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Australian ethnobotany: an overview.

Abstract: Australian ethnobotany maintains a common area of interest for a wide range of specialists, some of whom study the physical properties of plants and their potential for use by the wider community, while others focus upon the Indigenous cultural importance of plant species. Rather than being just an antiquarian pursuit, Australian ethnobotany offers a greater insight into Indigenous seasonal calendars, which is leading to changes in land management practices in some regions.


Ethnobotany is the study of the cultural use and perception of plants. As a term, 'ethnobotany' was first applied to the study of 'plants used by primitive and aboriginal people' in 1895 by a botanist, John W Harshberger, who was addressing a university archaeological association in America (Balick and Cox 1996:3; Clement 1998; Ford 1978:33). The 'ethno' refers to the study of people, while 'botany' concerns plants. It was the beginning of the academic field, taking over from studies referred to previously as 'applied botany', 'aboriginal botany' and 'botanical ethnography'.

The European documentation of Indigenous Australian plant use began much earlier, starting with land and sea exploration in the late eighteenth century. At this stage, it was primarily driven by practical needs, with the plants observed in use by Indigenous Australians in the 'new' land being investigated for their potential economic benefit to eventual settlers. When twentieth-century Western scholars began to study indigenous cultures in their own right, a different way of looking at human plant uses emerged, with ethnobotany becoming a field that also studied the complex interrelationship between culture and the physical environment. This involves the investigation of indigenous taxonomies and the symbolic role of plants in religious and totemic systems. Australian ethnobotany today is an area of interest rather than a discipline in itself, but still embraces both the applied and cultural aspects of human plant use.

Sources of information on Indigenous Australian use of plants is diverse, having been compiled by European settlers, explorers, biologists, pharmacologists, nutritionists, herbalists, anthropologists, medical specialists, ethnologists, social historians, linguists, geographers, archaeologists and by the users themselves.(1) Ashared focus on human plant use means that all can be called 'ethnobotanists'. Many of the individual researchers discussed here could be considered to be part of several of the above categories. The special interests of each recorder have led to various strengths and biases in the compilation of data, with a variety of techniques employed. Here I consider the intellectual traditions that produced the Australian ethnobotanical literature and indicate some developing areas worthy of future research.

Plant exploration

Western explorers and settlers of Australia often wrote detailed accounts of Indigenous life as they discovered it, which included lists and descriptions of Indigenous foods, medicines and artefact-making materials. Explorers in remote regions frequently encountered Aboriginal camps that had been deserted just prior to, or because of, their arrival. For example, in September 1845, the Prussian explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt (2000 [1847]:263-4), came across a deserted Aboriginal camp in the Gulf of Carpentaria where he found that the
 Seeds of Cycas [cycad palms] were cut into very thin
 slices, about the size of a shilling, and these were spread
 out carefully on the ground to dry, after which, (as I saw
 in another camp a few days later) it seemed that the dry
 slices are put for several days in water, and, after a good
 soaking, are closely tied up in tea-tree bark to undergo
 a peculiar process of fermentation.

Leichhardt's interest in wild foods and his botanical knowledge gave him a distinct advantage by allowing him to supplement his expedition supplies. The lack of botanical expertise, and the immaturity of Australian botanical studies, prevented many early non-Indigenous observers from making a complete record of plant uses observed during their travels. Without a point of reference, many taxonomically unknown plant foods were poorly described, often through a superficial comparison with unrelated European plants. The Danish adventurer, Jorgen Jorgenson (1837:55-6), described how Tasmanian gatherers 'used to dig out of the lagoons wattalapee or pomalle, here called the native potatoe, but it bears no resemblance to the English root'. The historical records are full of terms, such as 'native raspberry', 'wild yam', 'Australian sarsaparilla', that are generally difficult to identify and, due to the wide extent of their use, often refer to unrelated species. They may have been used as colloquial names or just as descriptions by the author. Often we do not know which applies.

Early settlers' interests in Indigenous plant uses were less academic. Hard-pressed British settlers were on occasion forced to rely on local sources of food during shortages of supplies brought from overseas. This was particularly the case with sealers and their Aboriginal companions who lived on remote islands along the southern Australian coast beyond the official colonial frontier. They survived by relying heavily on Indigenous hunting and gathering practices and bush remedies (Clarke 1996a:62; Hagger 1979:17-18). Some South Australian colonists were impelled to follow local plant-use practices and use the yam daisy and bulrush roots as food, even employing Aborigines to collect them (Clarke 1988:68, 70). Baker (1999:164-5) reported that, as recently as the 1940s, when the stores ran out at Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria, 'bush tucker', such as cycads and water lilies, were used by non-Indigenous and Indigenous individuals alike. The greatest use of most Indigenous foods by settlers was restricted to the frontier and station periods, eventually to be overtaken by agricultural development and subsequent transformation of the landscape.

