Australian Aborigines: Living Off the Fat of the Land

Of all the peoples visited by Weston Price during his historic research expeditions of the 1930s, none elicited as much awe as the Australian Aborigines, whom he described as “a living museum preserved from the dawn of animal life on the earth.” For Price, the Aborigines represented the paradigm of moral and physical perfection. Their skills in hunting, tracking and food gathering were unsurpassed. Their social organization allowed for the schooling of children from a young age. A series of initiations for the boys were designed to instill both fearlessness and respect for the welfare of the entire tribe, and respect and care for a sizeable number of old people, for whom were reserved special foods that were easy to gather and hunt. Price’s photographs of Aborigines on their native diets illustrate dental structures so perfect as to make the reader wonder whether these natives were wearing false teeth. But like all the other primitive groups Price studied, the Aborigines soon succumbed to rampant tooth decay and disease of every type when they adopted the “displacing foods of modern commerce” – white flour and sugar, jams, canned foods and tea. Children born to the next generation developed irregularities of the dental arches with conspicuous facial deformities – patterns that mimicked those seen in white civilizations.10

The Australian continent provides plentiful animal foods – land mammals, birds, reptiles, seafood and insects – plus a bewildering variety of plant foods. Conditions were lush in the subtropical areas along the coasts, and extremely harsh in the desert interior. Nevertheless, bushmen of the arid regions exhibited the same robust good health as their brothers living in the coastal forests. Each clan stayed within its own prescribed area, except to participate in certain religious ceremonies or to share in particularly bountiful harvests of foods like shellfish or nuts. Coastal groups built more or less permanent shelters and moved as a group only to take advantage of certain seasonal food supplies. Desert tribes were more wandering; they had larger territories and moved about according to the location of water and game.

The men were responsible for hunting large game, birds and fish. They generally hunted the kangaroo in groups. A number spread out to herd the animals towards a net that they stretched across a pocket in the forest or brush near the animals’ feeding area. Another group concealed itself near the net to catch the game with spears or clubs. In open country, the animals were tracked and speared while they were resting in the shade of a tree during the hot part of the day.11 Smaller marsupials, such as the wallaby, paddy-melon, bandicoot and kangaroo rat, were also hunted. In the arid central regions, such small game has been replaced in part by rabbits. Echidna – the spiny anteater – is also hunted for its meat.

The Aborigines did not hunt at night, but extracted nocturnal animals such as possum and koala bear – both prized foods – from their daytime resting places in various ingenious ways. The Aborigines would first detect the presence of the animal by its smell, claw marks or droppings, and confirm its presence by inserting a stick or frond tipped with honey into the hollow tree or log serving as a lair. If hairs stuck to the honey, they knew the animal was there. They extracted it either by climbing a tree to drag out the animal or by smoking it out of its resting place.

Bats such as the flying fox and grey glider were so numerous in certain places that they blocked out the stars and moon when they flew. They were caught during the day as they slept in the scrub. Two or three people carrying about a dozen small clubs would climb trees where the bats were sleeping. Standing on branches, they would frighten the bats and throw the clubs at them as they flew away.

Reptiles such as goannas (iguanas), lizards, frogs and snakes also found a place in the Aboriginal diet, as did birds of all sizes – emus, turkeys, swans, ducks, parrots and cockatoos. To catch flying birds such as parrots, the Aborigines set nets across trees. Boomerangs were thrown above the flock. Thinking these were hawks, the birds dived down and were caught in the nets. In the summer, hunters would capture ducks by submerging themselves up to their necks in water holes, holding small branches to hide their heads. When a duck came close, the hunter would grasp its legs and drown it. Fish were speared or poisoned by adding certain poisonous plants to the water. When they rose to the surface, they could be captured by hand.

The great challenge for the Aborigine was to obtain enough dietary fat. They were close observers of nature and knew just when certain animals were at their fattest. For example, kangaroos were fat when the fern leaf wattle was in flower; possums when the apple tree was in bloom. Other signs indicated when the carpet snake, kangaroo rat, mussels, oysters, turtles and eels were fat and at their best.11 Except in times of drought or famine, the Aborigine rejected kangaroos that were too lean – they were not worth carrying back to camp.1 During periods of abundance “animals were slaughtered ruthlessly, and only the best and fattest parts of the killed game were eaten.”7 Favorite foods were fat from the intestines of marsupials and from emus.7 Highly saturated kidney fat from the possum was often eaten raw.5 The dugong, a large seagoing mammal, was another source of fat available to natives on the coasts.

