Prior to European settlement, Australia’s indigenous people were primarily nomadic, moving from place to place to hunt and gather food. They had a deep understanding of the land, the seasons and the food sources. It is now recognised that they exerted considerable control over their environment, using methods including fire, taboos, grain harvesting and storage, fish and eel traps and some planting to ensure continuity of food supply. More
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’.
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 most of the dates in this indigenous food timeline section 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.
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.
1600s Trepang trade in northern Australia
Traders from Macassar in what is now Indonesia visited the northern coastlines to collect trepang (also called sea cucumbers) for shipping to China. Aboriginal rock art suggests this trade was underway during the mid-1600s. They introduced northern peoples to the dugout canoe.
1000 BP (Before Present) 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.
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.
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.
2000BP Hunting from canoes
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.
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.
4000 BP New wave of migration
Research indicates that at this time humans migrated to Australia from India 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.
7000 BP Bogong moth feasts
When the last ice age ended, hordes of Bogong moths began to migrate each summer to the alpine regions of NSW and Victoria. Aboriginal people may have begun congregating to eat them about that time. There’s firm evidence that dates back at least 1000 years.
7300 BP Dugong hunters on Torres Strait Islands
The oldest 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.
8000 BP Eel traps in SW Victoria
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, Aborigines 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.
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.
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 they found was at least 5000 years older than previous discoveries in Japan and Australia.
36,000BP Evidence of butchering megafauna
Finds at Cuddie Springs in north western New South Wales show that Aborigines were eating megafauna. Scientists identified DNA from giant kangaroos and Diprotodons in traces of blood and hair found on hearths and stone tools. But by around 30,000 years ago, these animals were extinct.
Were humans to blame? 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.
36,000BP The world’s first bread?
Grinding stones were also found at Cuddie Springs, suggesting that the people living here 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.
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.
68,000 BP Aboriginal people arrive 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.