Although British colonists used Australian plants in frontier situations, the prevailing scholarly opinion throughout the nineteenth century was that Indigenous species were poor in terms of their human food value. Crawfurd (1868:116) stated that 'The natives of Australia were far better provided with animal than with vegetable food', and that 'There is probably not one of the roots, tubers, bulbs, and fruits that would ever be touched by those who could get a supply of wholesome grain or cultivated food-roots'. He implied that Aborigines were not able to develop agriculture due to an apparent lack of suitable plants for domestication. Botanists, such as von Mueller (1881) considered that Australian colonists were better served by the introduction of foreign plants than developing new foods from indigenous species. The sporocarp of the water fern, also known in Australian English as 'nardoo', was partly blamed for the death of Burke and Wills, who perished in 1861 after living on it almost exclusively (Smyth 1878:216-17). Cleland (1966), Daley (1931), Hyam (1943), Irvine (1970) and Morris (1943) considered the lack of agriculture in Australia, in contrast to nearby Southeast Asia and Melanesia, as being due to a lack of suitable food plants. To them, Australia was an isolated landmass with an impoverished flora and fauna, which was inhabited by 'stone age' peoples.

The early historical sources contain much useful data that, in the case of southern Australia, can no longer be obtained directly from Indigenous persons in the field. This material is available for re-analysis, although it needs to be considered in light of the periods in which it was produced. Many of the plants that were formerly of economic importance to hunters and gatherers have been recorded by Indigenous term alone, with little or no species description. For languages poorly known and without fluent present-day speakers, the chances of identification would appear grim. Other evidence from less direct sources, such as related words from better described coagnatic languages, can sometimes be used to deduce the identity of poorly recorded plants. Burbidge (et al 1988) and Tunbridge (1991) have demonstrated how much mammalian data can be deduced from a combination of historic, linguistic and contemporary Indigenous sources. Present-day botanical field research can also produce lists of possible plant identities for most regions, although the possibility of changes in the local vegetation structure must be taken into account (Clarke 1986; Gott 1984).


Scientific studies

Botanists were among the first to realise that Indigenous Australians utilised a diverse Australian flora. Early plant collectors relied heavily upon Aboriginal guides, so it is not surprising that the botanical literature contains a wealth of ethnobotanical records. Their practical interest in Aboriginal plant uses sought to describe plant properties for potential commercial development. The South Australian botanist, Tate (1882), included plant-use observations from settlers in his natural history notes. Baron von Mueller, Government Botanist in Victoria, travelled widely in southeastern Australia and compiled a list of vegetable food resources previously utilised by Aborigines (Smyth 1878: 212-14). The lack of understanding of Indigenous cultures, however, was an impediment for many early researchers, and ignorance of how to approach informants was also a difficulty. Joseph H Maiden, in his economic botany of Australia (1889:146-7) stated:
 The poor aboriginal chiefly takes interest in the
 vegetation as supplying him with his scanty food, or as
 affording him fibre useful in securing fish and other
 animal sustenance. As far as we know, the Materia
 Medica of the blacks is of a very meagre description ...
 Civilised or semi-civilised blacks frequently know but
 little about their native Materia Medica, and the
 difficulty of obtaining reliable information is enhanced
 ... through the extreme willingness of town blacks to
 impart information in regard to any plant which may
 be shown them, which impresses one with the thought
 that they are too willing to oblige. But perhaps this is
 mainly owing to asking them leading questions.

Maiden's compendium, however, provided much information on plant use, most of it gathered by other field researchers. In the late nineteenth century, botany was maturing as a discipline, while anthropology was just being born.

Other researchers with a scientific approach continued the systematic listing of the properties of plants used by Indigenous Australians; medical doctors, such as Cleland and MacPherson, were prominent. (2) The dentist, Campbell (1939), studied Aboriginal foods in relation to Indigenous oral hygiene. Thomson (1939, 1975, 1980, 1985, 1987), a biologist based in Melbourne, interacted with Aborigines during his field collecting expeditions in northern and central Australia, and, apart from his extensive collection of photographs, biological specimens and artefacts, his copious field notes contain much ethnobotanical data. (3) Another biologist, Tindale (1974), based at the South Australian Museum, was applying scientific methods to the recording of Aboriginal culture; as 'curator of ethnology', he collected ethnobotanic data and specimens across Australia. (4)

