Historical Event

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January 1, 1906





Short Description:

The general food types used by Australian Aborigines are discussed, but especially ways to catch fish and shellfish.





The Natives of Australia

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Pre-civilization races

Important Text:


Fishing, hooks, nets, weirs, etc. ; cooking. Fowling, snaring, netting, etc. ; cooking. Tracking. Hunting, spearing kangaroos, cooking, opossums ; tree-cHmbing. Crocodile noosing. Food tabus. Division of game. Cannibalism, food, ceremonial, magical. Moths, grubs as food. Honey. Fermented liquors. Water-finding. Cultivation of plants. Nardoo, zamia nuts, yams, etc. Pituri. 

In few parts of Australia can the native count on anything like regular supplies of food. He is dependent on the course of the seasons for his seeds and fruits ; the time of year also affects the supply of fish in many parts ; and in Central Australia, perhaps owing to the barrenness of the land, much time is given up, if our accounts are accurate, to magical ceremonies, whose object is to promote the increase of game and plant life, so difficult does the native find it to obtain sustenance. 

Broadly speaking, the Australian has four kinds of nourishment, fish, flesh, grubs and insects, and vegetable ; but the supply of these varies very largely in different parts of the country. Near Lake Alexandrina, for example, five hundred or six hundred people would gather and stay for months together ; during the biinya-bitnya season, once in three years tribes would come from a great distance in South Queensland to enjoy the fruit In New South Wales, a kind of a moth, Agrotis, formed the staple food of the natives for weeks in one part of the mountains. But it was rare that there was a certain supply of this sort ; as a rule, the native does not know until he catches it what his dinner will consist of. 

There are many different methods of procuring the fish, nearly all of which are practised in North Queensland and included by Dr. Roth in his admirable study of the search for food in that area. He mentions fourteen distinct methods, many of which are again subdivided. One of the simplest, requiring no appliances, is that employed on parts of the Georgina River, where a sort of catfish abounds ; the blacks walk the stream and transfix the fish with their feet. Another procedure is to make the water muddy by trampling with the feet and then to hit the fish or spear them when they come to the surface. More important is the method of poisoning ; Dr. Roth enumerates more than twenty vegetable substances used in this way, and these by no means exhaust the list of plants so used in Australia, for it does not include Diiboisia species, one kind of which gives the well-known pituri and is also used in Central Australia to poison the water-holes for emu. 

More complicated are the methods collectively termed ' bobbing.' Eels are caught by transfixing big round worms with finely split lawyer cane, and putting a dozen or so of this bait down at the end of a short stick. As soon as the fisherman feels a bite, he jerks the stick over his shoulder and the eel lies on the bank. Sometinnes the bait is not impaled, but simply tied head and tail ; but the most remark- able method, used with small fish fry, entails the use of spider's web ; on the lower Tully River is a very large spider, which the natives kill, preserving the abdomen ; they then wind off the web upon the end of a stick and dip the free end into the glutinous silk bag of the dead spider and bob it on the surface of the water ; the fry bite very readily and get their jaws stuck together, with the result that they are hauled out at a great pace by children as well as grown persons. 

Big fish, such as the dugong and turtle, are captured with the aid of the remora or sucker fish ; it is often found fixed on the bottom of a canoe and then kept in water for a few days. Going out to sea, the native ties a string to its tail, and as soon as he has got as close as may be to a dugong, over goes the remora ; it probably fixes itself on the game, but its only use is to serve as a guide ; the fish is not drawn in with the aid of the remora, which only tells the native when he can with advantage make use of his harpoon. The harpoon is used not only for dugong and turtle, but also for the larger kinds of fish : it is essentially a spear with a detachable head, fixed to the shaft so that the two cannot be entirely separated, by a line of some sort ; the shaft is often itself secured by a line, so that the fisherman can haul in his own booty without the need of going after his harpoon. At the mouth of the Tully River shark are harpooned by moonlight ; the harpooner can see by the ripple on the water where the fish is ; his line, thirty fathoms long, is carefully coiled in a dilly bag hung round his neck, a few coils only being held free in his hand, and as soon as he has struck his fish he bends forward to allow the line to uncoil. 

Fishgigs are often used for striking fish in the water ; sometimes the black will strike at random in a deep hole, and after floods a row of men will wade and capture eels by the same haphazard method. In the case of big fish they will dive and spear them from the side or from underneath ; this they do in some parts with the aid of a fire, getting the fish between them and the light. Spearing by torchlight was also common in Victoria ; at night three bark canoes would go upstream, in the stem of each several torches of manna-tree wood ; a native stood or sat with his back to the light and struck at the fish as he passed them. Another method was to lie across the canoe with the face in the water. 

Fish hooks of various kinds are in use, from the primitive vine tendril to the European article in our own day. Besides these, eagle-hawk talons, shells ground down, tortoise-shell similarly prepared, composite hooks with emu, kangaroo, or catfish barbs, simple bone hooks and hooks of two pieces of wood joined by a lump of resin, are in use. The bait in the north is a shrimp or crab, which is never transfixed but invariably chewed before use ; on the Murray, according to Angas, small boys were killed and their fat employed as bait. In New South Wales fishing with hook and line was the especial province of the women, and in the section on canoes will be found a description of how a fond mother took her offspring with her to the fishing-ground. In the canoe was a fire on a mud or seaweed hearth ; the fish was halt warmed on this and then eaten.

