When I submitted the proposal for A Timeline of Australian Food: from mutton to MasterChef to my publisher, the subtitle was originally: from megafauna to MasterChef. However, commercial concerns led to a shorter book, covering just the 150 years up to 2010. This chapter, starting from the very beginning of Australian food, was part of the original submission. 

The mystery of the deep past

The problem with a timeline is that it relies on written history. But Australia’s first inhabitants had an oral, not a written tradition. Although their rock art and the archaeological record can tell us something about their lifestyle, fixing on specific dates is difficult. Often, even the scientists don’t agree. So the dates in this chapter are not precise. They’re based on methods like radiocarbon dating and luminescence dating that estimate age by measuring radiation emitted by objects or by the soil around them.

The oldest Aboriginal sites so far discovered are in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and on Rottnest Island in Western Australia. Scientists believe the Rottnest Island site could date from 70,000 years ago (plus or minus 10,000 years) while excavations in Arnhem land have dated human settlement to around 65,000 BP. As new discoveries are made, we’ll learn more about how people lived in this remote past.

Dreamtime stories of many Aboriginal nations support the accepted theory that their ancestors crossed the sea in canoes and first arrived on our northern coast. From there, they spread throughout Australia. By 45,000 BP (before the present day) people were living in what is now South Australia, by 40,000 BP in south-eastern Australia and by 35,000 BP they had reached Tasmania. Adapting to local conditions, they even found sustenance in the harsh environment of the Western Desert.

The all-Australian diet

Around 70,000 years ago, the map of Australia looked very different. Land bridges joined what is now mainland Australia to Tasmania and to New Guinea. The animals that lived here were different too. These were the megafauna – hippopotamus-sized wombats, giant kangaroos, fearsome land-living crocodiles and marsupial lions.

This was the land the first Australians discovered. Arriving from islands to the north, they undoubtedly hunted and ate many of the giant beasts they found here. Archaeologists have the evidence – megafauna bones showing tool marks. But by around 30,000 years ago, these animals were extinct.

Were these newly-arrived humans to blame?  It’s a controversial question. Some scientists think that, as the continent became more arid, the lack of suitable food caused the large plant-eating mammals to die out, their predators dying along with them. Others suggest that the new arrivals introduced the practice of burning, changing the vegetation in ways that were unfavourable. In any case, it was a slow process. Aboriginal people and megafauna co-existed for some 30,000 years.

From these early years until some time after European settlement, Aboriginal Australians were primarily nomadic, moving from place to place to hunt and gather food. But their movement was not mere wandering. It had order and meaning. They developed a deep understanding of the land, the seasons and the food sources.

Although they never developed a system of settled agriculture, Aboriginal people exerted considerable control over their environment. They used methods including fire, taboos, grain harvesting and storage, fish and eel traps and even some planting to ensure the continuity of their food supply. At least 8000 years ago, in south-eastern Victoria, the local people were practising aquaculture, growing eels that were smoked and traded. As long as 30,000 years ago, in northern New South Wales, they were grinding grain, probably millet, to make the world’s first bread.

The nomadic lifestyle meant Aboriginal people could adapt to a challenging continent. If the food supply in one area was exhausted, they simply moved on. In this way, for tens of thousands of years, they developed and preserved the oldest living culture in the world.

70,000-65,000 BP – Human settlement in Australia

DNA evidence suggests that Australia’s Indigenous people are descended from the first wave of humans to migrate out of Africa more than 70,000 years ago. We have no written history to record how they lived (or ate). Archaeologists need to piece together the record from burial and camp sites. Excavations at the Madjedbebe rockshelter in Kakadu, Northern Territory, have evidence that a range of fruits, seeds, animals and other plants were ground up for food.

56,000 BP – Evidence of stone tools

The earliest stone tools were not used for hunting. Scientists think tools found in Arnhem Land were used to prepare pigments for rock painting. Early hunters used hardwood points that they fashioned with smaller stone tools.

Over the millennia, aboriginal tools and weapons became more varied. They were made of stone, wood, animal bones and shells – whatever worked and was to hand. Very early sites show evidence of flaked stone tools, but the technology continued to evolve. Eventually there were sharpened axes and carefully crafted spearheads. Wooden spears, boomerangs and digging sticks were fashioned from durable hardwoods. Another aboriginal invention, the woomera or throwing stick, helped to extend the thrower’s arm length, helping spears to travel further.

