As well as being the largest continent in the Oceania region, it is also the biggest island and home to some of the very first settlers in Oceania - the Aboriginal people.
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Map of Australia featuring a gum leaf, 1907
The oldest settlement so far recorded in Australia is radiocarbon dated to about 50,000 years ago. This settlement around Lake Mungo is where humans camped around inland lake shores and dined on fish, shellfish, emu eggs, small marsupials and - almost certainly - a range of wild seeds, roots and fruits.
Material uncovered by erosion at Lake Mungo
The first human remains found at Lake Mungo are all homo sapiens - the modern human type to which present-day black and white Australians all belong. More than this, the remains are among the oldest of this type in the world.
Postcard of Family Hut, Australia, 1909
The first archaeological discovery at Mungo, in 1969, was a skeleton of a female who had been cremated and placed in a small pit. This cremation is dated to about 24,000 B.C. Other burials in the Mungo region are of bodies laid out flat and not burned, but all have some kind of goods with them in the grave.
These goods include stone tools, shells and animal seeds. At this time, we do not know the beliefs of the mourners who made these offerings, however, their presence most probably recorded a complex set of beliefs about the spiritual world. It seems likely, that aspects of the "Dreaming", the all-encompassing historical and cosmological structure that is a cornerstone of modern aboriginal life were already present all those years ago.
Although there were variations in the customs and skills of the hundreds of different Aboriginal tribes across Australia, all lived in equally close community with their environment. The Dreamtime, the Aboriginal's spiritual guide, encouraged their intimate involvement with the landscape, whether their home was on the lush coastal plains or in the harsh interior. They knew what to eat, how to prepare it, where and when to find it and, most important, how to protect their resources for the future. What the elders knew about survival, they passed on by example, legend and ritual.
Nature As Provider
The abundance and variety of foods available differed from place to place and season to season, but for the Aboriginal food and resources were bountiful. Almost everywhere could be found edible tubers and roots, leaves, pods, seeds, nuts, berries and fruit. Eggs were taken from emus, bush turkeys and mallee fowl, geese and mutton birds, and, in the north, from turtles and crocodiles. Kangaroos, wallabies, possums, small marsupials and rodents were widely available, as were lizards snakes and frogs. Birds flew over most of the continent, including the arid interior, and often flying foxed would be plucked, still asleep, from their branches. It is understandable with such a variety that Aboriginals found it unnecessary to form and cultivate their own food. The Aboriginals continued to hunt and gather while farming was being practised by tribes in New Guinea and Indonesia. It has been differences like this which have made the Aboriginal of such great interest to anthropologists.
Stranded whales provided occasional feasts
For the coastal tribes where were fish, crayfish and other crustacean, and shellfish such as cockles, pipis, oysters and clams. Stingrays, dugongs, turtles and crocodiles abounded in the north and seals were taken from southern waters. Stranded whales provided occasional feasts for tribes along the east coast. The inland rivers, streams and lakes provided mussels, crayfish, eels and freshwater fish. Murray cod and golden perch, both highly valued catches of today's angler, were bill of fare especially for Aboriginal tribes living near Lake Mungo in western New South Wales 30,000 years ago. Lake Mungo died up 15,000 years ago and the tribes moved on to nearby rivers or changed their diet to meet the new circumstances.
The Australian kangaroo
Whether their prey walked, swam, flew or simply crawled it made no difference. Insects such as the sweet honey-pot ant and the larvae of other insects were often consumed on the sot. Witchetty grubs, the larvae of various wood-boring insects, were dug out from the roots and trunks of trees, eaten raw or lightly toasted over a fire. The harvesting of rare seasonal insects, like the Bogong moth (recently a common sight in urban areas on the east coast) was cause for celebration.
Pick and choose
When conditions were favourable, Aboriginals were able to choose their diet. Although meat was abundant throughout the continent, 80 per cent of the Aboriginal's diet was comprised of plant foods. Some foods were certainly preferred to others and not all potential sources were necessarily used. The dugong, for example, a huge marine animal, was hunted only by a small number of northern tribes. Similarly, more than half the plant species used as food in central Australia also existed in the north but were not used for food. Preferences for particular foods were governed to some extent by the nature of each tribal territory's environment.
The honey-pot ant with its stomach full of honey
In the arid centre, dominated by spinifex and other grasses, small mammals such as curos (wallaroos), rock wallabies, bilbies, echidnas, rodents, reptiles and birds defined the extent of a meat diet. Stale foods included the starchy tap root, either boiled or baked, seeds from the succulent weed, mulga and native millet, ground and baked to make a bread or cake, and fruits, particularly sweet wild tomatoes, rich in vitamins. Sweet quandong or native peach made the perfect accompanying salad. Along the coast and rivers both land and aquatic fare were numerous though often seasonal. The taller vegetation in these areas gave good cover for larger game such as emus, kangaroos and wallabies, but despite an abundance of large game, plants still formed the bulk of the diet.
Hunting and gathering perfected
The Dreamtime not only showed Aboriginals their culture, it gave them the skills to protect themselves and their culture. It showed them how to hunt and how to use their environment for their survival. The adventures of their forebears gave them the times and places in which to hunt and gather. When the rains came in the north, fish and other aquatic life were prolific, as were birds, such as geese and brolgas which flocked to the swelling creeks to breed and feed. They knew when to fish and knew that when the mangrove crabs started moving from their holes to higher ground or termites changed their mound-building behaviour, bad weather was on the way. The appearance of certain blooms indicated a change in the season and heralded changes in the types of food to be had. When the Aboriginal hunted he carried only what he needed, in fact he possessed only what was needed to satisfy his earthly and spiritual needs.
