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Aboriginal Traditional Foods And An Alternative Australian History

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Photo by Bettina Richter
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Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt
traditional-aboriginal-foods
Photo by Kirsten Bradley
traditional-aboriginal-foods
Photo by Kimberly Beattie

Clockwise from top left: Bruce Pascoe; Kangaroo grass; Native millet; Yam daisy in flower; Yam daisy plant with harvested tubers.

traditional-aboriginal-foods
Photo by Harry Rose

What would happen if we taught our children that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people planted crops, tilled them, irrigated them, stored and preserved surpluses, built houses and sewed their clothes? Would the sky fall in? And why would we teach them such things? Because that’s what the explorers saw.

Charles Sturt’s exploration party of 1844 was saved from death when it chanced upon four hundred Aboriginal people harvesting grain on the Warburton River (South Australia), in what was to become known as Sturt’s Stony Desert. Sturt and his men were revived with cool well-water, roast duck and the best cakes Sturt had ever tasted. Once recovered, the party was offered a new house in the orderly town that lined the bank of the river.

Sturt’s saviours weren’t living on the bones of their behinds in hapless search for food; they had an organised agricultural economy. Sturt remarked on their obvious happiness, their civility and the wonders of the evening meal preparations, sauced with song and laughter.

What would happen if our children, black and white, were taught that this is how Aboriginal people lived?

Lieutenant Grey’s beleaguered exploration party of 1839 came upon a cultivated field on the Gascoyne River (Western Australia) that reached to the horizon. Next day he found another, and then another. The people were harvesting yam. Wide pathways and wells crisscrossed this massive enterprise.

Sir Thomas Mitchell looked longingly at the warm and dry houses of the people on the Gwydir River (Queensland) in 1835, as he and his party trudged through an Aboriginal township in pouring rain. Mitchell admired the size and comfort of the houses, but also the variety and pleasing aesthetics of the designs. He estimated a population of 1000. He passed through several similar villages in the following days.

The Gwydir River fisher people, and those of the entire Murray-Darling River system, were harvesting vfish in an intricate series of traps which were designed so that the catch of villages hundreds of kilometres upstream would not be impaired. Some scientists believe the traps at Brewarrina (New South Wales) are the oldest human construction on earth. Researchers are still trying to discover how these structures could withstand the enormous floods which the district experiences. It’s an engineering mystery: why haven’t we told our children?

Explorers found villages and stores of flour, grain and preserved fruit in almost every corner of the Australian continent. Some areas, such as Brewarrina and the stone fish traps and houses of Lake Condah (Victoria), used extensively engineered food procuration systems; others were more modest; but all had some features of the skills and organisation which are considered ‘modern’. Yet why do we still insist on labelling Aboriginal people as ‘hunters and gatherers’? Does this ease our consciences at having wrested the country from an advanced civilisation?

Anyone can discover these facts in the diaries of explorers and the first European squatters. Archaeologists have dated Aboriginal grindstones at 30 000 years. The next earliest to grind seed into flour were the Egyptians, 17 000 years ago. That makes the Australian Aboriginal people the world’s first bakers, and they did it 15 000 years before anyone else thought of it.

In realising obligations to the country and its entire history we will gain something to really celebrate together: the world’s oldest civilisation, the world’s first art, the world’s first bread, the world’s first civil government.

Aboriginal people are maintaining cultural heritage by celebrating their early agriculture and replanting traditional foods. When will other Australians notice?

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Photo by Kirsten Bradley
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Photo by Maxor Tamor
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Photo by Kirsten Bradley
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Photo by Syn-Ti Ng

Clockwise from top: Bruce Pascoe; Yam daisy grown by volunteers from MECCARG (Merri and Edgars Creek Confluence Area Restoration Group); Grinding native millet to make bread; Yam daisy seeds; Cumbungi.

traditional-aboriginal-foods
Photo by Bruce Pascoe

TRADITIONAL FOOD PLANTS

The following are some of the traditional foods cultivated by Aboriginal people.

