Ancient Aboriginal foodways could impact future food

Tuesday, 14 November, 2023

Ancient Aboriginal foodways could impact future food

A University of Queensland-led research team has said that better understanding of ancient Indigenous food production systems may be the key to a more sustainable food future.

Their ARC Discovery project, ‘Testing the Dark Emu hypothesis’, published in Archaeology of Food and Foodways, combines bioarchaeology, archaeobotany, palynology, ethnobotany and plant genetics in partnership with Indigenous communities to challenge existing perspectives.

UQ bioarchaeologist Associate Professor Michael Westaway said transdisciplinary research was needed to confirm whether Aboriginal communities were farmers rather than foragers, with evidence of early aquaculture and possibly cultivation.

“We’re working closely with Indigenous communities, because Aboriginal people are increasingly keen to gain insights into how their people cared for Country and developed these types of sustainable food production systems,” Westaway said.

“We’ve found extensive evidence the largest forager quarries in the world were in western Queensland, where the Mithaka people extracted stone slabs to make grinding stones for processing seeds.

“We’ve also excavated the fireplaces of gunyahs, traditional Aboriginal huts, and found remnants of burned carbonised seeds, which archaeobotanists are now examining to identify the species.”

The team was also able to reconstruct how the surrounding vegetation of ancient lake beds had changed over time with pollen cores taken from the lake beds.

“The ethnohistory shows us that Aboriginal people would prepare for a big flood by burning the surrounding riverine plains, to increase the productivity of the landscape,” Westaway said.

There are examples of food production and acquisition systems, associated infrastructure and housing across Aboriginal Australia. Some examples of staple food plants are marked across large regions of the country.

The researchers are able to learn about the timing of the burnings by identifying carbon peaks in the cores from the lake beds. These records may indicate domestication of landscapes.

The research team has also looked at plant genetics, including drought resistance.

Robert Henry, UQ Professor of Innovation in Agriculture, said a methodical, transdisciplinary approach was necessary to reveal the complete story of ancient Indigenous food production.

Henry looked at the contemporary flora and how the plants might have been changed by humans over time, including changes in seed size or whether the plant would have been edible, which he is trying to link with the archaeological findings.

“This is significant from an agricultural point of view, as there may have been practices in the past that are useful to know about for the future.

“Climate change means we will have to adapt agriculture to new climates, as they did in the past,” Henry said.

Westaway said the research has the potential to open new ways of thinking about using native flora in a more sustainable way that would support new industry.

Remains of a gunyah on Country. Image credit: Michael Westaway.

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