The Aborigines have lived in Australia for approximately 40,000 to 60,000 years. Traditionally, hunters and gatherers, a small percentage were still living this traditional lifestyle as recently as the 1970s. During the late 1970s and early 1980s I lived and worked at the Papunya Aboriginal Settlement, 275 kms west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Near the geographical center of the continent, Papunya and Central Australia generally is fairly dry, and plants are sparsely scattered over the land. In olden times (yirriti) Aborigines relied on hunting animals and eating seeds and roots of plants for survival.
Before the arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s, the Aborigines were successful hunters and gatherers. They lived off the land by understanding plants, animals, and natural resources. Aborigines continue to feel that they have a special relationship with the land.
The Europeans brought a new, unfamiliar way of life to the Aborigines. The European colonists established permanent
The Aborigines ate simple, balanced diets prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the late 1700s. Their diets contained meat and fish, as well as fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Honey was a popular sweetener, gathered from the hives of native bees found among the rocky crevices or in muddy riverbanks. Aborigines used many different ways to find the beehives. According to legend, an Aborigine hunter would catch a bee, and carefully attach something, such as a tiny fragment of a feather or a blade of grass, to it. This would help the tracker see the bee, and would also slow its flight slightly. The hunter would follow the bee back to its hive.
Native plants and animals the Aborigines ate became known as bush tucker (or bushfoods —bush is the term Australians use for natural territory or wilderness, and tucker is another name for food). Bushfoods—native and wild foods—became a national industry in Australia in the early 1980s. There were bushfood restaurants, growers, and packagers of the popular native Australian foods. This industry expanded well beyond the early bushfood industry—macadamia plantations—of the late 1800s.
Bush tucker varies depending on the region, climate, and season. Kangaroo, emu, and possum are available all year round and are popular meat choices among the Aborigines. Other meats, such as lizards, frogs, and turtles, are most often enjoyed during the summer. Seafood is also a common meal, particularly in communities along the seacoast. In the mountains of New South Wales, the Aborigines may feast on moths, which are rich in fat. The deserts of central Australia are home to witchety grubs (larvae) found in the roots of acacia bushes. The larvae, which are high in calories, protein, and fat, were once staples in the Aboriginal diet. Other insects in the traditional Aboriginal diet are bees, ants, and termites. Native edible plants include yams, onions, spinach, tomatoes, berries, and grass seed. Roots of some other native plants are also harvested to eat. Seeds and flowers of the acacia were ground to make a kind of flour that could be mixed with water to make a simple cake.
Probably the most widely recognized bush tucker recipe is damper , a simple type of bread made of water and flour. Although the Aborigines originally baked this bread, it was the Europeans that gave it the name damper . Billy tea, named for the “billy” (pot) with a handle that is used for cooking over an open fire, is also popular. The billy is used to boil water for tea. Billy tea is now enjoyed by all Australians, both Aborigines and Europeans alike. When a sweet drink is desired, the water is sweetened with either honey or nectar collected from flowers. Some people also enjoy billy tea prepared according to the European custom of adding milk and sugar to the brewed tea, just before it is drunk.
- Billy pot (pot with handle, available at camping stores)
- Handful (2 or 3 Tablespoons) of loose tea leaves
- Small fire (or stove burner)
- Clean stick for stirring (wooden spoon or chopstick may be substituted)
- Drinking mug
- Sugar or honey (optional)
- Milk (optional)
- Fill billy pot ¾ full with water.
- Place the pot on a burner and heat the water to a boil. (The traditional method is to hang the pot over an open fire.)
- When the water is boiling, add the tea leaves.
- Remove the pot from the fire or stove.
- Stir leaves and water with stick (or wooden spoon).
- Let the mixture stand (steep) for a few minutes, allowing the tea leaves to settle to the bottom of the pot. (Traditionally, someone would swing the pot by its handle in a wide circle over his or her head, using centrifugal force to settle the tea leaves. A safer method is to use the stick to tamp—push down—the leaves to the bottom of the pot.)
- Pour the tea slowly into the drinking mug.
- Add sugar (or honey) and milk if desired for taste.
- 2 cups flour (not self-rising)
- Pinch of salt
- 1 cup water (or enough to make a stiff dough)
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Mix flour and salt together. Add water slowly until a stiff dough is formed.
- Pat the dough into a round shape on a greased baking sheet. Bake for one hour.
- To serve, break off pieces. Discard crust if too hard, and eat the soft center. (Traditionally, the Aborigines would bake the dough in the ashes of the fire. The crust, dirty with ashes, would be torn away.)
Damper (“Whitefella” Style)
- 2½ cups self-rising flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon butter
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 cup milk (or ½ cup powdered milk and 1 cup water)
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Grease and lightly flour a baking sheet.
- Mix flour, salt, sugar, and butter together in a bowl.
- Add milk and mix well. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes.
- Shape into a flat circle and place on the baking sheet.
- Bake for about 30 minutes. (Traditionally, balls of dough might be placed on rocks placed at the edge of a campfire to cook. Alternatively, wads of dough might be wrapped around the tip of a stick and held over an open fire to cook.)
Historically, Aboriginal males were responsible for hunting most animals, including birds, various seafood, and kangaroo. Larger animals, such as the kangaroo that is more challenging to catch, were often hunted by groups of hunters. Men used spears, harpoons, nets, traps, clubs, and even boomerangs for hunting wild creatures. Women tended to be responsible for the gathering of plants, shellfish, and insects. These gender roles continue today in traditional Aboriginal families.
Even when plants are plentiful, the Aborigines are careful not to waste. They use all parts of the plants, including seeds, roots, stems, leaves, and fruits. However, many plants require special preparation. Some are poisonous, others are tough, covered with prickly foliage, and most require washing, pounding, or grinding before they can be boiled in water.
Food preparation methods differ among regional groups, often depending upon climate. Food has often been cooked in the smoldering ashes remaining after a fire. Alternatively, food may be placed directly on top of glowing coals, boiled in water, or steamed in an oven-like pit in the ground. In the twentieth century, some Aborigines began to use modern products (such as aluminum foil) in traditional cooking techniques such as steaming. The billy (pot) introduced by Europeans is widely used by Aborigines to make cooking easier.
Historically, Aboriginal children begin caring for themselves at an early age. Most were given their first small spear before age four or five. Sons would follow their fathers to watch how they hunted and made tools. Daughters would learn how to gather foods and prepare meals from their mothers. Some Aboriginal families continue to follow the occupations of their parents.