Other sources of fat included eggs – from both birds and reptiles – and a great variety of insects. Chief among them was the witchety grub, or moth larva, found in rotting trunks of trees. These succulent treats – often over six inches long – were eaten both raw and cooked. Fat content of the dried grub is as high as 67%. The green tree ant was another source of valuable fat, with a fat-to-protein ration of about 12 to one. Another important seasonal food in some parts of the country was the begong moth. The moths were knocked off rock walls on which they gathered in large numbers, or smoked out of caves or crevices. They were roasted on the spot or ground up for future use. Moth abdomens are the size of a small peanut and are rich in fat.4

Weston Price consistently found that healthy primitive peoples consumed a diet containing at least ten times the fat-soluble activators – vitamins found only in animal fat – compared to the typical American diet of his day. These would be supplied in the Aboriginal diet by animal fat, organ meats of game animals (the entire animal was consumed, even the entrails) as well as insects, fish and especially shellfish, including lobster, crab, crayfish, prawns, snails, oysters, mussels, mud whelk, abalone, scallops, sea urchins and periwinkles. Shellfish are typically ten times richer in vitamin D than organ meats. Shellfish feeding on algae and insects feeding on green plants also would have supplied the Price Factor or Activator X (now believed to be vitmin K2), a potent catalyst for mineral absorption.10

The traditional role for Aboriginal women was that of gatherer. They were responsible for harvesting insects, shellfish and almost all plant foods. Most regions of Australia offered a cornucopia of nutritious plant foods, even the arid desert regions. The east coast of Australia alone boasts over 250 edible plants including tubers such as yams and grass potatoes, fern roots, palm hearts, legumes, nuts, seeds, shoots, leaves and a wide variety of fruits such as figs and berries.9 Some areas provided native millet in abundance. In the desert, the spinifex produced large quantities of seed at certain times of the year.

One of the most remarkable sources of food for the Aborigines in eastern Australia were the mountain bunya pines. Once every three years these huge trees bore enormous quantities of cones, the largest of which contain seeds about one and one-half inches long. Every third year, many tribes would travel to the Bunya Bunya festival – it was one of the few times when people were permitted to cross other tribes’ boundaries. The harvest was so plentiful that thousands of people could live for several weeks off the seeds. The nuts are described as having a delicious taste, something like chestnuts when roasted.9 The kernels were also pounded into a meal and baked in the ashes as a cake. The Aborigines stored bunya nuts by placing them in large cane baskets and burying them in a particular kind of mud. When exhumed – after many months of lying in the ground – the nuts had a very offensive smell but nevertheless were a popular food.11

Other trees that played an important role in Aboriginal culture included the many varieties of acacia, which provided flowers used in making sweet drinks, grubs collected from their trunks and roots and bark used as fish poison. Mangrove trees, which grew in freshwater swamps or “billabongs,” provided fruit and also harbored mangrove worms, fresh water oysters, bivalve mussels and crabs in their complex root systems. Salt was collected from their leaves.11 Gum trees or eucalyptus harbored grubs, beehives, koalas and possum, as well as tasty insect exudate called lerps. Even galls that formed on their trunks were eaten. Some flowers provided nectar used to make a sweet drink called “bool” by one tribe of Aborigines. The ribbon gum was a rich source of manna, a crumbly white substance with a pleasant taste, which exudes from the bark. As much as 40 pounds could be collected from trees in one day.6 Eucalyptus leaves were used to make herbal medicines while the gums were used to fill dental cavities.11 Melaleuca or paper bark tree flowers were used to make sweet drinks. More importantly, their bark was used in everything from cooking to canoe production.

Animal foods were generally cooked, either over an open fire or steamed in pits. Kangaroo, for example, was laid on a fire and seared for a short period, so that the interior flesh remained practically raw; at other times the kangaroo was placed in a large hole, surrounded by hot coals and sealed from the air. Sometimes food was wrapped in melaleuca bark. Flying fox was wrapped in the leaf of the Alexandra palm for cooking. When the foxes were cooked, the leaves were unwrapped, pulling off the skin and fur at the same time.6 Meat was sometimes tenderized by pounding before being cooked.

