Evidence of Indigenous botanical knowledge

Australia’s first plant foods – eaten by early populations 65,000 years ago – have been discovered in Arnhem Land.

Preserved as pieces of charcoal, the morsels were recovered from the debris of ancient cooking hearths at the Madjedbebe archaeological site, on Mirarr country in northern Australia.

Anna Florin, an archaeobotanist from the University of Queensland says a team of archaeologists and Traditional Owners identified 10 plant foods, including several types of fruits and nuts, underground storage organs (‘roots and tubers’), and palm stem.

“By working with Elders and co-authors May Nango and Djaykuk Djandjomerr, the team was also able to explain how the plants were likely used at Madjedbebe,” Florin says.

Ancient plant remains show extensive preparation

The researchers suggest that many of these plant foods would have required processing.

Some of the foods, like the fruits and nuts would have been readily available and “high-ranked resources”. Other types of the plant foods like palm stems, palm pith and kernels would have been peeled, pounded and then cooked.

While none of the plants are toxic, the processes required to extract and make edible suggests multi-step and labour-intensive techniques.

“This evidence was complemented by grinding-stone technology also used during early occupation at the site,” says Florin.

Ancient plant remains_indigenous food_arnhem land
Researchers collecting plants in Kakadu National Park. Credit: The University of Queensland

“The First Australians had a great deal of botanical knowledge and this was one of the things that allowed them to adapt to and thrive in this new environment.

“They were able to guarantee access to carbohydrates, fat and even protein by applying this knowledge, as well as technological innovation and labour, to the gathering and processing of Australian plant foods.”

A powerful way to share culture with the world

Excavation director Chris Clarkson from UQ’s School of Social Science says he was surprised and delighted by the quantity of archaeobotanical evidence recovered from the site.

“Madjedbebe continues to provide startling insights into the complex and dynamic lifestyle of the earliest Australian Aboriginal people,” he says.

The oldest occupation layer at Madjedbebe also holds evidence for the oldest edge ground stone axes in the world, the earliest grindstone technology outside Africa, the early shaping of stone spearheads, many kilograms of ground ochre, and the first recorded use of reflective pigments in the world.

“The site is an important cultural place to Mirarr people today, who strive to protect their heritage from numerous threats, including mining,”  Florin says.

Justin O’Brien, CEO of Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation which represents the Mirarr Traditional Owners, says that research on country – working in meaningful partnership with Traditional Owners – was a powerful way to share Mirarr’s enduring culture with a broader audience.

The study is published in Nature Communications.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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