Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Food Preparation - Poison                                                                                                       

The fruit of the cycad Macrozamia was exploited as an important food source in spite of its being highly toxic and carcinogenic. The Aboriginal People had developed methods of removing the toxins that allowed the cycad seeds to become a rich food source. Different groups had different methods of removing the toxins, but they all achieved the sand end, an edible, sustaining, fruit.

In 1 method the kernels are cut open and the toxins are leached out in water. When the process had been completed the kernels were ground into a powder like flower and backed to make cycad bread.

Other people used a method involving fermentation, leaving the kernels in large containers, or in some cases pits, where they remained for several months. They process is complete when the kernels have frothed or become mouldy.

However processed, the toxin-free cycad seeds are a rich food source, and they are produced in large numbers on each plant. It has been estimated that cycads can produce more food per Ha than many cultivated crops. The increase in area and productivity of cycads is an example of why the Aboriginal People could be called fire-stick farmers, not simply hunter gatherers, they used fire to remove competing plants from around the cycad stands. In fact, the cycad stands were not natural, they are an agricultural crop, though they weren't recognised as such until recent times. The Aboriginal People had learned that by regular burning of the area around the stands they increased the production of seeds much above the natural level. Burning could also be used to produce a heavy crop that ripened at the same time so they could be used as food source for the large gatherings at time of big ceremonial events, when a number of groups came together.

Cycads were used in this manner, providing food for large gatherings of hundreds of people at ceremonies that could continue for weeks or months, in Arnhem Land and the Carnarvon Ranges.

The processing of macrozamia  has apparently been known of since at least the late Pleistocene, evidence of processing having been found at a number of archaeological sites. Among the sites where evidence of exploitation of Macrozamia has been found are the Carnarvon Ranges, dated to 4000 years ago, Native Well I and II, dated to 10,000 years ago, Jiyer Cave in the north Queensland rainforest, dated to about 4000 years ago.

Evidence has been found at Cheetup Shelter, near Esperance in Western Australia, that cycad seeds were being detoxified in pits lined with grass-tree leaves in the Late Pleistocene. It has been suggested that the process of detoxifying the seeds may have developed independently in a number of areas, based on the fact that more than 1 process was used.

In the Blue Mountains area, at sites such as Noola and Capertree III, there was an increase in use from between 3000 and 4000 years ago, associated with the use of cycad seeds and the small tool tradition. The same is seen in the Carnarvon Ranges. At both places occupation occurred on a lower level prior to this time, possibly even intermittently.

Other foods

Concentrated sources of food occurred at the sites of the big rituals, such as the northern tablelands of New South Wales. Overall, this was not a good place for food, and it was cold and windy, but the area had a single major food item that was abundant, the mirr'n-yong or daisy yam (Microseris scapigera). In other places the tubers of this plant were heavily used by the Aboriginal People as food. As example is known of an eyewitness of the use of the daisy yam as seen by Governor Hunter in 1793 on the banks of the Hawkesbury River near Sydney. It was said that where the Aboriginal People had been digging these yams the land could look similar to a ploughed field. On the tablelands they probably also caught kangaroos with fixed hunting nets made from Kurrajong bark.

The daisy yam was another food source that the fire-stick farmers 'propagated' with fire, using the fire to expand the area covered by this plant.

Food Gathering - desert country

In the desert areas it was necessary for the people to camp in any given area for no more than a few days because the women soon gathered the available food within walking distance of the camp and the men hunt the animals, such as kangaroos, near the camp or water hole. The remaining kangaroos soon move to more distant feeding areas.

In his book (2) Mountford describes some of the food collection methods in the area of the Musgrave Ranges. There are a number of rocky hills separated from each other by open grassy flat areas. Euros live on the hills and are well adapted to the area, being coloured similar to that of the rocks, which make them difficult to see when they don't move. They are also very agile, moving around the rocks too fast for the men or their dogs to run them down. They shun the open spaces between the hills, only venturing out on the flats to move between hills. When they do so they tend to follow familiar paths. The hunters make use of this behaviour to hunt them. Some hunters wait along the path with their spears ready to throw while the remainder of the hunting party act as beaters, moving from the far side of the hill they are working on driving the animals to another hill along the known track by lighting the spinifex as they go. The spearmen make use of another behaviour of the euros, as well as other kangaroos. When they are being chased by a predator they tend to only keep track of the area in front of them and behind them, not noticing any potential threat to the side unless it moves. The men along the track wait motionless until a euro is in range, when they hurl their spear. The spear usually doesn't kill, but slows the animal down enough to be caught and killed.