As well as stone and wood, aboriginal people made use of other natural materials. Needles for sewing were shaped from animal bones. Shells were fashioned into fish hooks. String was spun from plant fibres, including hibiscus bark, and used to attach points to spears or heads to axes. This twine was also woven into complex fishing nets and into baskets for carrying food. Although aboriginal civilisation never entered the Iron Age, the tools they created were just what were needed to flourish in a challenging land.

36,000BP – Evidence of butchering megafauna

Finds at Cuddie Springs in north western New South Wales show that Aboriginal people were eating megafauna. Scientists identified DNA from giant kangaroos and Diprotodons in traces of blood and hair found on hearths and stone tools.

Australia is a land of marsupials – animals that carry their young in a pouch. Millions of years ago, many of our marsupials were a lot larger. The Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo, known as the Procoptodon, was about three metres tall and weighed close to 250kg. The largest of our megafauna, the Diprotodon, looked like a giant wombat and was three to four metres long.

Tool marks have been found on Diprotodon bones, indicating that they were butchered and eaten. Cave paintings have been discovered of another strange creature, the Palorchestes or marsupial sloth. These date back to 46,500 BP, making them among the oldest cave paintings known in the world.

36,000BP – The world’s first bread?

Grinding stones were also found at Cuddie Springs, suggesting that the people living there were grinding grass seeds, probably millet, to make a kind of flour. Mixed with water this could be roasted to make a form of bread. This is the oldest evidence of bread making in the world.

Grinding stones were used to prepare many different types of food for cooking. As well as grass seeds, various roots and berries, insects and small animals were crushed before cooking. The grinding stones found at Cuddie Springs are the oldest yet found in Australia.

35,500 BP – World’s first ground-edge axes

The earliest evidence of grinding technology to create sharp stone axes was discovered at an Aboriginal archaeological and rock art site in south-western Arnhem Land in 2010. The axe fragment was at least 5000 years older than previous discoveries in Japan and Australia.

The ground-edge axe was world-leading technology in its time. Although the very earliest humans were using stone tools millions of years ago, they were created by chipping and flaking. It seems that Australian Aborigines were the first people to use grinding technology to create axe heads. It’s likely that these were originally hand held, but eventually the axe heads were attached to wooden handles, glued with resin and tied with twine. The shape and style varied from area to area. Axes were used to cut wood and bark, to kill animals and to notch trees that were climbed to find honey and small game.

34,000 BP – Evidence of marine foods

The earliest known evidence of fish and shellfish being eaten by Aboriginal people was found at a site near the North West Cape, the coast that faces Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. Excavations at the Mandu Mandu Creek rock shelter revealed artefacts, mollusc shells, and fish and animal bone fragments.

30,700 BP – Underground ovens

At Lake Mungo National Park in New South Wales, there is evidence of fireplaces and underground ovens. To cook food in these ovens, the local people heated stones and put them in a pit, putting the food on top and filling the pit in. The debris and ash they scraped away to uncover the food formed distinctive oven mounds.

How to cook a possum

First, you need to make an earth oven. Dig out a pit about 90 cm long and 60 cm deep, making sure you collect any clay from the digging. Mould the clay into smooth lumps and put it aside. Fill the pit with firewood, put the clay lumps on top and start the fire. As the wood burns, the clay will dry and become very hot.

Singe the hair off your possum over the fire and clean it.

When the fire burns down, remove the clay using sticks as tongs. Sweep out the pit, line it with green leaves and put your possum on top. Cover it with more greenery and weigh it all down with the clay lumps. Cover with earthy to prevent the loss of steam. Allow to steam until cooked.

22,000 BP – Mining of flint for tool making

In deep caves under the Nullarbor Plains at Koonalda (at the western edge of South Australia, about 50 km from the ocean), Aboriginal people mined flint and left grooved designs on the cave walls.

21,000 BP – Ice age migration

About 21,000 years ago a severe ice age known as the Last Glacial Maximum gripped Australia. After studying and dating ancient campsites all over Australia, scientists suggest that as much as 80 per cent of the continent was abandoned, with people migrating into smaller, more temperate areas where food was still plentiful.

