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People and Resources

Plant Foods | Animal Foods | Seasonal Calendar | Fire Management

Although Aboriginal people have lived in the NSW Southern Tablelands and ACT region for many thousands of years, the literature does not contain detail concerning their plant resources. From the fragments of ethnohistorical and archaeological evidence it can be argued that Aboriginal people utilised plant and animal resources from the alpine and tableland regions according to seasonal availability (see Flood, 1980). The following discussion relates to resource use in the region with particular emphasis on plant foods.

Plant foods

Records of observations of plant use by Aboriginal people in the region are extremely limited. There are some early sources from the mid to late 19th century (e.g. Curr, 1886: 424-432) which record the meanings for words such as grass, bark and wood, and later Mathews (1904), an anthropologist, recorded 13 Ngunawal and 14 Ngarrugu plant names (as part of much larger word lists). However, the exact species is not always clear and there is no information on how these plants were used or their relative importance.

In an attempt to reconstruct the practices of peoples in the south-east where there is limited information, researchers (such as Flood, 1980) have tended to extrapolate from the records about peoples in nearby regions. For this region (ACT), practices of groups such as those on the Murray River, Gippsland, Western and coastal NSW are relevant. If a plant species was known as a resource nearby and it also occurred in the country of the Canberra people, then it is reasonable to assume that these groups may have used that particular plant species in a similar way. This hypothesis is supported by the seasonal movements of other groups into the Canberra region in the past such as for moth-hunting, which would have most likely led to some shared knowledge and practices relating to plants (see Flood, 1980: 71-73 for tribal movements related to Bogong Moth hunting).

Apart from making comparisons with neighbouring groups, it may also be constructive to look at other likely resources present in the Southern Tablelands environment. It has been noted that in environments where there is seasonal stress, plants store their foods during the winter ready for the burst of growth as the season changes and that these plants include those that have 'tuberous roots, swollen rootstocks, stem or leaf-bases or the soft inner bark of tree trunks or roots' (see Gott, 1998). Some of these are included on this webpage and would have been good food sources all year round. However, until further research determines how many more plants are palatable or indeed edible, we are still guessing about the possible extent of resource knowledge of the local Aboriginal people. For now we can conclude however, that there were many more species used than were observed being used.

The most important plant foods were 'roots', the underground parts of certain plants, such as Yam Daisy, Bracken Fern, Bulrush, orchids, lilies, Native Geranium and Water Ribbons which were available all year.

Some of these food plants are well-known and obvious in the landscape, such as Bracken Fern and Bulrush. While size made location of larger plants relatively easy, this is not the case for smaller plants or those which are invisible for part of the year. People needed to know where these species grew because searching for them without prior knowledge would be time-consuming and without guaranteed success.

Yam Daisies (Microseris lanceolata), lilies such as, Early Nancy (Wurmbea dioica), Chocolate Lily (Dichopogon strictus) and orchids are only visible for part of the year. The Yam Daisy shoots after autumn rains and is recognisable as a rosette of leaves during winter but is only obvious when flowering. Lilies and orchids are not visible for most of the year and even when flowering their small size above ground does not indicate the relatively large importance of their underground parts in the local people's diet.

The Bulbine Lily sometimes occurs in great spreads across the landscape although there are few sites in the ACT where even modest stands of these lilies remain. The edible underground bulb is quite large (walnut-sized) and would have been worth the effort of digging. Today in modern Australia most people appreciate the aesthetic value of these plants (especially orchids) referred to as our wildflowers and would be reluctant to dig up the root and sacrifice the beautiful flower - the very small tubers may not seem a big enough reward when you don't need them to survive!

In general, roots were eaten after processing: they were dug up then placed on the coals or in an earth oven (in a shallow underground pit with hot stones) to cook before being eaten. Some were eaten raw.

Yams, mentioned by early observers, were probably one of the first plant foods to be dropped from the diet, since they required considerable effort to gather and prepare. Even by the mid-1800s, the diet of Aboriginal people incorporated flour, tea, sugar, tobacco and alcohol, although people were not completely dependent on introduced foods (Avery, 1994:5). Most probably snack foods such as fruits, and easily gathered and processed foods were still collected as the opportunity arose. Later records (Bluett, 1954: 8) mention native raspberries, wild cherries, mistletoe and manna. Aboriginal people in south-eastern regions continue to collect these kind of plants and many others.

Many fruits and some seeds were exploited throughout the year, particularly in summer and autumn. Fruits were mostly picked raw and eaten or let fall to the ground to be at their eating best: Native Cherry, Native Currant, Mistletoe, Geebung, Native Raspberry, Banksia, Bottlebrush, Grevillea and Cranberry Heath.

Seeds were probably eaten from various sources and mostly required processing. Larger seeds from Wattle, and also Black Kurrajong could have been ground to a paste and eaten; smaller seeds from Sorghum, and Parakeelya would have been ground and baked; and others, such as Mistletoe were eaten along with the fruit, and Hovea seeds together with their pods.

Grass seeds were not a very important food source in this region compared to other more arid areas of Australia. If more highly valued vegetable foods (which required less processing before eating) were not available in sufficient quantities, then seeds were likely to have been exploited. Grass seeds, such as Kangaroo Grass may have been ground and baked to make seed cakes in the same way as Panic Grass and other grass seeds were used in the inland plains region. However, there is little evidence of the need for this kind of labour-intensive processing since summer would not have been a time of food shortage. Also there is only small amount of evidence for the use of the grinding stones required to carry out the process. Furthermore, although Kangaroo Grass is a prolific seeder, it would be difficult to collect enough ripe seeds at any one time because all the seeds on a plant do not ripen at the same time. (For discussion on role of grass seeds in diet see Flood, 1980: 97-99)


The green parts of plants, such as edible leaves, pods, shoots and buds were probably eaten when food was short, as has been reported for other regions. Some were eaten raw and others were steamed, possibly to remove toxic substances (see Latz, 1995: 57).