Chemists and pharmacologists have, since the nineteenth century, been investigating the medical potential of Indigenous Australian herbal remedies. During the 1870s, Bancroft analysed properties of the pituri narcotic used by inland Aboriginal groups, which was later discovered to contain nicotine alkaloids (Bancroft 1872; Hicks and Le Messurier 1935; Peterson 1977; Watson 1983; Webb 1948:8-9, 1973:293-4). Use of poisons in Queensland was the subject of a study by Hamlyn-Harris and Smith (1916). Commencing in 1944, Webb at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Brisbane conducted the Australian Phytochemical Survey, primarily based in Queensland due to the wide variety of ecological zones and associated plant diversity in that state. Webb (1977) accompanied a team of anthropologists and Aborigines to document Indigenous plant uses at Lockhart River in northern Queensland. He recognised the value of collaboration between scientists, anthropologists and Indigenous peoples, combining scientific data collecting with cultural perspectives in the study of plant uses. Scarlett, a botanist, and White, an anthropologist, used similar collaborative fieldwork in northeastern Arnhem Land from 1973 to 1980 (Scarlett et al 1982). Other researchers have made detailed studies of Aboriginal use of wild tobacco plants (Goddard and Kalotus 1988:96-9; Latz 1974, 1995:232-5; Peterson 1977). In 1984, CSIRO staff based in Melbourne began publishing the results of the Phytochemical Survey (Collins et al 1990).

In the 1980s, the Bush Medicine Project, funded through the Northern Territory Department of Health and Community Services, adopted the team approach to Indigenous plant-use research. Published in 1988, Traditional Bush Medicines aimed to describe the pharmacopoeia of Aboriginal communities throughout the Northern Territory (Barr et al 1988; Stack 1989). (5) A team of mainly botanists and pharmacologists collated the medicinal information, from the base data obtained during extensive collaborative fieldwork. (6) The book reflects a mergence of botany with pharmacy, with each plant listed with a botanical description along with the analysis of its chemical composition. Many of these species are also found beyond the Northern Territory. In spite of the collaboration of specialists and Indigenous informants, an Aboriginal perspective of plant use was not guaranteed; the Bush Medicine Project has produced a listing of medicinal plants chosen by the research team for the possible chemical basis to their efficacy--'medical ethnobotany' (Telban 1988).

Conventional medicine demands quantitative evaluation of the active constituents in the use of plants to develop the standards of preparation and dose. (7) To explore an Indigenous view of medicinal and healing practices we must consider cultural concepts about the cause of diseases and the properties of medicines, including those relating to mythology and cosmology. Important too is the sociological role of Aboriginal healers and how they are perceived to manipulate the interaction between the natural, social and spiritual aspects of their world. (8) The distinction between food and medicine, as perceived by Westerners, loses its significance with many hunting and gathering cultures.

Aboriginal plant use has had an impact upon other healing traditions. Webb (1948:10) claimed that some Aboriginal 'remedies entered the "medicine chest" of bushmen, drovers, and timber cutters, while others became popular with Chinese herbalists'. Other medicinal plants, he claimed, were recommended for use by doctors in the early nineteenth century on the basis that there was a taxonomic relationship to overseas plant species already used for drug production. Healers who use medicines not normally recognised by conventional Western practitioners have also been looking at Australian plants. For example, in a booklet entitled Australian Bush Flower Remedies, White (1987: introduction), a naturopath and homoeopath, claimed:
 A lot of this knowledge has sadly been lost and
 forgotten although in many cases (our Aboriginals) the
 memory of such healing power has been retained.
 Perhaps it is our job, our destiny, to open the memory.

The current herbalist traditions as practised in Australian cities are heavily influenced by indigenous traditions from the Northern Hemisphere, particularly from China, Europe and North America. Professional herbalists have on occasion approached me, as an anthropologist working in the South Australian Museum, for assistance in 'Australianising' their list of remedies by appropriating Indigenous plant uses. Such medicinal specialists are by their nature fairly eclectic.

Nutritionists have approached Aboriginal plant use in a way similar to the pharmacologists by investigating the dietary attributes of Indigenous foods, producing many quantitative data (Brand and Cherikoff 1985a, 1985b; Brand and Maggiore 1992; Brand et al 1983; Brand Miller et al 1993; Dadswell 1934). Some of this research has indirectly influenced the menus of particular restaurants specialising in an Australian 'bushfood' cuisine. (9) Only a few of these foods are likely to dislodge items in existing diets, which tend to be conservative. The results of such studies nevertheless have the potential to help authorities to manage Aboriginal health problems. This is particularly so in remote areas, where wild foods are a major component of the outstation diet (Altman 1984, 1987:31-45; Devitt 1992; Hetzal and Frith 1978; Kean 1991:120-1; Meehan 1982:141-61; Rae et al 1982). In tropical areas of Australia, where European settlement has struggled in comparison to the temperate south, some Aboriginal food sources have major economic potential.

