Australian Aborigines (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINES. Australian Aborigines are believed to have first arrived in northern Australia forty to sixty thousand years ago. They gradually spread throughout the continent, adapting to a vast range of environments from coastal tropics to inland desert, from temperate grasslands to mountainous highlands and riverine plains. In view of the diversity of plant and animal resources available in such a variety of settings, it is difficult to generalize about Aboriginal food, diet, and cooking practices. Nevertheless, some fundamental features were common to virtually all of the five hundred "tribes" or language groups believed to have been living in Australia at the time of European settlement at the end of the eighteenth century.
Aborigines practiced a highly mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle, moving frequently from place to place in accordance with seasonal availabilities of food resources. At the same time, they manipulated the environment in such a way as to favor certain species of flora and fauna. Their management of the land and its resources included setting light to dry grass and undergrowth in specific areas at certain times of the year in order to drive out small animals that they could easily capture. This practice has since been termed "firestick farming." It had a secondary benefit in that the new green growth which followed rain attracted small marsupials and other animals to the area, thus ensuring food supplies.
Typically, men hunted large game such as kangaroos and emus, and speared, snared, or otherwise procured smaller animals (opossums, bandicoots), birds (wild ducks, swans, pigeons, geese), and fish. Men tended to operate individually, while groups of women and older children collected plant foods (fruits, nuts, tubers, seeds), small game such as lizards and frogs, and shellfish. There were variations to this pattern; around coastal Sydney, the principal food-gathering task of women was fishing, and men also collected vegetables. The relative contributions of men and women to the communal meal varied according to season and location, but women's gathering activities could provide from 50 to 80 percent of a group's food. The time taken to collect a day's food varied similarly, but rarely would it have occupied the whole day.
The Aboriginal diet was far from monotonous, with a very wide range of food resources exploited. In northern Australia, thirty different species of shellfish were
Tools were basic: a digging stick for women, spear and spear thrower for men. Fish, birds, and small game could be caught in woven nets or in conical basket traps. Many Aboriginal groups used lines, with crude shell or wooden hooks, to catch fish; alternatively, fish traps were sometimes constructed in rivers and along the coast to entrap fish, or temporary poisons were placed in water-holes to stun fish or bring them to the surface.
Food Distribution and Taboos
Complex rules determined food sharing arrangements. Men were usually treated preferentially in the distribution of game, with the hunter distributing the various portions among his male relatives who might then pass some to the women; if the hunter himself had a share it was an inferior cut. Offaleart, liver, kidneys, brainsended to be particularly prized, and often went to senior men. Women's gathering was for themselves and their immediate family rather than for the whole group, and there were certain plant foods that men apparently ignored.
Because of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs that people, plants, animals, and, indeed, the land are all part of a system created by ancestral spirits, all united and having equal rights to the resources of the country, totemic relationships existed between human and nonhuman species. The rules governing these relationships varied; for some groups killing and eating the totem was always taboo, while for others it might have been prohibited only at specific times or in special ceremonies. Thus some language groups of Aborigines may not have eaten emu while neighboring groups did.
Particular taboos, usually involving animal foods, applied to women during pregnancy or lactation, to young girls at their first menstruation, and to young boys at the time of their initiation. Wallaby and two species of bandicoot were sometimes forbidden to girls, because they would cause premature puberty, and to young boys, because they would favor brownish rather than black beards. Some foods, such as bitter tubers, were prohibited to children but sweet foods, such as plant galls and the edible gums that exude from kurrajong and other trees, were regarded as special treats and preferentially left to the young.
Food Preparation and Cooking
Many fruits and nuts and a few plant foods could be eaten raw and did not require cooking, but generally roots, bulbs, and tubers were roasted in hot ashes or hot sand. Some required more or less lengthy preparations to improve their digestibility or, in some cases, to remove bitterness or leach out quasi-poisonous components. In the central Australian desert, Aborigines relish the honey sucked from the distended bellies of underground worker ants; in effect, these "honey ants" serve as live food stores for other worker ants.
The principal means of removing toxins were pounding, soaking, and roasting, or a combination of any of these. One particular variety of yam, Dioscorea bulbifera, was subjected to a series of treatments to remove bitterness. First it was scorched to shrivel the skin, which was removed; then it was sliced and the slices coated with wet ashes and baked in a ground oven for twelve hours or more, and the ashes were then washed off before eating.
