The Burke and Wills expedition to cross Australia to the Gulf of Carpentaria ended in tragedy when the explorers ran out of food. There are suggestions that their death was hastened by eating nardoo, a form of native cereal made from the spores of a fern. Aboriginal people knew how to prepare nardoo, but in its raw form the Thiaminase it contains can destroy vitamin B1, causing beri-beri.

Departure of Burke and Wills expedition
Nicholas Chevalier – 1860 Memorandum of the Start of the Exploring Expedition – Art Gallery of South Australia

Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills led an expedition that left from Melbourne in August 1860 with the aim of crossing the continent from south to north. Although the initial group consisted of 19 men, 23 horses and 26 specially imported camels, just four men made the dash for the Gulf: Burke, Wills, John King and Charles Gray.

The “dash” took much longer than expected and food supplies ran low. The men ate native three of their six camels and eked out their supplies by eating native vegetation and even a snake. Gray died on the return trip. On arriving back at the Cooper Creek base, Burke, Wills and King found it abandoned.

Although they found some supplies buried at the camp site, these were soon exhausted. The local aboriginal people gave them  food including some fish and a type of damper made from the nardoo plant.  The explorers eventually discovered how to harvest nardoo and used it to supplement their dwindling supplies.

During the last days of their lives, Burke and Wills were subsisting entirely on nardoo. There is still debate about whether or how much this contributed to their deaths. One theory is that the toxic enzyme needs to be destroyed by cooking, while the explorers simply ate it as a form of porridge or ate the seeds whole. However, Wills’ diary seems to contradict this. It’s likely that a combination of malnutrition, scurvy, beri-beri and exposure caused their deaths.

Both Burke and Wills died in June 1861. King survived by locating the local Yandruwandha people who sustained him until a relief mission arrived in September 1861.