Plant foods required more careful preparation since many of them were difficult to digest and even poisonous. Aboriginal women spent many hours washing, grinding, pounding, straining, grating, boiling and cooking plant foods. Water was boiled in bark troughs or in large sea shells.6

Very often, the first step to the time consuming process of plant preparation was the “yandying” process, used by women to separate seeds from stalks and other impurities with which they had been gathered. The process looks deceptively simple but is, in fact, extremely difficult, “requiring deft movements and a great deal of skill.” The gathered seeds are placed in an elongated wooden dish called a “coolamon,” and the various objects of differing density or characteristics are separated from each other by “very intricate and skillful rotating and jiggling movements.”5

Fern roots formed a staple article of food in many regions. They were dug up, washed, roasted on hot ashes, then cut into lengths, pounded between a pair of round stones and eaten. Other types of fern roots were dried in the sun, lightly roasted to remove the hair rootlets, then peeled with the fingernails, chopped on a log to break the fibers, mixed with water and other ingredients and finally rounded into a lump for cooking. These fern root cakes were eaten with fish, meat, crabs or oysters. The grass potato is a palatable fibrous root that was roasted and then pounded between two stones before eating. Some foods, such as orchid pseudobulbs, were dried first, then ground up and mixed with water and cooked. Yams were dug out with a stick – sometimes from a depth of three feet or more – and prepared by crushing and washing them in water and cooking them in ashes.11

Many seeds are placed in “dilly bags” – leaching baskets – and set in running water for anywhere from a number of hours to many days – a process that served to remove anti-nutrients and toxins found in many seeds and legumes. The matchbox bean, for example, was soaked for 12 hours,6 while the jack bean was soaked several days before it was pounded, made into cakes and roasted.11 Seeds of the zamia, a spiky, palmlike plant, were dried in the sun, then put in a dilly bag and suspended in running water for 4-5 days. They were then crushed and pounded between two flat stones and ground into a fine paste. This paste was wrapped in paper bark, baked under ashes and eaten as cakes.6 Seeds of the pineapple palm were crushed into a flour, then washed in running water for a week, cooked in hot coals and eaten.11 Black beans were soaked in water for 8-10 days and dried in the sun. They were roasted on hot stones and pounded into a coarse meal. When this was required as a food, it was mixed with water, made into a thin cake and then baked again on hot stones.6

Nuts from the spiky panaanus palm, which cling to the rocky headlands in Eastern Australia, required six weeks treatment to render them safe for eating. They were converted into a tasty and nutritious nut bread which was also popular with the earliest European settlers.9 The Australian fauna provided many delicious and nutritious fruits throughout the year, particularly in the humid coastal regions. Some of these were eaten raw just after picking, while others were processed. The wild orange was picked just before it was ripe, then buried for one day during which it became very sweet. The wallaby apple was likewise ripened by placing it in the sand for a day.11 The taste of a type of wild plum improved after storing or burying for a couple of days.6 Fruit of the quandong, or native peach, was buried for four days.11 Dried figs were pounded into cakes and eaten with honey. Mangrove fruit was pulped, soaked and mashed through a basket.11

The Aborigines also used fruits like tamarinds and native lime to make refreshing beverages.11 An acid drink was made from the fruit of lawyer cane by squashing the fruit in water, and from breadfruit by soaking it in water.6 Certain flowers rich in nectar were gathered in the early morning and steeped in water. This was drunk fresh and also set aside to ferment.11 Some tribes pounded flowers in a wooden dish, then drained the liquid into another dish and mixed this with the sugary parts of honey ants. This mixture was allowed to ferment for eight to ten days and a brew was made to drink.6 Dried leaves of the red flowering ti tree were added to hot water to produce a tealike beverage.6

Of course, fresh, pure water was vital to the survival of the Aborigines, both in the subtropical coastal regions as well as in the arid interior. Inland Aborigines knew where water was located in the desert and except in times of extreme drought drank copious quantities of it. Researchers have found that “In one of the driest habitats on earth, these people use about twice as much water per unit of mass as Europeans in the same environment.”7 An adult Aboriginal male can drink almost three quarts of water in 35 seconds.7 During times of drought, water can be obtained from water-holding frogs and from certain plants.5

In the past, kangaroo skin water bags were used to carry quite large volumes of water. Paradoxically, these were not used in the driest areas, perhaps because kangaroos are relatively rare in the desert and the vital nutrients – particularly fat-soluble nutrients – are lost if this animal is not cooked in its skin.5 Up to a gallon of water could be carried in certain large leaves folded up in ingenious ways.