Since the 1980s, a greater awareness of the Australian landscape by the general public has developed; this is expressed in renewed academic and popular interest in the properties of indigenous plants. No more is the Australian flora seen as poor and culturally stunting. The series of publications by Cribb and Cribb (1981a, 1981b, 1982) draw on information derived from their own empirical methods, supplemented by published Aboriginal plant-use data. (10) The strong bias towards the temperate zone and the eastern seaboard, where the majority of Australians now live, is primarily an artefact of the European colonising process and the modern book market. These publications provide an appreciation of pre-European Australian food sources, with the study of Indigenous use of plants being a useful vehicle in exploring this potential.

A practical application of Aboriginal plant-use data is the incorporation of this knowledge in survival courses run by biologists and environmentalists for the benefit of the armed forces (Hiddins 1996). Tourism in northern Australia also draws upon the Aboriginal landscape. In 1991, the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory produced for the popular market two pocket-sized publications that are based on Top End Aboriginal plant uses (Wightman and Andrews 1991; Wightman and Mills 1991). Eco-tourism encourages an appreciation of the Australian landscape through an understanding of Aboriginal plant use.

Studying hunters and gatherers

Researchers from a wide range of disciplines have studied Aboriginal plant use for what it tells us about hunting and gathering lifestyles before they were significantly modified by European settlement. Anthropologists, archaeologists and historians have embraced ecological theory since the 1960s, looking at the connections between peoples and their environments, and seeking to understand non-Western worldviews. (11) FGG Rose (1987:viii), however, had a rigid view of who hunters and gatherers were:
 the contemporary generation of social anthropologists
 has never, and could never have, observed the
 traditional production relations for, by the end of the
 war [World War II] they had gone forever.

Rose claimed that, during the first half of the twentieth century, all Australian Aboriginal people had become part of a money-commodity economy that included Europeans. This is not an attack on modern Indigen-eity, but a statement on the degree of change in subsistence patterns that all Indigenous groups in Australia have experienced. The academic reconstr-uction of hunting and gathering societies in Australia relies heavily on the records of observers working on the frontier of European expansion, which had largely drawn to a close by the mid-twentieth century.

Most researchers during the last few decades who have looked at the pre-European-contact mode of subsistence essentially have been recording a 'memory culture'. This is not just the case for 'settled Australia', but is also true for the culturally and geographically remote regions. Brokensha (1975:25) described how Pitjantjatjara women of the Western Desert during the 1970s still knew how to make damper from wild seed, although it was no longer regularly practised due to the availability of flour through the community store. (12) In spite of the eventual loss of such first-hand knowledge, there are pre-European plants that contemporary Indigenous peoples still use. The main shift in Indigenous food-plant uses has been away from labour-intensive sources, for example grass seeds and toxic tubers, while maintaining an emphasis on those that are relatively easy to collect and process, such as those fruits and gums that can be eaten raw. Modern plant-use systems reflect this change in Aboriginal relationships to the landscape.

In areas where hunting and gathering ceased many decades ago, such as in many parts of southeastern Australia, assessments have been made of the relative importance of particular foods, based on historical sources with the aid of comparisons with more recent and detailed studies in other areas (Bonney 1994; Clarke 1986, 1988; Gott 1982a, 1982b, 1983, 1985; Gott and Conran 1991; Hiatt 1967-68; Plomley and Cameron 1993). Ethnobotanists are working with older Aborigines with direct experience of the earlier periods. The speed at which plant-use information is being lost, particularly concerning medicines, is alarming researchers as well as Indigenous custodians (Parker 1980:37; Smith 1991:1; Webb 1959:137). By the late nineteenth century, authors in southeastern Australia had to rely on comparative studies in other parts of Australia to shed light on local practices. (13) Ford (1978:45) warned that 'Unless ethnobotanists are prepared to study cultures that are in the process of change or that have become Westernised, the field will soon become a literary tradition'. Ethnobotany thus is seen as rescue work, piecing together the relics of information from collapsing hunting and gathering systems as they are progressively forced to adapt to European agriculture. Palaeoethnobotanists will focus on the archaeological study of Aboriginal use of plants in the pre-European period (Beck et al 1989; Frankel 1982; Ladd 1988).