13,000 BP – Tasmania isolated

Aboriginal people are thought to have arrived in Tasmania about 35,000 years ago by walking across a land bridge from what it now mainland Australia. As the climate changed the land bridge was flooded, isolating the Tasmanians who developed their own subsistence culture.

10,000 BP – Boomerang in use

The oldest boomerang found in Australia was uncovered at Wyrie Swamp in South Australia and dated at 10,000 years old. However, the oldest boomerang in the world isn’t Australian at all. It was found in Poland and was made from a mammoth tusk around 20,000 years ago.

Fire, not fences

There’s more than one way to farm the land. The European way relied on permanent settlements, fenced paddocks and domesticated animals. The Aboriginal way used fire. What is now known as “fire-stick farming” changed the pattern of the vegetation, opened up the tree canopy and encouraged the growth of the grasses that attracted grazing animals like kangaroos. So, although the animals weren’t fenced in, the hunters knew where to find them. Fire also promoted the growth of bush potatoes and other edible plants. Burning generally took place at the times of the year when weather conditions would ensure that the fires did not become too intense.

8000 BP – Eel traps in SW Victoria

It seems that not all aboriginal people were nomads. In Lake Condah region of south western Victoria, Aboriginal people constructed an elaborate system of weirs, channels and dams to trap and grow eels.

The Gunditjmara prehistoric fishing society, rather than being nomadic, may have established settled housing and trading practices. They built houses with stone foundations and lived by farming eels. Around 100 square kilometres of modified land contains artificial ponds and natural wetlands connected by channels. There are ancient eel traps throughout the area, as well as hollow ‘smoking trees’ where the catch was hung for preservation. Young eels were brought in from the ocean and trapped in the artificial waterways for up to 20 years.

Scientists have found evidence that the industry began 8000 years ago. They suggest that it would have supported as many as 10,000 people and believe the Gunditjmara may have traded smoked eels across southern Victoria and South Australia. There are references to eels in the area by early European diarists.

7300 BP – Dugong hunters on Torres Strait Islands

The oldest inhabited site so far discovered in the Torres Strait Islands is on the island of Mabuyag. Archaeologists found the charred bones or dugongs and turtles. Elsewhere in the Islands, middens (rubbish heaps) containing the shells of molluscs and fish bones have been found dating back to 2700 years ago.

4000 BP – A new wave of immigration

Research indicates that a new group of humans migrated to Australia from India around 4000 years ago, bringing with them different tool-making techniques such as microliths (small stone tools that formed the tips of weapons), and the Dingo, which most closely resembles Indian dogs.

3500 BP – Less fish, more meat

It’s not known why, but around 3500 years ago Tasmanians began to eat less scale fish and more land animals. They continued to collect abalones, oysters, mussels and other shellfish. Around the same time, they stopped using bone tools, and began to produce more sophisticated stone tools.

2000 BP – Pottery in use

At least 2000 years ago, Torres Strait Islanders were using pottery vessels. This would allow food to be boiled, not simply cooked in the fire. Pottery may have come from trade with people in New Guinea.

2000 BP – Seal hunting from canoes

Bark canoes were widely used in Australia’s coastal regions and on inland waterways. The main evidence is ‘canoe trees’, where the scarred trunks show where large sheets of bark were removed.  Time has obliterated the remains of the canoes themselves, but scientists have speculated that very early inhabitants were fishing from canoes using hooks made from shells. About 2000 years ago, the Tasmanian Aborigines began to use canoes to travel to the Bass Strait islands to harvest mutton birds (shearwaters) and seals. Hunting took place during summer and autumn.

1200 BP – Agriculture in the Islands

Archaeological finds at Saibai in the northern Torres Strait Islands suggest the development of agricultural mound and ditch systems in this area dates to some time after 1200 BP. This probably also involved water management and well construction.

1000 BP  – Fearsome spearheads

Kimberley Points are distinctive spearheads with serrated edges, produced by a technique called pressure flaking. They are rarely found in the fossil record, but recent discoveries in the southern Kimberleys have been dated to 1000 years ago. This technology is unique to the region.

