of these words for the first time from their elderly teacher. A reduction in the consumption of wild meat in modern times is probably responsible for this phenomenon, but equally responsible is the local extinction of a number of small mammals from around Buluhkaduru, and Arnhem Land in general. External factors such as more intense bushfires, prior to Indigenous-style land management that started in 2006 , and the arrival of invasive species such as the cane toad (Bufo marinus) have led to the disappearance of once common species like the Northern Quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus) and the Northern Hopping Mouse (Notomys aquilo). Both species are officially listed as endangered, with the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species even stating that the latter may no longer occur on the Australian mainland . No wonder, then, that most Kune children will have never seen, and may probably never see, the animals that their elders once called yulukyuluk and kidjikidjidayhdayh.
The above discussion suggests that knowledge of different groups of ethnotaxa may be affected by different factors. The names of certain groups of plants may not be learnt by younger speakers because their uses are no longer relevant to modern living. Certain bird names might not be passed on because they were never important to the community, either in utilitarian terms, or from a ritual/ceremonial point of view. If people of a community spend less time nowadays on traditional lands, or take part in fewer hunting or foraging activities, that would present fewer opportunities to see certain birds, and talk about them. Finally, certain small mammals may simply have gone locally extinct due to environmental degradation, making them no longer salient to young language learners, regardless of how much time they spend carrying out traditional activities. Future studies should therefore aim to investigate people’s TEK on a range of taxa, to uncover community- and location-specific differences in the transmission of TEK.
Personal life history and TEK
The small sample size investigated in this study provides a good opportunity to consider the experiences and traits of individual participants, as opposed to making generalisations about entire communities. During the naming tasks, practically all participants said at one time or another that they had once known the name of a plant or bird, but could no longer remember it. Often, they were able to provide supporting information—a physical description of the organism, its habitat, traditional uses or an associated cultural belief or folktale—that proved that they were indeed thinking about the right plant or animal, and had merely forgotten its name. An example from among the plants is Grewia retusifolia, a small shrub that produces small, edible fruit, and is locally known as murriddjam or djodmo. The name of this plant was known to seven participants, but a further four said that while they had eaten this fruit in their childhood, they could no longer remember the name. An even more striking example is that of Crinum arenarium, which only three people could name. A further seven participants had seen the plant before, and even knew the local belief that touching it could cause a person to be struck by lightning, but could not remember the Kune name kurlumudduk. The same phenomenon was seen to a lesser degree in the bird naming task. For instance, some people could accurately describe the behaviours of birds such as the Masked Lapwing and the Comb-crested Jacana, but could not name them.
While it is understandable that people occasionally forget information learnt in childhood, it was a surprise to see some adults in their thirties and even fifties being able to name far fewer ethnotaxa than much younger participants. Anecdotal evidence obtained during discussions with individual Kune speakers revealed a wide range of life histories with the potential to impact the acquisition of TEK. Figure 2 shows that two participants (aged 38 and 56) were able to name only 18% and 25% respectively of the birds shown to them, whereas a 19-year-old relative achieved a score of 33% for the same task. Similarly, a 42-year-old was also able to outperform the 56-year-old by a large degree, in both the plant and bird naming tasks. The cases of the 38-, 42- and 56-year-olds will be briefly considered below, as their divergent life histories seem to be having an impact on their performance in this study. The gender of these participants is left ambiguous in the discussion below to protect their identity.
Both the 38- and the 42-year-old individuals would have been born during the ‘postcolonial’ times (sensu ), and would have had the opportunity to spend their childhood on traditional lands, while relying to a large extent on traditional means of subsistence, supplemented by occasional food deliveries from town. However, the 38-year-old has been working in an office job in Maningrida for the past few years, and is therefore required to live in town for most of the year. Although s/he grew up in the bush, s/he nowadays visits Buluhkaduru outstation for only a few weeks every dry season. This person frequently stated during the naming tasks that s/he had either eaten a particular plant food as a child, or had seen or heard a particular bird, but could no longer remember the names for these ethnotaxa. The 42-year-old, on the other hand, grew up in a Rembarrnga- and Kune-speaking community to the east of Buluhkaduru, in the company of siblings who are highly regarded nowadays for their bush knowledge. S/he has been married to a respected community elder, who is also a highly skilled bush person, and it is likely that s/he performed well in the naming tasks thanks partly to these influences. S/he also lives at Buluhkaduru for extended periods of time every year with the family group. Unlike the earlier two participants, the 56-year-old began living at a Christian mission from a young age. S/he would have been born during the ‘colonial’ period of Arnhem Land (sensu ), and would have faced strong pressure to assimilate to a mainstream Australian way of life. This person speaks very good English (alongside fluent Kune), but feels that his/her grasp of TEK is not as good as that of his/her relatives, due to the time spent away from the bush. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the 80-year-old (note that this is an approximate age, as the person’s exact date of birth is unknown) who performed the best in the naming tasks would have grown up in ‘pre-colonial’ Arnhem Land, when contact with mainstream Australian culture was minimal. This person recalls hiding in the rock country to the south of Maningrida during the final days of World War 2, and living off the land in the company of knowledgeable indigenous elders.
Such anecdotes paint a compelling picture of the possible ways in which a person’s life history might affect the current state of their TEK. In general, it seems that time spent away from traditional lands, close family ties with knowledgeable individuals and reduced involvement in traditional activities (due to an intensive western education, for example) can increase or decrease a person’s knowledge of particular domains of TEK. Ideally, a longitudinal study with a larger sample size would be required to explore this phenomenon adequately. A similar phenomenon was reported by  in their Kija and Jaru TEK documentation project in northern Australia. The authors concluded that a person’s upbringing has an important effect on his/her level of TEK, with more knowledgeable people having grown up in a Kija-only community, where traditional ceremonies were conducted annually, instead of the alternative cattle station, which was home to many language groups (which promoted the use of Kriol for communication), as well as a Presbyterian mission and school.