As well as a food source, plants are important to implement manufacture. Similarity between the type of plants used may suggest intergroup relationships. A unique technical innovation towards collecting food, subsequently shared by different cultural groups, could be considered a shared derived feature. Cladistic analysis might therefore provide a useful method for cross-cultural ethnobotanic comparisons (Hart and Cox 2000). Golson (1971) found a significant overlap between Malaysian and tropical Australian plant uses that may relate to early human settlement patterns. Detailed studies of cultural materials are relatively rare in Australia, with southern mainland Australia being largely neglected. (14)

Anthropologists and archaeologists with museum experience have added to the ethnobotanic component of this literature; Buhmann (et al 1976) and Kamminga (1988) have identified woods used in artefact manufacture, using literature and museum specimens. Crawford (1982) from the Western Australian Museum studied plant use in the Kalumburu area of northern Western Australia, describing his studies as 'ethno-economics'. Smith, also from that institution, has been involved in recording and publishing detailed accounts of plants used by the Bardi people from the southern Kimberley coast (Paddy et al 1987; Smith and Kalotas 1985). In the South Australian Museum, anthropologists Anderson (1996) and Sutton (1994) described plant use in their northern Queensland researches, a subtropical region where environmental work of anthropologists during the 1980s stimulated botanical surveys. My own effort was initially focused upon the temperate region of southeastern Australia (Clarke 1986, 1988, 1998).

The South Australian Museum has over a thousand specimens of plants used by Aboriginal people. (15) Such collections are important, as until recently most Australian herbaria have generally catered for taxonomists, with little regard to cultural interests in plants. In response to growing interest in the Aboriginal landscape, both museums and botanical parks have been establishing plant-use gardens and trails over the past two decades. (16)

Trade in Indigenous artefacts spurred the development of new artefacts, and this impacted directly on plant use. Examples include the spread, into new areas, of bark-painting and basket and boomerang-making. Indigenous artists and craft persons now use a broader range of media. These changes are brought about through expanded cultural contact bringing in new ideas, the availability of imported materials, such as canvas, hardboard and acrylic paints, and the introduction of new tools, including chain-saws, steel hatchets and metal files. In many cases the finished products are primarily for sale to visitors, even though the makers place importance on such activities in preserving their traditions and helping to maintain their identities (Berndt and Berndt 1999: Chapter 6; Clarke 1996b:75-7, 2003b; Morphy 1998:ch. 8; Robson 1986; Zola and Gott 1992). In the Western Desert, the greater accessibility of metal wood-burning and -carving tools in the late nineteenth century led to the production of new items for sale, including carved wooden animals decorated with pokerwork (Brokensha 1975; Isaacs 1992). Recently, this region has seen the growth of a cottage industry making baskets and bags from spinifex grass and wool.

Both spatial and seasonal aspects of plants are important in an appreciation of the relative economic importance of particular food types in the pre-European period. Many ethnographers have not appreciated that the seasonal fluctuation of meat species would have enforced a greater reliance on particular vegetable foods during 'hard times'. The preferred foods of one group may be considered unpalatable to others, and only resorted to when everything else failed. In the desert regions, Aborigines ate a large range of widely dispersed plant species, which minimised their overall impact on the environment (Veth and Walsh 1988). In this context, there can be no true staple food species. During droughts, dependence shifted to less desirable foods as those more highly favoured became scarce. Aborigines might refer to various groups in terms of the dominant vegetation features of the territory they occupy and to the food they rely upon. Those in the southern Western Desert sometimes refer to themselves as 'spinifex people', through their association with pila nguru or spinifex country (Cane 2002). Similarly, the grass-seed-gathering people of the desert were referred to as Panara, from the term pana for the oval wooden dish used in winnowing (Tindale 1974:99-102, 106; 1977). The investigation of why people do not normally use particular plant species may be as revealing as knowing why others are used.

During recent years, there has been a growing awareness that Aboriginal seasonal 'calendars' are more relevant to Australia and reflect to a greater extent the nature of the local environment (Clarke 2003a; Jones et al 1997; Rae et al 1982; Reid 1995a, 1995b). Aboriginal seasonal calendars are based upon cues and cycles in each environment. Different temporal periods are identified by distinct animal, vegetation, mythic and totemic associations, climatic events and patterns, and varied by intermittent landscape firings and floods. The flowering of particular plants may signal the arrival of certain animal species, such as migrating fish. The term 'calendar' is used to describe the temporal division of a year, although seasons may be perceived to span greater periods, particularly in arid regions that have irregular rainfall. Most seasonal calendars have more than four seasons, particularly in the tropical north. (17)

The recognition and adoption by non-Indigenous Australians of these seasonal models has begun in monsoonal Australia, where detailed studies of Aboriginal seasonality increasingly are used to help manage national parks (Breedan and Wright 1991; Griffin and Allan 1986; Pyne 1991:134-5; Rose 1996; Williams and Baines 1993). A better appreciation of the diversity of seasonal systems in Australia will hopefully lead to better management of the environment by all.