His tools were crafted and made to strict specifications that were never written down but nonetheless were blueprinted. Marsupials were commonly hunted with spears, clubs and throwing sticks, nets and pitfalls. Reptiles, rodents and insects were excavated with digging sticks. Fishing tackle consisted of spears, nets and traps.
Economical, efficient and effective
As with everything the Aboriginal did, he hunted in the most economical way. Nineteenth century explorer, the one-time governor, Edward John Eyre, once described the Aboriginals as 'indolent by disposition' citing as evidence the fact that an Aboriginal rarely travelled more than 13 or 14 kilometres a day and did so in a leisurely fashion.
The Aboriginal, unlike the European settler or explorer, did not wait for the eleventh hour to find his food and water, and did not, as Eyre describes, seek for food and water when his mind was excited and anxious from apprehension. Aboriginals' adaptation to the environment affected the structure of their society. When times were bad, the extended family or the tribe would disperse, therefore not straining the resources of one area. It was also easier for the smaller unit to move in search of whatever food was available.
Aboriginals living in arid regions were far more nomadic than the coastal Aboriginals. By recognising each other's territory and straying into another's territory only when food was plentiful, they assured a natural balance was maintained. Similarly, the amount of land occupied by a tribe was dictated by the abundance of food and the size of the tribe; where food sources were limited a tribe would be assigned enormous areas of land in which to hunt and gather food. It has been reported that today's Aboriginal women never having been brought up in the traditional ways marvel at the skills used by their elders to prepare food. To collect seeds, separate the seed from the husk, then grind the seeds and make bread is a task requiring enormous dexterity. But for traditional Aboriginal women, sitting around a small fire, cooking was not a chore but a time to sing and instruct the young.
Flesh was usually cooked very lightly, on the coals of an open fire, sometimes earth ovens - filled with heated stones - were used, particularly for the roasting of whole emus and kangaroos. The latter were more commonly singed all over then cut into pieces for distribution. Flavourings for meat or seafood included many types of leaves, berries and fruit.
The first day
It was first thought that Australia's Aboriginal culture dated back only 10,000 or 12,000 years. One turn-of-the-century geologist estimated that Aboriginals had occupied Victoria only 400 years previously. Investigations by anthropologists now confirm that a more accurate date is 40,000 years ago. Continuing research may prove that Aboriginals first set foot in Australia even earlier.
Theories abound but it is generally accepted that Aboriginals entered Australia from the Indo-Malaysian mainland via New Guinea taking advantage of the land bridges which stretched most of the way through Asia. These land bridges were exposed during the ice ages, the Pleistocene epoch, when water levels dropped hundred of metres. New Guinea and Cape York Peninsula were once joined by the Sahul Shelf.
The first days in the continent were initially made easy as vegetation of the tropical north was common to the Indo-Malaysian region. Thus Aboriginals could support themselves on familiar foods using existing knowledge and tools.
Plants with Indo-Malaysian affinities constitute about 25 per cent of the northern Australian flora but comprise more than half of the food plants recorded as being used by Aboriginal people. Native foods were gradually incorporated into the diet as Aboriginals explored.
Forty thousand years ago Australia was inhabited by giant animals, those creatures which are at once mythical but too strange not be real, like the horned turtles, the giant goannas and the carnivorous marsupial 'lion', Thyacoleo carnifex.
These lumbering animals had ranged freely over the grassland for so long because of the absence of such an efficient hunter as man. Until the end of the Pleistocene epoch 10,000 years ago, migration to Australia is thought to have been constant but with the final ice melt, water levels rose to their current height and the Aboriginals of Australia and Tasmania were isolated and left to rely on the bounty of their chosen territory.
Plant food, fruit, berries and sweet tomatoes were usually eaten raw but if food was being preserved for use on treks or during lean times, they were soaked or pounded into a paste before being dried.
Map showing Aboriginal tribal areas
Roots and tubers, like yams, were generally baked in ashes. Babies were fed on cooked and softened fruits, roots or corms. Regional specialties served to children included coconut flesh, bush bananas, seafood and witchetty grubs. Until a child could chew properly, meat was masticated before being given to them.
An end to the Garden of Eden
The impact of the European colonisation of Australia on this harmonious existence has been well documented. The spread of settlement and land cultivation produced a rapid deterioration of the environment. Incursions were made upon traditional hunting and gathering grounds and food supplies were depleted as natural habitats were removed or irreparably altered. The placement of Aboriginals on government settlements and mission deprived them of their traditional sources of physical as well as spiritual nourishment. Standards of health deteriorated appallingly: malnutrition and associated conditions became widespread as dependence on the white man's flour, sugar and alcohol increased. Infant mortality was high and introduced diseases also took their toll. Since the 1970s, and allied in part to the rising demand for land rights, there has been an increasingly strong movement for Aboriginals to take charge of their own destiny. Today, many Aboriginal health care services attempt to promote improved lifestyles but take account of traditional patterns of existence. One example is the development of 'country camps' or outstations on former tribal lands where the combination of traditional and European practices has produced dramatic improvements in physical and mental health. Experiments include irrigation to increase the supply of traditional food plants near the settlements.
Other than for its anthropological significance, the Aboriginals' knowledge of the land was little investigated for more than 100 years of European settlement. The lives of many explorers were saved by survival tricks imparted to them by inland Aboriginals, but their bush wisdom was of little more than curiosity value for most Europeans. One of the few Aboriginal foods that has been commercially exploited is Queensland's macadamia nut, Macadamia integrifolia, though even this has been its greatest cultivation in Hawaii rather than on its native soil.
Visitors to traditional tribal lands, some of which are national parks and reserves, are now able to learn aspects of the ancient bush lore which allowed Aboriginals to live comfortably in an apparently inhospitable land.