The kernels of the cycad palm (Cycas armstrongii), highly toxic in their unprocessed state, were treated by pounding, soaking in still or running water until fermented, and pounding again between stones to produce a thick paste that was cooked in hot ashes, sometimes wrapped in paperbark, yielding a kind of damper or bread.
Aborigines did not have sophisticated cooking equipment; basic culinary techniques included baking in hot ashes, steaming in an earth oven, or roasting on hot coals, this last method typically used for fish, crabs, small turtles, and reptiles. Oysters, too, were often cooked on hot coals until they opened, but in northern Australia large bivalves were "cooked" by lighting a quick fire on top of the closely packed shells arranged on clean sand, hinge side uppermost.
Cooking in hot ashes was the most common method of preparing tubers, roots, and similar plant products including yams (Dioscorea spp.) and the onion-shaped tubers of spike rush (Eleocharis spp.), both of which were important foods for Aborigines in northern Australia. Witchetty grubs (Xyleutes spp.) and similar grubs from other trees were also cooked in hot ashes, if not eaten raw, as were the flat cakes, commonly called dampers, made from the seeds of wild grasses such as native millet (Panicum sp.). The relatively complicated preparation involved threshing, winnowing, grinding (using smooth stones), the addition of water to make a paste, then baking in the ashes. Seeds of other plants, such as wattles (Acacia spp.), pigweed (Portulaca spp.), and saltbush (Atriplex spp.), as well as the spores of nardoo (Marsilea drummondii), were treated similarly.
Earth ovens were essentially pits, sometimes lined with paperbark or gum leaves, heated with coals or large stones previously heated in a fire. Foods to be cooked were placed in the oven, covered with more paperbark, grass, or leaves and sometimes more hot stones, then enclosed with earth or sand. Roots and tubers were sometimes placed in rush baskets for cooking in an earth oven, and when clay was available, such as near the edge of a river, fish were enclosed in clay before baking.
Large game such as kangaroo and emu was gutted immediately after killing and carried back to camp where the carcass was thrown onto a fire for singeing. After the flesh had been scraped clean, the animal was placed in a pit in which a fire had previously been lit to supply hot coals, covered with more hot coals plus earth or ash or sand, and baked. The cooking time depended on how long hungry people were willing to wait.
When special occasions such as initiation brought large numbers of Aborigines together, it was essential that food resources in the vicinity of the meeting place were both adequate and reliable. Ceremonial foods, therefore, were less associated with particular qualities than with seasonal abundance. In the mountainous regions of southern New South Wales and Victoria, bogong moths (Agrotis infusa) were profuse and easy to collect in late spring and summer, and at this time Aboriginal groups converged in the mountains where ceremonies took place. The prevalence of shell middens suggests that shellfish provided ceremonial sustenance in coastal areas. In Arnhem Land (Northern Territory) cycad nuts were plentiful at the end of the dry season, when travel was still possible, and the kernels, once heated to remove toxins, were ground to yield a thick paste, and subsequently baked in the ashes to serve as a special ceremonial food for men participating in sacred ceremonies and forbidden to women and children unless authorized by older men.
Many Aborigines today have lost touch with their foods and foodways, preferring instead the convenience of Western-style foods. Nevertheless, recognition of the health benefits to Aborigines of their traditional diet has resulted in active encouragement of hunter-gatherer practices, even if only to supplement store foods. In many areas, Aborigines have special hunting and fishing rights for species that are otherwise protected or subject to limitshough today their hunting typically involves firearms rather than clubs and spears.
See also Hunting and Gathering; Pacific Ocean Societies.
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Crawford, I. M. Traditional Aboriginal Plant Resources in the Kalumburu Area: Aspects in Ethno-economics. Perth: Western Australian Museum, 1982.
Isaacs, Jennifer. Bush Food: Aboriginal Food and Herbal Medicine. Sydney: Weldons, 1987.
Low, Tim. Bush Tucker: Australia's Wild Food Harvest. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1989.
Meehan, Betty. Shell Bed to Shell Midden. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1982.
Rose, Frederick G. G. The Traditional Mode of Production of the Australian Aborigines. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1987.
Stewart, Kathy, and Bob Percival. Bush Foods of New South Wales: A Botanic Record and an Aboriginal Oral History. Sydney: Royal Botanic Gardens, 1997.
Zola, Nelly, and Beth Gott. Koorie Plants, Koorie People: Traditional Aboriginal Food, Fibre, and Healing Plants of Victoria. Canberra: Koorie Heritage Trust, 1992.