Investigation of Indigenous hierarchical classification systems provides insights into their worldviews. Studies of Indigenous taxonomies have been made of the extent to which hunters and gatherers recognise the same categories of organisms as biologists (Brown 1986; Heath 1978; Kean 1991; McKnight 1999; Waddy 1979, 1982, 1988). Whereas plants with secular and mythological significance often have specific terms applied to forms below the level of biological species, many other plants of little or no direct interest come under broader collective terms. Linguists have added considered ethnobotanic data to the literature, with several dictionaries of Aboriginal language containing detailed descriptions of how plants are gathered, prepared and used (Douglas 1988; Goddard 1992; Henderson and Dobson 1994). Plant terminology is also reflected in landscape iconography. For instance, during a survey of Aboriginal placenames in the Gammon Ranges National Park of the northern Flinders Ranges, Tunbridge (1985:3, 1987:4) found that 20% of the 200 recorded names referred to a plant term or a plant product; the majority of the species had significance to the diet of the local Adnyamathanha people. Tunbridge (1985:12) suggested that placenames encode ecological history.


While Australian English has been resistant to the borrowing of words from Indigenous languages, some plant words have entered into Australian English (Dixon et al 1990; Ramson 1988). These terms have mostly been borrowed during the frontier periods of European colonisation, with a bias towards southern Indigenous languages. Commonly used terms include: quandong (from Wiradhuri, southwestern New South Wales, guwandhaang); waratah (from Dharruk, Sydney region, warrada); mallee (probably from western Victoria or central New South Wales, mali); and karri (probably from Nyungar, southwestern Western Australia, karri). (18) Indigenous languages offer new and better terms for many of the unique Australian plant and animal species.


Indigenous sources

Since the late twentieth century there has been an increasing number of detailed accounts of plant use derived directly from Aboriginal sources. (19) Publications by the Northern Territory Heritage Commission also provide detailed case studies of regional ethnobotany (20) and these describe Indigenous affinities to specific landscapes, with information about social aspects of hunting and gathering activities, methods of food preparation and seasonality. The depth of such data further challenges the early notions of 'poor' Australian flora. Regrettably, it is too late to conduct such studies in most parts of temperate Australia.

The study of Aboriginal plant use is not just academic; Altman (1987), Clarke (2003b) and Wilson (et al 1992) have considered the contemporary role of hunting and gathering activities in augmenting the food and materials needed by Aboriginal communities. There exists much potential for use of community knowledge of the environment in park management, eco-tourism, and the Indigenous food industry. The level of botanical knowledge within each community varies considerably. As Kean (1991:115) explained:
 The acquisition and retention of such information
 would be affected by many factors--regions traversed,
 sex, age and even individual spiritual associations with
 particular areas of land and associated totems.
 Accordingly, knowledge can be viewed as either an
 individual or a community/cultural attribute.

Plants of economic importance to Indigenous peoples may require conservation in threatened environments. Some researchers have argued for the wider and greater recognition of Indigenous ownership of their botanical knowledge, claiming that, in the past, ethnobotanical research has often not been of direct or long-term benefit to the human sources (Barton 1994; Nabhan et al 1995; Rose 1988). Others have acknowledged that, while there are moral obligations for the acquirer to compensate the disseminator, intellectual property rights on cultural or community-owned knowledge are difficult to enforce (Brown 1998; Posey 1990). Nevertheless, where the acquisition of Aboriginal plant-use knowledge leads to commercial exploitation of particular species, it is reasonable to expect that the relevant group gain appropriate benefits. (21)

To appreciate the breadth of the role that plants play in Aboriginal culture, we must also consider their symbolic role in Dreaming and artistic traditions. Kurlama initiation ceremonies of the Tiwi are centred on a species of 'cheeky' yam that needs careful preparation to remove toxins (Mountford 1958:124, 130-43; Puruntatameri 2001:43; Smith 1990:57-8). The high importance of this species is due to its symbolic value. It would not be listed as a major food plant if assessed on its physical properties alone. Anthropomorphised yam figures are a prominent feature in early rock-art of Arnhem Land (Chaloupka 1993:89, 138-41; Flood 1997:283-5). In the Western Desert art movement since the 1960s, paintings in acrylic on canvas and art board have included Wild Yam, Bush Potato, Sugarleaf and Bush Cabbage Dreamings (Morphy 1998:292-3; Sutton 1988:222-3). In Central Australia, the recent artwork of female painters tends to focus on their gathering activities, particularly the plants they collect and the associated toolkit (Anderson and Dussart 1988:128). Growth of the Aboriginal art industry has led to further descriptions of plant use through the documentation of artworks, and the labels on bark-paintings or on canvases often contain unique ethnographic information that was compiled by art advisers directly from the painters.