Yam daisy, gooraman or murrnong Microseris lanceolata

Yam daisy or its cousin Microseris scapagiera were grown across wide areas of the country, but its stronghold was east and south of the Great Dividing Range, and in the south west corner Western Australia. Apart from the coastal varieties there is at least one alpine form.

Australians have done almost no research into plants cultivated by Aboriginal people. We rely on the science of Beth Gott and Annette Peisley and the planting regimens of our own people. Yam daisy is planted in deep trays in autumn, seed forms in late spring or early summer, and the crop can be harvested from September to March. The taproot grows very long, and so the plant needs deep friable soils.

Yam daisy tubers are about as big as your thumb and are translucent. They are incredibly flavourful, go well steamed (the traditional way) and stand up well to being cooked in curries. New plants can be purchased from Ceres Nursery in East Brunswick, Victoria; or an Aboriginal grower might sell seed or seedlings. There are plenty of things growers will learn about the plant, but Aboriginal people are restricted in how much we can say about it because, as with all Aboriginal foods, there is a sacred component to the knowledge.

We have almost half a hectare of ground growing yam daisy, and each season teaches us many practical lessons. Have a go yourself. The soils where it was grown in contact times were remarkable for their fertility and friability, which we believe were produced by the continuous cultivation by Aborigines and the plant’s own effect on the soil.

We’ve been trialling yam daisies for over five years in a variety of locations, soils and climates. The little tubers are an excellent backyard vegetable and, having seven times the nutrition of a potato, have not only become a wonderful addition to our diet but will become a natural product to present to the farmers’ markets and wholefood industry.

Native millet Panicum decompositum

We’ve also been experimenting with our native grains, and have baked around fifty loaves using native millet flour. We’ve tried a few recipes and have yet to perfect it. We’re searching local knowledge and historical records for clues to how Aboriginal people handled this grain, and their recipes for bread which explorers claim was the lightest and sweetest they had ever tasted.

The first loaves baked in recent times were by the Barkinji, Latji latji and Mutti mutti people at Lake Mungo in October 2015. We believe this was the first time the seed had been milled for 200 years.

The Gurandgi Munjie Food Company presented thirty loaves, using a similar recipe, to the Rootstock Festival at Carriageworks, Sydney in November 2015, to wide acclaim.

Kangaroo grass Themeda triandra

In the first weeks of December 2015 we harvested kangaroo grass, and have sent it off to be milled into flour. Our results from this experiment have massive implications for Australia. Kangaroo grass is a foundation species of native pastures and, if we can discover the growing and harvesting regimen practised by our ancestors, we have the potential to use the grass for two purposes: cropping and grazing.

Cumbungi (or bulrush) Typha species

Cumbungi has massive potential. The lower stem of this plant, when harvested in spring and summer, is the freshest, snappiest vegetable I’ve ever eaten. It’s perfect in a salad. The plant grows in fresh water, preferably with some inflow. There are two Australian species, and one introduced species, but all are similar in taste.

Explorers and early graziers noticed the plains south of the Murray River were covered in mountains of this harvested plant being steamed in giant ovens for the extraction of the starch which we believe was turned into flour.

It’s a national disgrace that so little effort has been devoted to this food, and so many of the staple agricultural plants of Aboriginal Australia. I think that this reflects settler Australian’s inability to admit how they came to possess the country: recognising Australian Aboriginal agricultural plants and practices is too close to admitting that the land was taken from a people with an active agricultural economy. It’s time we embraced the entire history of the continent.

It’s our responsibility to use the plants domesticated by Aboriginal people because they are adapted to our soils and our climate. If we continue to grow only those plants from different climate zones, we’ll exhaust the land and its water.

Learn to love the land you’re on.

Bruce Pascoe’s wrote Dark Emu. Black Grains: Agriculture or Accident (Magabala Books 2014). He won the Prime Minister’s award for young adult literature in 2013 with Fog a Dox (Magabala Books 2012), and his most recent novel is Seahorse (Magabala Books 2015)

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