1600s – Trepang  trade in northern Australia

At some time in the 1500s or 1600s, people from Macassar (in what is now Indonesia) started to visit northern Australia. They came to harvest trepang (also known as sea cucumbers or bêche- de-mer), which were then traded to China. Aboriginal rock art suggests this trade was well underway during the mid-1600s

The Macassan boats carried dugout canoes which were used in harvesting these rather repulsive sea creatures. The local people, quick to learn from the visitors, then began to use these stronger and more stable canoes in their own hunting. They provided a better platform for spearing creatures like dugongs and sea turtles.

1606 – First European contact

The first Europeans to have contact with Australian Aborigines were the crew of the Dutch ship Duyfken, captained by Willem Janszoon. The Dutch explored the western coast of Cape York Peninsula.

1770 – Taste of Australia for Joseph Banks

In 1770, visiting Australia’s east coast aboard Captain Cook’s Endeavour, the botanist Joseph Banks thought the coastal soil north of Botany Bay barren. He tasted what he called Indian kale or spinach, parsley, fruits including figs, and seeds and nuts from cabbage and other palms. On the Great Barrier Reef, Banks observed there were ‘plenty of turtle and so large that a single turtle always served the ship’.

Nature’s larder

In the first years of European settlement, food shortages plagued the new colonies. Yet they were surrounded by food, if only they’d know where to find it. Aboriginal people, unrestrained by permanent homes and fenced fields, followed their food from season to season. Their knowledge, passed from generation to generation, allowed them to thrive in all kinds of environments, from the harsh Western Desert to the stormy shores of Tasmania.

What people ate depended on where they lived, the climate and the season. In northern New South Wales, for example, they headed for the coast in late autumn and early winter, when the mullet were running. At the same time of year, the lilly-pilly trees behind the sand dunes (native cherries) were producing an abundance of fruit.

In the Snowy Mountains, people from many Aboriginal nations travelled long distances in late spring and early summer to feast on Bogong moths. The moths migrate from the Darling Downs in Queensland to the alpine regions of New South Wales and Victoria to escape the summer heat. They were scooped in their thousands from the walls of rock crevices and caves, roasted and ground for eating.

In Queensland, a similar gathering took place to harvest the nuts of the bunya pine. The tree produces a bumper crop every three years. In these years, Aboriginal groups from south-east Queensland travelled to the Blackall ranges for the harvest. These events also provided the opportunity for trade, ceremonies and cultural exchange between groups.

Aboriginal groups in temperate areas generally had a diet made up of around 60 per cent meat. In desert areas, where game was less plentiful, plant foods could make up as much as 80 per cent of the diet. Generally, men were responsible for hunting, while women collected plants, bird and reptile eggs and smaller animals. And insects, as some creepy crawlies were among the favourite foods. These included witchetty grubs – the fat white lavae of several varieties of moths – and green ants.

Animal foods were cooked over an open fire or steamed in pits. Many plant foods also needed special preparation to make them edible. Seeds could be pounded, ground and baked, or soaked in water to remove poisonous substances.  Fern and other plant roots, fruits, nuts, seeds and leaves were all important foods and provided a range of essential nutrients. The native Green Plum is said to be the richest source of Vitamin C in the world.

Honey was a highly regarded food. An observer described seeing men ‘walk’ up trees to obtain it.  “The climber, with tomahawk in belt, used a tough pliable vine obtained from the rainforest. A loop was tied for the left hand; then with the vine passed round the tree and the free end held in the right hand, the climbing started. With rough barked trees, such as Bloodwoods, climbers ‘walked’ up heights of 80 to 100 feet from the ground to the first branches with apparent ease”.

Following this diet, aboriginal people preserved their culture and their robust health for many thousands of years. Unfortunately, the eventual introduction of “white man’s food”, principally fatty meat, white flour, sugar and tea, played havoc with the traditional diet and led to significant health problems in Aboriginal communities.

Only now, in the 21st century, are white Australians beginning to recognise the value of many of our indigenous foods. Whether they ever become mainstream remains to be seen.

Feature image of Diprotodon created by Dmitry Bogdanov – dmitrchel@mail.ru, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5550040