So far, the thrust of this article has been on what Westerners have learnt from Indigenous peoples. It is also apparent that Aborigines have incorporated new plant uses into their daily lives. When I commenced studying Aboriginal plant use in southern South Australia during the early 1980s there were several introduced species, such as horehound, stinging nettle, sow thistle and wormwood, being used to prepare tonics and medicines (Clarke 1987). The fact that these were introduced plants was immaterial. The change in the biota of the landscape since European settlement had caused many of the earlier plant medicines to become extremely rare.

The transformation of the landscape is not just restricted to 'settled Australia'; it is also happening in remote regions. Invasive organisms, such as the South American cane toad and African buffel grass, are spreading across northern and central Australia, respectively (Low 1999). Even where few new species have become established, the cessation of Aboriginal vegetation firing has led to profound changes in environments (Flannery 1994; Hallam 1975; Head 1989; Kimber 1976; Latz 1995; Pyne 1991; Russell-Smith 1985). Although the movement by Indigenous peoples away from being solely hunters and gatherers has altered their plant-use practices, the change in the physical environment has produced a further gap between the present and the pre-European past. The issues surrounding Indigenous responses to environmental change are complex. In some areas, eradication of particular pest species, such as buffalo and goats, is not favoured as they are used for hunting (Wilson et al 1992:20-1). Such animals are also having an impact on the Australian vegetation.


The ethnosciences encompass the study of the physical and cultural relationships that Indigenous people have with the landscape. Indigenous studies literature contains other ethnosciences, such as ethnozoology, ethnobiology and ethocosmology. Yet ethnobotany is better known as a field, due to its concern with a diverse group of biochemically complex organisms that has been of intense interest to Europeans. Ethnobotany is methodologically suited to the study of the relationship between non-industrialised societies and the physical environment. (22) This is because the distance between the stages of plant collection, preparation and use for hunters and gatherers is less than in the case of the highly complex and spatially dispersed Western system of plant use. Nevertheless, all cultural groups have relationships to plants that ethnobotanists could study, given the appropriate techniques.

Ethnobotany maintains a common area of interest for a wide range of specialists. There are researchers with a scientific and economic interest in the Indigenous use of environmental resources that have treated ethnobotany as a study of the physical properties of the plants and their potential for use outside the Aboriginal arena. In contrast, anthropologists, linguists and cultural geographers have used ethnobotany to highlight the cultural importance of plants. Both approaches are valid and can sometimes be used in conjunction. Increasingly, Indigenous peoples are engaging in ethnobotany as part of their social history studies.

Areas of Australian ethnobotany that invite further study include the role of plants in Indigenous calendars, the description of changing systems of plant use, as well the greater application of Aboriginal ethnobotanic knowledge in environmental management. Cultural change and landscape transformation will continue to form the backdrop of ethnobotanical investigations. Since Australian ethnobotany is an area of study, rather than a discipline, it is a topic that will continue to be enriched by the different, but complementary, approaches that various specialists bring to it.


(1.) This article deals primarily with published literature. The AIATSIS library has many unpublished manuscripts concerning Australian ethnobotany.

(2.) MacPherson (1925, 1939) worked mainly in southern and eastern Australia; Cleland (1936, 1957, 1966; Cleland and Johnston 1933; Johnston and Cleland 1943) focused on southern Australia and the interior; Specht (1958) in Arnhem Land; Webb (1948, 1959, 1960, 1973, 1977) in Queensland; and Reid (1977; Reid and Betts 1979) in Western Australia.

(3.) The archival material in the Donald Thomson Collection is housed by the University of Melbourne. The artefacts are on loan to Museum Victoria.

(4.) The Norman B Tindale archival, plant and artefact collections are housed in the South Australian Museum.

(5.) More detailed ethnobotanical data from the Bush Medicines Project was published by Smith (1991).

(6.) The voucher specimens were lodged in Northern Territory herbaria.

(7.) Prance et al (1994) and the Journal of Ethnopharmacology provide a medical perspective. Some of my earlier ethnobotanical work in southern South Australia led to the flax lily being investigated for its antiviral properties by a pharmacologist (Semple 1998).

(8.) Cawte (1974), Eastwell (1973a, 1973b, 1978), Elkin (1977), Maddock and Cawte (1970), Plooij and O'Brien (1973), Reid (1978, 1979, 1982, 1983), Thomson and Merrifield (1988), and Wiminydji and Peile (1978) provide discussions of Aboriginal healing practices and concepts of health.