No studies of the Aboriginal peoples make mention of any special preparation of bones into pastes or broths, as is commonly found among other traditional peoples throughout the world. It has been reported that the Aborigines made lime by burning sea shells in a large fire which they kept burning for three to four days,3 which probably was used in food preparation. Insects eaten whole and ground up moths provided calcium, as did the many plant foods properly prepared to neutralize calcium-blocking phytic acid.

Neither the salty nor the sweet tastes were lacking in the Aboriginal diet. Salt was collected from leaves of the river mangrove and available from the salt flats in desert regions. Leaves of sodium-rich pigface were roasted and added to the diet.6 Certain rushes and sedges contained reasonable amounts of sodium, as well as seeds of the golden grevellea, some kinds of figs, the nonda plum and the bush tomato. Wild parsnip root and water chestnuts contain more than 4500 mg of sodium per 100 grams.8 Animal foods also supply sodium, especially blood and certain organ meats, goanna, shellfish, snails and worms.8 Seeds of the pepper vine were ground and used as a pepper6 and some aromatic leaves were also used in cooking.

For sweetness, the Aborigines loved honey. They distinguished between two kinds. One was white and very sweet, and always found in small dead hollow trees. The other was dark, more plentiful and of a somewhat sour taste.11 In the desert, the sweet taste came from eating the swollen abdomens of sugar ants. Tree gums were dissolved in water and mixed with honey to form sweets for children.3 Lerp, the sweet exudate found on certain trees, was collected and chewed or melted with warm water to form a jelly and eaten.11

Some writers have stated that the Aborigines practiced “no method of agriculture or animal domestication.”12 This is not exactly true. Occasionally, the Aborigine domesticated the wild dingo by raising and training the dogs from pups. These were of little help in hunting kangaroo but were useful in tracking and pinning the echidna and the goanna.

If the Aborigines did not practice agriculture per se, they did carry out the practice of land management, especially through the use of fire. Ethnobotanists are only beginning to appreciate the vital role that fire played in increasing the food supply of the Aborigines. Early explorers often reported Aboriginal land fires. Many of the important Aboriginal food plants require regular burning if they are to attain their maximum production. Some desert plants require more frequent burning than others, resulting in a “mosaic of plant communities in different stages of fire recovery.”5

Even the practice of abstaining from hunting and gathering in the area of sacred sites contributed to the overall ecology of the Aboriginal environment. Such sites served as sanctuaries for animal life. “These areas would. be vitally important for the long-term viability of an area as immediately after droughts they would be a source of plants and animals to restock depleted areas, thereby ensuring a more rapid recovery of the home range’s biota.”5

Another area of land management involved the creation of havens for insect populations. Oak trunks were pushed into the creeks and rivers to attract the toredo grubs.11 Sometimes wood was piled over half a meter high and almost two meters wide. This would be considered ready to harvest in a year’s time. The grubs were collected by women and old men. Aborigines also ringbarked candle nut trees to make the trunks rot. White grubs would feed on the decaying wood and were collected for food.6

The traditional diet of the Aborigine thus provided all he needed for excellent physical development, superb strength and stamina and overall good health. Like Weston Price, early explorers reported the Aborigines to be “well formed; their limbs are straight and muscular, their bodies erect; their heads well shaped; the features are generally good; teeth regular, white and sound. They are capable of undergoing considerable fatigue and privations in their wanderings, marching together considerable distances.”12 Many observers reported their great dexterity and acute eyesight, which enabled them to see stars that the white man can see only with the telescope, and animals moving at a distance of a mile, which civilized man cannot see at all.