A favourite method in some parts is to put down hollow logs of eucalyptus ; these are left for some hours and then taken up again. More common is the use of baskets and cages ; on the Tully small fry go up the river in flood-time in a column a foot broad and a foot deep ; when a woman sees a convenient spot she bends over, holds the mouth of her dilly bag to meet the advancing shoal, and very quickly has it full ; the catch is then tied up in wild ginger leaves for baking. More elaborate is the capture of eels with the eel-basket, a long, narrow cage like a rather magnified umbrella cover ; they are laid lengthways in a shallow part of a creek, and the fishermen beat downstream. 

To enumerate all the different kinds of nets and methods of using them would require a chapter to itself. On the Diamantina nets twenty to twenty-two feet long are worked by two men ; they are wider in the middle than at the ends, and have light poles nine feet long at each end. Twenty or thirty nets are worked together, and the men swim out, holding the poles with one hand and one foot ; they slowly approach the bank in crescent formation, driving the fish before them. Twenty minutes or so is required for a single haul, and they rest after three or four; except for this interval and a rest of three hours in the heat of the day, they work without intermission. 

In South Australia the nets were furnished with a bag containing smaller meshes at one end, into which the smaller fish were driven as the net was hauled in. They apparently wait on the shore until they see the fish before they unfold the net ; then they take it into the water, those on shore keeping them informed of the position of the fish ; as soon as they are enclosed in it, the net is drawn ashore, the central part being kept open by straight sticks of Mallee tied across it. In the Boulia district the method is the reverse of that followed on the Diamantina, which is not far to the east. Two men start into the water at a time, the net between them ; they are followed by other pairs who overlap the preceding couple, and a closed space is thus gradually formed, into which the beaters drive the fish ; the nets are about six feet long. Folding frame nets are in use in Queensland ; instead of being raised out of the water when a fish is caught, the two halves are shut on one another like a purse ; to do this the fisherman may grope the shallow channels, the net at his side or in front ; or it may be fixed in a narrow channel with a watcher on the bank, or a snag close to it, ready to jump in when he sees a fish. Another method, somewhat like the preceding one, is to use two nets, one in each hand ; the fishermen take the water in a semicircle, and others, sometimes without wets, will act as beaters. As a rule, the Australian net has neither floats nor sinkers, but Sturt records the use of both on the Darling River. 

Over the greater part of Australia stone dams and weirs are in use for catching fish. They have breaks in them, in which are sometimes fixed nets, or the platforms may be covered with boughs and a top layer of grass, in which the fish are entangled ; in the Gulf stone dams are erected in the shape of a semi-circle, the extremity of which may reach as much as three hundred yards from the shore. But the most famous weir is in the Brewarina. G. S. Lang says of it : This weir is about sixty-five miles above the township of Bourke ; it is built at a rocky part of the river, from eighty to one hundred yards in width, and extends about one hundred yards of the river's course. It forms an immense labyrinth of stone walls about three or four feet high, forming circles from two to four feet in diameter, some opening into one another, forming very crooked but continuous passages, others having only one opening. In floods as much as twenty feet of water sweeps over them and carries away the tops of the walls ; but the lower parts are so solidly and skilfully built with large, heavy stones, which must have been brought a considerable distance and with great combined labour, that they have stood every flood from time immemorial. Every summer this labyrinth is repaired, and the fish in going up and down the river get confused in its mazes, and are caught by the blacks by hand in immense quantities. 

Other enclosures were made, especially at flood-time, with stakes or bush fences. Dr. Roth describes one which he saw at the head of Birthday Creek ; it was one hundred feet long, composed of six or eight long logs supported on forked timbers at the height of the water surface ; to the timbers were fastened dozens of thin switches, the ends of which were firmly stuck in the mud ; they were eight or ten feet high, and near the sides were left two openings in which nets were set ; the fish were taken in these, as long as the floods lasted ; then they were speared along the base of the switches which formed the central portion. In a tidal creek near Mapoon, the site of the Moravian mission, Dr. Roth saw a blind alley made of bushes ; it was some three feet high, with a partition considerably below the level of the remainder. 

On the Gwydir Mitchell found osier nettings of neat workmanship ; the frame was as well squared as if a carpenter had made it ; osier twigs were inserted at regular intervals so as to form an efficient snare ; these were set up in a river and a small opening left in the centre, to which an ordinary net was applied. 

Movable bush fences are also used ; the women take up their positions across the whole breadth of a water-hole and push before them grass tussets and leafy boughs, by which the fish are pushed up to the bank. 

Some kinds of shellfish, notably oysters, were not eaten in some parts ; but mussels formed an important article of food on the Lower Murray. On Lake Alexandrina it was eaten with a kind of bulrush root ; the women used to dive for the mussels with a net round their necks ; they remained three or four minutes under water, and often brought up a net full ; they dived from a raft and cooked the mussels on a hearth of wet seaweed and sand. For eight months in the year they gathered crayfish ; these they caught with their toes, groping for them in the water ; when they had caught them they immediately crushed the claws to prevent the fish from nipping them. The crayfish were roasted in the embers of their charcoal fires. 

A common way of killing fish was for the fisherman to bite them just behind the head. The preparations for cooking differed according to the tribe ; sometimes they were simply thrown on the fire and broiled — on the Macleay River they were carefully gutted and roasted on hot embers ; but the West Australian method was more elaborate and produced results not unworthy of more famous chefs ; the method is called yadarn dookoon, or tying-up cooking. A piece of thick and soft paper bark is selected and torn into an oblong shape ; the fish is laid in this and wrapped up, strings of bark are wound tightly round the bark and the fish, which is then slowly baked in heated sand covered with hot ashes ; when the fish is done, the bark is opened and forms a dish full of juice or gravy.