(9.) For example, Berkinshaw (1999), Boland (1997), Curtis (1974), Gott (1997), Graham and Hart (1997), Harwood (1994), Hele (2003), House and Harwood (1992), Jones (1985), B. King (1997, 1998), J.R. King (1997), Latz (1998), Leiper and Hauser (1983), Matthews (1997), Morse (1997), Palmer (1999), Phelps (1997), and Phelps and Phelps (1997).

(10.) Similar studies are those by Bindon (1996), Bruneteau (1996), Cherikoff and Isaacs (1989), Collins et al (1990), Isaacs (1987), Lassak and McCarthy (1983), Low (1985-86, 1989, 1991a, 1991b), Orchard and Wilson (1999), Roberts et al (1980), Robins (1996) and Smith and Smith (1999).

(11.) Examples of anthropological studies are those by Chase and Sutton (1981), Lee and DeVore (1968), Meggitt (1962, Table 2) and Peterson (1976). Archaeological works include Mulvaney and Golson (1971). Griffiths and Robin (1997) provided an environmental history of settler societies in Australia.

(12.) These techniques, and others from the pre-European period, have been recorded on video by the Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Media organisation and by the Ara Irititja Heritage Project based in the South Australian Museum.

(13.) For example, see statement by Smyth (1878:182) concerning the paucity of information concerning Aboriginal plant use at Port Phillip, Victoria.

(14.) McConnel (1953) and Roth (1901) gave descriptions of Aboriginal food procurement and hunting and gathering implements for groups living in northern and western Queensland, respectively. Worsnop (1897) provided a broad overview of Australia, largely drawn upon the available ethnographic literature and some personal experiences.

(15.) Selections of these plant-use specimens are presently on display in the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery at the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.

(16.) The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory established an Aboriginal plant-use garden in Darwin during the late 1980s. The Adelaide Botanic Gardens employs Indigenous Guides to take Aboriginal plant-use tours about their grounds. See Stewart and Percival (1997).

(17.) For the tropics, Kimberley seasons are discussed by Smith and Kalotas (1985:322-4); Arnhem Land by Davis (1989) and Hiatt and Jones (1988); Gulf of Carpentaria by Baker (1999:47); and Cape York Peninsula by Chase and Sutton (1981:1830-4), McConnel (1930:6-10) and Thomson (1939).

(18.) These derivations are from the following sources: Dixon et al (1990:121-3, 139-40), Ramson (1988:346, 383-4, 511-12, 711) and Thieberger and McGregor (1994:32, 72, 92, 187).

(19.) Examples in Western Australia are Lands (1987) and Paddy et al (1987) for Dampierland, and Rose (1984) for the eastern Kimberley. For the Northern Territory, there are studies by Puruntatameri (2001) for Bathurst and Melville Islands, Levitt (1981) for Groote Eylandt, and Rose (1987, 1988) for Victoria River Downs. In Queensland, the ethnobotanic literature contains Roberts et al (1995) for Mossman Gorge, and Kyriazis (1995) and Smyth (1982) for northern Cape York Peninsula. Central Australian examples are McEntee et al (1986) for the Flinders Ranges, Henshall et al (1980) for the Tanami Desert, and Goddard and Kalotas (1988), Mutitjulu Community and Baker (1996) and Roff (1983) from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara lands.

(20.) This extensive literature includes Blake et al (1998), Marrfurra (1995), Raymond and Wightman (1999), Smith et al (1993), Smith and Wightman (1990), Wightman et al (1994), Wightman et al (1991), Wightman, Dixon et al (1992), Wightman, Gurindji elders et al (1994), Wightman, Jackson et al (1991), Wightman et al (1992), Wightman and Smith (1989) and Yunupingu (1995).

(21.) Dodson (2000) makes a similar point in relation to human genetics research.

(22.) Martin (1995) has provided an outline of ethnobotanical methods.


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Philip Clarke has an academic background in biology, geography and anthropology. After studying at the University of Adelaide, he started working in the Aboriginal ethnographical collections at the South Australian Museum in 1982. Dr Clarke's early research interests were chiefly on Aboriginal use of plants as foods, medicines and materials for making artefacts, broadening out to Aboriginal perception and use of the land, with a particular focus on the cultural geography of southern Australia, and these resulted in several publications on Aboriginal mythology. From the early 1990s, Dr Clarke has worked mainly in Central and Northern Australia, investigating Aboriginal links to land. Amajor project at the Museum was the repatriation of Aboriginal men's secret-sacred objects back to senior cultural custodians. During 1998-2000 his major task was curating the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery Project.

Head of Anthropology and Manager of Sciences, Science Division, South Australian Museum <>
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Author:Clarke, Philip A.
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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