The red kangaroos remain on the open plains, so another method is used to hunt them. As with the euros, they don't recognise threats that are not moving, so the hunters move a few steps closer every time the kangaroo lowers its head to feed, remaining motionless as soon as it raises it head to look around, making use of any tree or bushes to get as close as possible. They continue this slow process until within range of the spear. As with the euros, the spear slows the animal enough to be caught. They also hunt the red kangaroo along know tracks used by the animals travelling between favourite feeding areas, using the same methods as for euros, stationing men along the track while the rest of the hunting party disturb the feeding roos, shepherding them towards the track where the men are waiting with their spears ready to throw.

Food collected by women

While the men are hunting the larger animals the women gather other foods such as cereals, fruit and small animals. among the seeds they gather are munyelroo (a species of portulaca, acacias of various kinds, especially mulga (Acacia aneura), the desert kurrajong, and dig up various types of tubers and the roots of some trees.

They also collect the fruit of species such as wild peaches (Eucarva persicarius), wild oranges (Caparis mitchelli), figs (Ficus platypoda), black plums, and galls on mulga and bloodwood trees. 

Among the small animals they collected were lizards, bandicoots, snakes, rabbits, witchetty grubs and termites.

When collecting wongona seeds the women rake the seeds and dust into small piles that are placed in a wooden dish. The seeds and dust are placed on a flat rock or patch of hard ground. When enough have been collected they winnow the mixture until it is mostly seeds and the coarser sandy material that remains. The seeds are them place in a wooden dish that is rocked in a particular way, that Mountford says few men seem to be able to master. The result is that the clean seeds collect at the lower end while the rest moves to the higher end. The seeds are then placed on a bark sheet or hard ground then the process is repeated until they are satisfied that the seeds are as clean as they can be. The seeds are then ground into flour with a grinding stone, which is mixed with water, formed into a small cake, which is then buried in the hot sand and ashes of a camp fire until cooked. The result of all this work is a a small cake about the size of a saucer.

Under their system of division of work the food provided was the more reliable, the hunters were not always successful, and often had to travel long distances from the camp, which meant the women could always be depended on for keeping the group going until the hunters were successful, even though the  food they collected was not always plentiful or tasty.

According to Mountford, when a hunter brought a kangaroo he had caught back to camp he dropped it at the feet of one of the people then went and sat in the shade of a tree. The person the kangaroo was given to cooked it and distributed the meat to the rest of the group, keeping the favourite parts, the liver, heart and any other favoured bits. The hunter received the least favourite bits, the ribs, head and neck. When another hunter brought in food another day it would eventually be the donor's turn to receive the animal.

This system ensured that all the members of the group received a fair share of any food that was available. Mountford suggests there is a less obvious basis for the method of distribution of the food provided by the hunters. The old men are the custodians of the sacred knowledge and ceremonies, and control the enforcement of laws and customs. If the hunters decided who they presented their game to they would have the opportunity to gain power and favours from others, and could gain control that was usually held by the old, fully initiated men. A skilled hunter could gain control of the group, whatever his age. As the food distribution system worked the hunter had to be satisfied with gaining prestige as a great hunter, someone to be admired, but without the power to control the group.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J.B. Publishing, 2004
  2. Charles P. Mountford, Ayre's Rock, Its People, Their Beliefs and their Art, Angus & Robertson, 1966
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 15/02/2018


Aboriginal Australia
Anthropological History
Aboriginal History
Aboriginal Occupation Sites-Tasmania
Aboriginal physical type
Archaeological Sites
Birrigai Shelter
Fire-Stick Farmers
Genetic Evidence
H. erectus near Australia
Cloggs Cave
The First Boat People
Evidence from Lake George
Regional Continuity Theory
Social Organisation
Trade - Macassan Traders
Journey Back Through Time
Experience Australia
Aboriginal Australia
National Parks
Photo Galleries
Site Map
                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading