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Issue 11 - June July 1999  

Ethnoecological Research Long Word - fascinating topic...

Jim Doyle


Australian Ethnoecological research is a relatively old field of study, which is experiencing a degree of popularity once again in recent handyears. This field has been studied for at least forty thousand years in Australia, (only I don't think it was called Ethnoecology way back then, I think it was called survival,) but the principles were much the same. With a growing interest in indigenous studies there has been a resurgence of interest in bushfoods and bush medicines . Most cities now boast a restaurant, which claims to serve "Bush Tucker" , but it could be argued that the food served, has been modified so much that it no longer could be classified as a natural resource.


Ethnoecology is basically, the study of indigenous peoples' uses of all natural resources for the purpose of aiding in subsistence and or survival. This in general terms means a study of bushfoods, bush medicines, survival aids and survival analysis and how and why it is utilised. But the knowledge that can be gained from this field can be utilised in far more ways than just the obvious! As a starting point though, we can say when talking about bush tucker we are referring to the natural resources that are utilised for the purpose of subsistence or survival. With bush medicine, we are referring to the natural resources that are utilised for maintaining good health and or the relief of sickness or ailments. Bush techniques/survival aids refer to the natural resources that are utilised for the purpose of aiding subsistence or survival and survival analysis is the study of subsistence strategies.

There have been many Ethnoecological projects undertaken by different people and organisations in Australia in recent years but none would be possible without the knowledge of the Aboriginal people of Australia. Many Aboriginal communities have, over the last few years, endeavoured to record their own Ethnoecological knowledge and many have resulted in small publications going to print. Most people would be familiar with Les Hiddins, AKA "The Bush Tucker Man". Each week he brought us an insight to the use of many of the resources used by aboriginal people and others but few would be aware of the contribution Mr. Hiddins made to the Australian Defence Department in cataloguing the resources of Northern Australia. There are many other people with an interest in bush tucker and other related fields of studies who have initiated a variety of different research projects over the past years. Many early explorers and anthropologists noted resources used by aboriginal people during their journeys and some even applied this knowledge for their very survival. So we shouldn't forget the contribution they made to our current knowledge and understanding. It was not until our early explorers were exploring the country that any real effort was made to record the use of the natural resources by Aboriginals. Many of the explorers noticed how the Aboriginal people appeared to be in good health, when in many cases they themselves (the non-aboriginals) were sick. Consequently, many explorers began noting in their journals information about resources used by Aboriginals, what was used, how it was prepared, how it was applied and whether it appeared to work. In Australia, there appears to be many different uses of natural resources for medicinal purposes by the Australian Aboriginals. Some bush medicines were utilised for the purpose of contraception, childbirth, abortions, fertility, narcotics etc. With the year 2000 approaching rapidly, we as non-Aboriginals know very little about Aboriginal knowledge of medicinal resources eg. bush medicine, how it was used, what was used etc.

There are a number of possible reasons for this:

Aboriginal people had no use for writing; therefore this knowledge was never documented until recently. Medicinal knowledge was normally only known to a few in the group and handed down as required.

Many of the treatments appear to have no medical reason for working (yet many did), so many non-Aboriginal people believed it was `a ritual thing' rather than having any real value to science. Because of this belief, there wasn't a lot of interest in the subject and therefore the recording of this knowledge wasn't widespread by early Non Aboriginal people.coolaman

Aboriginal people having been in this country for at least 40,000 years, and with their gatherer/hunter subsistence system, were required to relocate regularly so their use of medicinal resources was quite 

varied and in doing so were able to treat most illnesses before non Aboriginal peoples arrival.

With the arrival of non-Aboriginal people, there was a huge impact on the way that Aboriginal people utilised the natural resources. Non Aboriginal people brought with them many new illnesses. They also brought the drugs used to treat the illnesses that came with them.

Until this contact with non-Aboriginal people, Aboriginal people had no way of directly boiling water. With the introduction of the `Billycan', Aboriginal people were able to utilise a whole new range of resources.

By the mid 1800's, the so-called civilised world wanted to know everything about medical practices. This in part was due to the fact that Europeans were no longer of the mind that only Witches etc. could use natural resources for the treatment of sickness. The other reason is that, after the American Civil War, medical practitioners of the time wanted to find ways of relieving the pain and suffering of the wounded.

Although humans have historically exploited natural resources for medicinal purposes do contain trace elements and chemical properties that our modern drugs try to reproduce. The resources that are utilised for food have been found to contain high levels of vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates and other nutrients, which are essential to our very survival. So, this as a scientific understanding of our environment, is of immense benefit.

To anthropologist and archaeologist, this information is also of immense benefit because it can tell us a great deal about the social structures, belief systems, survival strategies and how humans adapted to change in circumstance or environment. Historians can also gain by this knowledge (by understanding through the achieves of explorers, anthropologist, archaeologist and missionaries etc) what their lives were like at a given time, how hard or how easy they found subsisting in the new land. People who have an interest in pure survival, also gain from the hard data of what resources can be utilised for the purpose of survival because this very data tell us what you can eat, drink, or utilise. And finally, the Aboriginal people of Australia are given the opportunity to have their knowledge recorded and available for prosperity. This paper has only touched on a very fascinating area of study, which I believe has something for all in understanding the diversity of humankind. I am concerned more with the scientific study of such resources.  

Index 11
From the Editor
Queensland Bushfood Association
A word on Buying Seed
Yarrawarra Aboriginal Corp
What's fruiting?
Native Herb Forum 1.
Ethnoecological Research.
Illawarra plum.
Methods of Growing Bushtucker
Bushfoods and Farm Forestry
Bushfood Artist.
Backhousia citriodora.
FEATURE: Davidson Plum.
Principles of Oil Extraction. J
Queensland Conference.
Solanum centrale association.
Somewhat Useful Pages.
The Value Adders: Greg Trevena and Fudge A'fare
Book Review.
Red Ochre Grill
Famous Palates

Nellie the Illawarra plum

Col Walpole of Toowoomba adds a little passion to the topic...podocarp

Podocarpus elatus - but not Nellie!

I have given this article the title of `Nellie the Illawarra Plum' because I met this fine lady only this May and I have been in love with her ever since. You may well ask, "What is the reason for such an abiding passion?"

The answer lies in her beautiful form, her prolific generosity and, above all, her long time loyalty and legendary endurance of the most difficult relationships.

It sounds almost sexual, doesn't it? But - before you get any ideas, Nellie is a plant. Besides, I'm happily married. So why am I so interested? The answer lies in my fascination for bushfoods in general and this tree in particular.

The correct long words that Nellie goes by are Podocarpus elatus. She is female and dioecious (having male and female organs on separate individuals). She belongs to a genus that has some one hundred species worldwide, six of which are found on our continent.

Oliver Carter tells me that all Podocarpus have edible fruit, though some, like Podocarpus lawrencei, have fruit which are only 2mm across - it would be pretty difficult to get a feed off that beast.

But my Nellie has large fruit - large by bushfood standards.

In the height of the setting season the fruit measured about 3-4cm in girth and there were probably 80 to 100 kg on the tree. The fruit is unusual in that the part you eat is actually the enlarged stem (podo = foot + karpos = fruit). The name refers to the fleshy `foot-like' stalk of the fruit.

The seeds, which are at the end of the fruit, are the fruit proper. These are hardly edible - mainly seed in fact - obviously Nellie wants them planted, not eaten!

Nellie fruits at the beginning of winter and I did not notice any fruit fly strike on the fruit.

Errol Hussan, plant protection lecturer at UQG, suggests that either the fly doesn't prefer the fruit or the tree fruits late in the season, making it less vulnerable to attack. We use the fruit for making jam and sauces. If the fruit is scarce, you can mix it with apple, the most important feature of the fruit is its distinctive, slightly resinous and unusual flavour.

Currently, I am looking for Rodney. He is Nellie's mate and probably the mate of a number of other females. Lucky philandering boy.

Yes folks, you need a male on the scene, one to about seven females, in fact.

I'm also in the process of germinating the large seed (this takes about three months).

If you could use some seed, contact Sammy Ringer. She sells them in convenient packs.

I have had considerable success in striking the cuttings to date. Cuttings are done because it is important to know which gender the plant has and it is best to select cuttings from a plant that has good inherent fruit characteristics like my Nellie.

So that's just part of the reason I'm excited about Nellie. I hope she and a couple other trees that grow in the streets of Toowoomba will form the basis for the future of my business and the business of many others. In a future article, I will tell you about the search for the elusive chocolate lily - that's another ripping yarn full of the usual touch of adventure, punctuated with the occasional tall tale.

Bit like Indiana Jones isn't it? But then, that's the fascination and romance of being in an industry that is fast carving out a name for itself.