The Groote Eylandt Archipelago is a pristine set of remote islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria, home to both the Warnindilyakwa people and one of the biggest Manganese mines in the world. A number of traditional family groups reside in several permanent communities spread across the Archipelago and into mainland Numbulwar.
One of these communities lies in close proximity to the mining operation. In response to poor early childhood development outcomes in this community, the Anindilyakwa Land Council (ALC) sought independent scientific advice as to whether possible metals in the dust from the surrounding mining operation might be a contributing factor. Based on the established relationship between the Performance Lab and the ALC Land & Sea Rangers operation through the Quoll research, we were the natural partner for this project.
Manganese and other heavy metals are essential elements in human physiology but can be toxic at elevated levels within the body. Some reported effects of metal toxicity include motor control deficits and reductions in cognitive functioning. By measuring levels of metal in the body and performance in a range of motor and cognitive tests, we hope to investigate whether or not environmental pollutants are a health concern for the Anindilyakwa people.
Warnindilyakwa people traditionally transfer knowledge orally and grow-up predominantly speaking their local Aboriginal language - Anindilyakwa. Across the Groote Archipelago and Numbulwar at least four languages are spoken: Anindilyakwa, Wubuy, English-based-Kriol and English. Levels of literacy vary greatly across these communities, and many Indigenous locals are unfamiliar with Western research practices. This presents an interesting challenge in terms of communicating with the Warnindilyakwa people about the project and collecting data. With regard to communication, we created bilingual multimedia (see sections from our information video below) and utilise friendly local liaisons to help two-way exchange of ideas about the study. This has been an incredibly effective method, sparking informed conversations and has been essential to the success of the project.
Collecting biological samples can also be challenging in the Anindilyakwa context because of the local cultural belief system. So after some clear and simple conversations about removing ID labels and handling of samples, volunteers can decide if and how we collect their toenail and/or hair for metal analysis.
Volunteers also complete a few short tasks measuring cognitive and motor performance. Due to the unfamiliarity with mainstream research techniques, we discovered most traditional standardised tests aren’t effective because of the lack of cultural relevance and their inability to engage the local people, particularly kids. With this in mind we created some fun games on iPads/Tablets to measure the traits we are interested in.
See our blog for project updates & stories: