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Fishing up a huge surprise: tracing ancient sawfish with Indigenous knowledge

Felicity Meakins, Shape

Date: 24 January 2019

It started out as just another fishing trip. In 2017, Lisa Smiler was using a handline in Wattie Creek, 900 kilometres south-west of Darwin, in the Northern Territory, when she felt that unmistakeable feeling: a bite on the end of her line!

“I thought it was a barramundi, or a catfish, or something,” Lisa says. Whatever it was, it was big.

“I was pulling the line, then my sister helped pull the line, and her partner pulled the line, all the way up to the edge of the river,” she describes. “All of a sudden, my sister pulled up the nose part, and I said, ‘Oh no, I don’t want this fish, it’s freaky’.”

At 2.7 metres long, the fish weighed more than Lisa did. When she posted its picture on social media, Lisa set the scientific world alight.

Record-breaking fish?

According to Western science, Lisa's sawfish is the first ever observed swimming so far inland – nearly 500 kilometres from the ocean!

But Indigenous knowledge says differently. Local rock art of a sawfish, or kunpulu, suggests Lisa's ancestors had seen the fish already. Ursula Chubb, a Gurindji ranger, monitors the rock art site.

"When we go out on country trips with Elders, they talk about it, and I listen to them telling us stories," she says. "It's a very important fish from long ago, when our ancestors were living in this country."

Lisa says she never dreamed she'd see a live kunpulu. "I'd just heard about the sawfish in the rock painting ... I wasn't thinking I would catch one."

Tracking a language

Kunpulu’ means ‘sawfish’ not just in Gurindji, but in many other Aboriginal languages too, even those spoken hundreds of kilometres from Gurindji Country.

Dr Felicity Meakins from the University of Queensland has studied Aboriginal languages for more than 20 years. She says different words tell their own stories, and she uses these stories to learn about changes over time.

“You can use different languages to trace the path of the fish,” says Felicity. “I would guess at some point this fish
has appeared, and people have said, ‘This is a stranger in our country. What’s this?’ And they’ve asked more northern people … and that’s how that word kunpulu has been passed along.”

Solving the mystery

We don’t know when Gurindji people first saw sawfish, but with ochre samples from the rock art, we hope to be able to solve the mystery. Scientists have also  taken DNA samples from Lisa’s sawfish to help work out how many sawfish are in the river.

“We’re using Indigenous ecological knowledge and Western knowledge to build up a picture of what’s happened with the sawfish,” Felicity says.

Endangered wonders

Sawfish once lived around the world, but are now endangered. Baby sawfish are born in the ocean, at the mouth of rivers such as the Northern Territory’s Victoria River or Western Australia’s Fitzroy River. The pups swim upstream, spending years growing in the river before swimming out to the ocean. Adults can reach up to seven metres long.

Sawfish are related to sharks and are technically a type of ray. They use their saws to detect the heartbeats of their prey, and also to stun fish and defend against predators.


(This article was first published by Double Helix magazine [Issue 26, 1 September 2018] and is reproduced with the kind permission of CSIRO Publishing.) 


Sawfish feature Double Helix magazine

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University