Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Food Storage

In the Darling Basin and central Australia food storage was practiced, either in skin bags or wrapped in grass that was coated with mud. One seed store in central Australia was found that held 1000 kg in 17 large wooden dishes about 30 cm deep and 1.5 m long. Bunya nuts were stored by burying. Cycad seeds were sliced, wrapped in paperbark and placed in grass-lined 6-m long trenches that were filled with soil. It is believed these cycad storage trenches were the largest storage of food in Aboriginal Australia. 

In Cape York the people sometimes stored water lily tubers and yams by simply piling them up. The yams needed to be processed, as with cycad seeds, to leach out the toxins before eating.

It is believed that long-term food storage in Australian conditions may have been one reason why large-scale cultivation wasn't practiced in Australia. In the tropical north the high temperature and rainfall that was strongly season caused problems with food storage. Another problem for the Aboriginal People was the lack of containers that could be used for boiling.

An unexpected find in the area near Lake Victoria in New South Wales, where the Aboriginal People had taken advantage of the ability of freshwater mussels to live for as long a several months buried in damp sand. A store of 360 mussels was found in a sand dune that had been stacked in layers, and examination found that they had been living when stacked in the sand that would have been damp at the time, no doubt to be taken out as required.

Another type of food storage in areas where food was not always readily available, as in the arid and semiarid areas of central Australia, and where the heat made it difficult to accumulate any stores, was the storage of living animals, a refuge area. In some particularly favourable places such as around the permanent water of rockholes or soaks in dry river beds, they didn't hunt the animals, and in some cases even moved kangaroos into these refuge areas. These were their drought stores, only to be hunted when there were too few animals outside the game reserve. Some of these reserves are at Partjar in Clutterbuck Hills and the Finke River at the Hermannsburg Mission, to the west of Alice Springs.

The people of the Western Desert could store some plant food if they wanted to, but some, such as quandong fruit, are usually available on the ground, having sun-dried naturally. They are an important nutritious food source in drought, having twice the vitamin C content of an orange. Quandong trees tend to grow around old Aboriginal camp sites. In some places water has been diverted into channels to water the plants. This has also been found in northern Australia.

In desert areas of Australia some plant foods were stored. Solanum and wild fig fruit were stored in balls of ochre the size of a basket ball which were hung from trees.

A system of taboos encouraged the restraint of taking both plant and animal food, this avoided the overexploitation of any particular food source. The eating of emu was not allowed until manhood in some places such as the southern highlands and on the central reaches of the Murrumbidgee River.

Explorer Charles Sturt commented "This evidently is a law of policy and necessity, for if the emus were allowed to be indiscriminately slaughtered, they would soon become extinct". (Flood 2004). The eating of emu eggs was forbidden among the Walgalu of the Tumut Valley, presumably to conserve the emus which seem not to have been very common in the area.

A lot of rituals were connected with the maintenance and increase of the food plants and animals, that involved long, complex 'increase ceremonies'. The Aboriginal People believe that re-creating the founding drama renews the life force of living things and ensures the fertility of human as well as non-human animals. About 20 % of the plants in central Australia have increase ceremonies and songs associated with them. Men and women each have their own set of species they are required to take part in increase ceremonies for. It is in these ceremonies that succeeding generations are given the knowledge of the location of available water sources and plants, and about the behaviours of animals they hunt for food. In pre-literate societies all knowledge is transmitted in stories, art, songs and ceremonies, as well as example and experience. A number of scientists have collected what they could of this knowledge before it lost.

Sources & Further reading

Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J.B. Publishing, 2004


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 30/09/2011

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