Bush tucker and medicine

Bush tucker

Bush tucker is the name we give to the bush foods people are able to collect. Even in places where Indigenous people don’t live as they did in the old days, they often look forward to going out to hunt and collect bush foods. Many people talk about “going hunting” when they are collecting bush foods. Hunting allows people to stay in touch with the land and helps them stay healthy. These days they are likely to use rifles and fishing lines rather than spears and boomerangs, and cars and boats to get about.

Indigenous people often travelled across their lands in an annual cycle, following the foods that were in season. For example, in southeast Australia many coastal peoples would spend summer near the beach, collecting the foods that the sea produced. In winter they would move inland, away from the coastal storms, and look for other foods such as kangaroo and other animals.

Most foods are collected and eaten near where they occur, rather than carried around from place to place. Fish and shellfish are collected and eaten near the sea or alongside rivers and lakes. Over long periods of time, the shells and bones accumulate into big piles called middens. The word ‘midden’ is a Scottish word that means kitchen, and some middens have been used for thousands of years. Anthropologists often excavate middens to see what the people used to eat and to look for tools and weapons that they used.

Insects for foods

Unlike westerners, Indigenous people sometimes eat insects for food.

Good tucker from poisonous plants

There are several bush plants in Australia that are poisonous if they are eaten without being treated first to remove the poison. One group of plants are known as cycads and zamia palms. There are stories about some of the early white explorers getting sick from eating one or other of these two plants, and some may have died. The Indigenous people who use these foods know how to remove the poison.

A kind of damper is made from the seeds or nuts from the female plants of cycads and zamia palms. The treatment of the nuts to prepare a damper is an involved process. First they are opened and the kernels put in a woven basket and left in running water for a number of days to wash out their poison. Then the kernels are crushed and made into a damper, wrapped in paperbark and cooked in a fire. The damper is special ceremonial food and is made especially for these occasions.

Nardoo is another poisonous plant which needs to be treated before eating. Nardoo damper is made from the spores of an aquatic fern found near freshwater creeks and billabongs. The spores are first heated and then ground to remove the spore cases, and water is used to produce a thin paste. This paste is collected, and usually dried and cooked like a pancake in the ashes of a fire.

Activities: Bush tucker

Bush medicines

Indigenous people have used a large variety of plant, animal and mineral materials to treat or relieve a very wide range of ailments, such as preparations to heal burns, to relieve pain and coughs, to act as antihistamines for stings and bites, and many other uses. Groups in some localities have specialised knowledge of what can treat what and in which seasons it is available. Sometimes this knowledge is restricted to just the men or the women of the group and sometimes it is shared over a wider region. A list of treatments available to a group is called a pharmacopoeia (pronounced ‘farm-a-ko-pee-a’). Much of the bush medicine knowledge may be lost where the traditional lifestyle is disturbed by white settlement.

Western medicine is starting to show some interest in bush medicine and various plants have been tested for their medicinal value. Some modern drugs originated as bush medicines which have been refined to isolate the active ingredient. For example aspirin, which is not from Australia , comes from witchhazel; its original users chewed the stem to relieve pain. Eucalyptus and teatree oils are produced from Australian plants and have important medical uses. In concentrated forms they can be used against infections.

Imported diseases

Indigenous peoples had lived isolated from infectious diseases that were common in Europe and Asia. When the first colonists arrived in Australia many Indigenous people died from diseases like measles, influenza, smallpox, tuberculosis, venereal diseases and dysentery. These people had no resistance to the diseases which would spread rapidly, killing many people at the same time, so they were unable to look for remedies in their pharmacopoeia. However treatments have been found for some of these imported diseases.

Back to Areas of interest Last updated: 25 June 2005