The diet of Aboriginal people before European contact

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Hunter-gatherer lifestyle

Before European settlement Aboriginal people led a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Traditional Aboriginal groups had deep knowledge of their land, sources of water, and the affects of seasonal cycles on plant foods and game. Early explorers observed that people were lean and healthy.

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Dietary diversity

The Aboriginal diet was varied and rich in nutrients. The diversity of food supply was affected by geographical landform, climate and season. Most early observers described a variety and abundance of both animal and plant foods, even in the arid zone.

Division of labour

Foraging parties gathered enough food for their immediate needs and food was not often stored. Both men and women played an important role. Women hunted and gathered in groups (with the children) and provided highly reliable foods such as: small marsupials, shellfish, reptiles, insects, honey, eggs and plant foods. Men mainly hunted alone or in pairs for larger animals such as mammals, birds, reptiles and fish.

Meat in the diet

There is increasing evidence that in tropical, savanna, coastal and desert areas diets were meat orientated. Besides those foods mentioned above, other important animal sources such as eggs, frogs, honey ants and some grubs have also been recorded.

Plant foods

Vegetable foods provided an important supplement rather than an alternative to animal foods. Proportions changed throughout the seasons.

A few plant staples were eaten often. These included yams, bush tomatoes, fig and quandong fruits, corms of bush onion, wild orange truffles, gall nuts of the mulga apple or bloodwood apple and the seeds from some grasses.

Bush vegetables, seeds and fruits are very rich in vitamins and minerals. The green plum, for instance, has the highest concentration of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) of any known plant (1 000-5 300mg/100g). Seeds of acacia species are high in the essential oils, linoleic and oleic acids.

Meal Patterns

The quality and quantity of food consumed varied greatly from day to day. People generally subsisted and the diet was supplemented when larger animals were killed. Larger animals were shared among group members. During times when a lot of meat was available people ate large quantities at one time. It has been argued that these 'feasts' provided excess energy which was stored as fatty tissue to cover periods of relative shortage of food.

Children were breast fed until approximately three years of age. The age of weaning depended on the birth of the next child. Solids were introduced when the baby had teeth.

Food Preparation

There was minimal processing and storage of food, no overcooking, and no leaching of vitamins and minerals in cooking water. Many plant foods were eaten raw. Fruits, bulbs, nectar and gums were often eaten straight after picking. Some vegetables were cooked to make them taste better. Tree, grass and waterlily seeds were often made into a damper which was baked in hot sand and ashes.

Traditional law often influenced the way that animals were cooked. Meat was eaten rare, usually at one sitting and there was little wastage. Smaller animals were baked in hot sand and ashes, either directly or wrapped in bark and leaves. Large bones were broken and marrow extracted. Smaller bones were chewed or even pounded and eaten.

Food distribution

Foods were proportioned and distributed according to traditional law. Strict cultural practices were determined by kin obligations. Sharing food had a social purpose and was important to the strengthening of relationships. Distribution was also associated with ceremonies or 'righting a wrong'. In some areas older men received the choice cuts of meat and the remainder of an animal was distributed according to age and status.

Fat

The prime time for hunting or collecting was when animals were 'fat'. Although some animals such as witchetty grubs and green ants have a relatively high fat content, most land animals are very lean. Native animals have a much lower fat content than domesticated animals. The small, fatty deposits that were found in some parts of an animal were shared between many people.

Delicacies

Traditional diet was low in sugars. Honey ants, sugar-bag, other nectars and honey were considered delicacies and were highly prized.

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