Grass Trees grow shoots which were eaten raw and also the leaf-bases and flowers of the Mat-rush were eaten without preparation. The leaves of Casuarina, Portulaca, Oxalis, Cardamine and Rorippa were eaten (see Flood, 1980: 93-96).


Flowers such as Bottlebrush, were sucked for nectar and others such as Banksia, were soaked in water to obtain a sweet drink.

Manna exuded from the leaves and bark of E. viminalis was a delicacy; also lerp which is a sugary substance excreted by insects on the leaves of some species of Eucalyptus.

The sap or gum from trees, such as some Acacia can be sucked or soaked in water and eaten - 'the pale amber gums are more likely to be palatable than those with a deep, red-brown colour' denoting tannin (Cribb and Cribb, 1987: 218-221).


Few references to medicinal use of plants have been recorded for this region and so much of the information given here is based on knowledge about plant use by other Aboriginal groups.

Plants were mostly used to prepare medicines for external application. Leaves were pounded and mixed with fat and applied to the affected area. Some strong smelling plants were tied around the head or neck to relieve symptoms of cold (see Latz, 1995: 60-62).

There are records of some plants being ingested to treat broad illness, where a decoction was prepared mixing crushed leaves/stems with water and then left to stand. Plants were prepared as a treatment for a range of ailments, such as diarrhoea, colds as well as aches and pains. Widespread use of Acacia has been suggested for broad medicinal use (Cribb and Cribb, 1981: 18).

'Smoking' medicine involves the use of fumes and steam from heated leaves. In other parts of Australia, leaves of certain Acacia are used. Also the ash from the bark of plants such as Eucalytpus was applied to the skin. These processes have been used for new babies as well as sick adults.(see Latz, 1995)

Some plant parts were applied directly to the body, e.g. young stems of Pteridium were rubbed onto insect bites (Gott, 1995).

Other uses: plant parts have been used across Australia for making tools, weapons and utensils out of the wood, and other useful items from fibre (either leaf, stem or bark) and gums.

Spears, spear throwers, boomerangs and coolamons were made from the wood of trees, such as Acacia and Eucalyptus.

The gum from Xanthorroea was used to attach handles to stone axes and stone flakes to spears. Bark from Pimelea produced fine, woven nets used to trap Bogong Moths. Leaves of Lomandra were woven into baskets in some areas (Gott, 1995).

Animal foods

The staple animal foods were possums, kangaroos, wallabies, reptiles, birds, such as emus, ducks, brolgas and swans. Most of these were available all year round despite seasonal variations in abundance and accessibility. While possums and ducks were both plentiful and easy to hunt, the larger game such as kangaroos and emus often required cooperative efforts. In the warmer months, these resources along with fish, shellfish and eels, would have been plentiful in the ranges, on the lagoons and in rivers. The coldest months were the leanest until fish returned in the spring and people could move from the lowland rivers to the forests and then sometimes in summer to the mountain ranges for the Bogong Moths. Although Aboriginal people of the region are known for their summer feasting on Bogong Moths while they congregated with neighbouring groups for ceremonies in the mountains of Canberra, their food resources were probably less plentiful than those coastal or inland river peoples. One observer described their normal diet as 'possums and yams' (Flood, 1980:85).

Seasonal Calendar

In general, the food of the people of the Southern Tablelands region related to the ecological zones in which they lived during particular seasons.

Seasonal Calendar of the NSW Southern Tablelands & ACT

Seasonal Calendar
(Adapted from Flood, 1980 by Daphne Nash. See Halling, 1999: 41)

During summer and autumn, depicted above as the 'time of plenty', many resources were available, including the Bogong Moth. Plant foods such as fruits, roots and wattle seeds would have been available in the dry forested mountain areas in summer and then a move to the lower river and grassland areas would also provide roots (yam daisies in flower, orchids, lilies), bulrush roots and possibly grass seeds to supplement the rich fish, crayfish and bird resources.

During Winter, described as the 'time of scarcity' in relation to people's complete diet, many plant foods would continue to be available. Roots foods such as orchids, lilies, yam daisies hidden underground after their flowers died off, would have provided a continuing source of food. Less important foods that were gathered include the pith of Tree Ferns, Grass Tree leaf bases and Mat Rush leaves which occur in the wetter mountain areas. From the sheltered valley areas, possums, and other larger game, such as kangaroo would have provided the bulk of the diet.

Late winter and early spring bring flowers on the orchids and lilies making them easier to find. However, the most important food at this time would have been fish returning as the waters rose and warmed.

Fire Management

It is becoming generally recognized that Aboriginal peoples all over Australia have used fire to manage the ecosystems in which they lived. Although there is some disagreement concerning their purposes in burning the landscape, there is much evidence that their methods for using fire maintained the environment in a state that provided the resources they needed to survive. The system relates to the frequency of firing and the season when the firing takes place.

In northern and central Australia, Aboriginal people burn their country according to well-defined practices which increase the availability of certain desired resources without damaging culturally important areas within the landscape. Certain areas are protected from fire such as fire sensitive resources and sacred sites (see Jones, 1975; Latz, 1995) Most of the important food plants in Central Australian are 'fire weeds', which means that they require regular burning in order to maintain their maximum productivity (Latz, 1995:22).

In south-eastern Australia, the frequency of burning dry sclerophyll forest and grasslands is important in promoting the growth of small tuberous food plants, which otherwise would be overgrown by low shrubs and tussock grasses. Without an appropriate fire regime, biodiversity is lost (Gott, 1999). The effects of past burning practices by Aboriginal peoples in the south-east are beginning to be assessed.

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