An early Australian settler named Philip Chancy reported several examples of the extraordinary “quickness of sight and suppleness and agility of limb and muscle” in the Aborigines, including an Aborigine who stood as a target for cricket-balls thrown with force by professional bowlers at only ten to fifteen yards and yet successfully dodged them or parried them off with a small shield for at least half an hour. Other natives threw cricket balls at great distances, and outdid “the best circus performers by bounding from a spring board in a somersault over eleven horses standing side by side.”12

Nevertheless, the vast materia medica of the Aborigine indicates that he was not entirely free from aches and pains. Australian plants provided him with remedies for diarrhoea, coughs, colds, rheumatism, ear infections, toothache, upset stomach, headache, sore eyes, fevers, sores, rashes, hemorrhaging of childbirth, warts and ulcers – as well as for treatment of wounds, burns, insect bites and snake poison. Macfarlane studied Aborigines living in the desert almost entirely on native foods and found that every member of the tribe suffered from chronic conjunctivitis.7

The Aborigines also used herbs for contraception and sterilization, thus allowing them to space their children and prevent overpopulation.

The plight of the modern Aborigine who has abandoned his native diet is sad indeed. He is prone to weight gain, diabetes, TB, alcoholism and, of all things, petrol sniffing.

Many Aborigines recognize the need to return to native foods. Listen to the story of Daisy Kanari:

Long time ago when Aboriginal people lived on the good and healthy bush foods in the bush, they lived without any sickness: they lived a strong and healthy life. But now it is different. This is what we think: when we were children our parents looked after us and fed us on quandongs, witchety grubs, honey ants . rabbits and many more. These foods are good and it is what we grew up eating. We lived on these foods long ago and now we still do.

Then the Europeans came with their loads of food: of sugar, flour, milk, tea leaves and tins of meat. From then to now, people still live on European food. Today things are bad with petrol and alcohol. When our sons drink alcohol, they keep going and wander aimlessly. They do not come back to their mothers. Also with petrol: when children smell petrol over a long period of time, they die forever. Petrol and alcohol are bad things that have recently come into our country and lives.2

Some groups of Aborigines have returned to the bush – both in the desert regions and in reserves in coastal and mountainous areas. They may hunt with 22′s and carry water in buckets, but they have relearned the foodways of their ancestors. Some of their products have potential commercial value – from bean cakes and fermented drinks as snack foods, to insect powders as a nutritious food additive for both people and livestock, to medicinal preparations. Enlightened government policy would educate the Australian population as to the value of these items, and create a market for them, thus allowing the Aborigines to support themselves with dignity of purpose in their traditional lifestyle.

References

  1. Abrams, Leon, M.A. Personal communication
  2. Anangu Way, Nganampa Health Council, Inc. Alice Springs, Australia, 1991
  3. Crawford, I. M., Traditional Aboriginal Plant Resources in the Kalumburu Area: Aspects in Ethno-economics, Western Australian Museum, Perth, 1982
  4. Isaacs, Jennifer, Bush Food, Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Canberra, 1992
  5. Latz, P. K. Bushfires and Bushtucker: Aboriginal Plant Use in Central Australia, IAD Press, Alice Springs, NT, 1995
  6. Leiper, Glen, Mutooroo Plant Use by Australian Aboriginal People, Eagleby South State School, Eagleby 4207, 1984
  7. Macfarlane, W. V., “Aboriginal Desert Hunter/Gatherers in Transition,” The Nutrition of Aborigines in Relation to the Ecosystem of Central Australia, CSIRO, Melbourne, 1978
  8. Miller, Janette Brand, Tables of Composition of Australian Aboriginal Foods, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra ACT, 1993
  9. Nayutah, Jolanda and Gail Finlay, Minjungbal: The Aborigines and Islanders of the Tweed Valley, North Coast Institute for Aboriginal Community Education, Lismore, NSW, 1988
  10. Price, Weston A, DDS, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Keats Publishing, Inc., New Canaan, CT, 1939
  11. Symons, Pat and Sim, Bush Heritage, Pat and Sim Symons, Queensland 4560, 1994
  12. Arnold de Vries, Primitive Man and his Food, Chandler Book Co., 1952.

Copyright: © 1999 Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD. All Rights Reserved.  First published in Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation Health Journal Vol 22, No 2. (619) 574-7763.

One Response to Australian Aborigines: Living Off the Fat of the Land

  1. Ralph Havens says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. We are reading the Nutrition and Physical Degeneration and have been using the Nourishing Traditions way of eating and living we learned from Annie Dru. We’re excited to learn more and from what we see the information that the Aboriginal people have is among the absolute best.
    Thank you for this information,
    Ralph & Jen Havens
    Ralph Havens Physical Therapy
    Bellingham, WA
    http://www.ralphhavensphysicaltherapy.com

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© 2013 The Weston A. Price Foundation for Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts.