Insect, Animal and Plant Foods
WARNING: Many Australian native and introduced plants are poisonous and some are potentially deadly if eaten. In particular, people have died eating certain Australian mushrooms. Do not eat any bush food unless you have a proper knowledge of the plant, insect or animal you are about to eat.
A wide range of plants and animals were eaten by Australia’s Aborigines, and insect foods included certain ants, grubs, moths and beetles, while streams provided fish and eels (in some regions). Birds were eaten, including waterfowl, scrub fowl, the cassowary and the jabiru. The yellow fat of the goanna (a large Australian lizard) was considered a delicacy, and also smeared on the body to protect the skin from drying and cracking in the harsh sun.
When Europeans arrived in Australia, they had no understanding of Aborigines’ vast knowledge of local plant foods. In more than one instance, an early explorer gave the people food, only to have them return it. Some of the overland explorers, ignorant of local foods, perished of starvation, while Aboriginal people lived nearby.
The nature of bush tucker (bush foods) varies throughout the country. In the well-watered coastal regions and tropical north of Australia, a large variety of plant and animal species provides ample food for consumption. In the arid interior, where there is less variety of species, Aboriginal people were still able to find enough nourishment for survival, occupying every part of the continent.
Since people have adapted to European lifestyles over the past two hundred years, the traditional foods which required considerable preparation are no longer generally eaten. These include the soaking and cooking of cycad fruit (nuts) (which are toxic until the poisons are leached and cooked from the food) and the collecting of various seeds, with their subsequent grinding and cooking to make bush breads. (The modern version is damper, made from flour and water, cooked on coals). Knowledge and first-hand experience of the collecting and preparation of such foods is still retained by senior people, and has been recorded for posterity by anthropologists and modern-day Aboriginal families.
The following lists the range of bush foods available to Australians, and consumed by Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years:
(A) ABOVE-GROUND PLANT FOODS.
These include the fruit, nuts, seeds, stems, and fronds of different plants. Fruit include figs, lilly pillies, quandong, bush apples and plums. The billygoat plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana) of northern Australia has extraordinarily high levels of Vitamin C. Nuts include those of the cycad, pandanus and Macadamia. The seeds of acacias and various grasses were ground between two stones to produce flour which was mixed with water, made into dough, shaped into small bread cakes and cooked. The inner portion of Livistona palm fronds were eaten. The plants are referred to as cabbage tree palms because the edible parts taste like cabbage.
Edible bush tomatoes (genus Solanum) often grow beside dirt tracks in Central Australia.
Photo: David M. Welch
Native cucumber (Cucumis melo) which tastes similar to cucumber. The thin outer skin is not eaten. Central Australia.
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