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Food Taboos

It is common for natives to have taboos around how to eat food.

Food Taboos

Recent History

September 30, 1771

Samuel Hearne

A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772

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The Indians observe a taboo where they avoid the best meats and other pleasures for a time after murdering the Eskimo

Among the various superstitious customs of those people, it is worth remarking, and ought to have been mentioned in its proper place, that immediately after my companions had killed the Esquimaux at the Copper River, they considered themselves in a state of uncleanness, which induced them to practise some very curious and unusual ceremonies. In the first place, all who were absolutely concerned in the murder were prohibited from cooking any kind of victuals, either for themselves or others. As luckily there were two in company who had not shed blood, they were employed always as cooks till we joined the women. This circumstance was exceedingly favourable on my side; for had there been no persons of the above description in company, that task, I was told, would have fallen on me; which would have been no less fatiguing and troublesome, than humiliating and vexatious.

1771. September.

When the victuals were cooked, all the murderers took a kind of red earth, or oker, and painted all the space between the nose and chin, as well as the greater part of their cheeks, almost to the ears, before they would taste a bit, and would not drink out of any other dish, or smoke out of any other pipe, but their own; and none of the others seemed willing to drink or smoke out of theirs.

We had no sooner joined the women, at our return from the expedition, than there seemed to be an universal spirit of emulation among them, vying who should first make a suit of ornaments for their husbands, which consisted of bracelets for the wrists, and a band for the forehead, composed of porcupine quills and moose-hair, curiously wrought on leather.

The custom of painting the mouth and part of the cheeks before each meal, and drinking and smoking out of their own utensils, was strictly and invariably observed, till the Winter began to set in; and during the whole of that time they would never kiss any of their wives or children. They refrained also from eating many parts of the deer and other animals, particularly the head, entrails, and blood; and during their uncleanness, their victuals were never sodden in water, but dried in the sun, eaten quite raw, or broiled, when a fire fit for the purpose could be procured.

When the time arrived that was to put an end to these ceremonies, the men, without a female being present, made a fire at some distance from the tents, into which they threw all their ornaments, pipe-stems, and dishes, which were soon consumed to ashes; after which a feast was prepared, consisting of such articles as they had long been prohibited from eating; and when all was over, each man was at liberty to eat, drink, and smoke as he pleased; and also to kiss his wives and children at discretion, which they seemed to do with more raptures than I had ever known them do it either before or since.

August 23, 1823

Journal of a Voyage to Spitzbergen and the East Coast of Greenland, in his Majesty's Ship Griper. By
Douglas CHARLES CLAVERING, Esq. F.R.S., Commander. Communicated by JAMES SMITH, Esq. of
Jordanhill, F. R. S. E. With a Chart of the Discoveries of Captains CLAVERING and SCORESBY,

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Their amazement at seeing one of the seamen shoot a seal was quite unbounded. They heard for the first time the report of a musket, and turning round in the direction in which the animal was killed, and floating on the water, one of them was desired to go in his canoe and fetch it. Before landing it he turned it round and round, till he observed where the ball had penetrated, and, putting his finger into the hole, set up a most extraordinary shout of astonishment, dancing and capering in the most absurd manner.

August 21.- We now pushed for the Fiord or opening to the south, which I expected would lead us again to the coast. After pulling a distance of sixteen miles, we encamped a tour sixth station. The inlet was from a quarter of a mile to a mile and a half in breadth, but of a sufficient depth of water for a vessel drawing 14 feet; the sides were more level than the shores we had hitherto passed the mountains not rising so abruptly from the sea, and the face of the country presenting a less barren and heath-like appearance. We shot some swans, which we found excellent eating. 


August 22.- Proceeded up the inlet, the head of which we soon reached : it terminated in low marshy land, about eighteen miles from its entrarice from the bay; named it Loch Fine. Up to this period, with the exception of the gale on the night of the 17th, we had had a constant calm, accompanied with the most beautiful and serene weather, so that the whole distance we had hitherto come, we had always occasion to make use of our oars. After refreshing ourselves at our seventh station, we started on our return, with a fine breeze from the southward, and made such progress, that we were enabled to reach our Esquimaux friends the same evening, although it had again fallen calm, and we were obliged to ply our oars for the last seven miles. 


August 23. and 24. 

These two days were spent with the natives, whom we found to consist of twelve in number, including women and children. We were well received by them, but our attempts at making ourselves understood were very unsuccessful. They are evidently the same race as the Esquimaux in the other parts of Greenland and the northern parts of America. Our intercourse was of too short duration to acquire any of their language ; but the descriptions given by Captains Parry and Lyons of the natives at Igluleik, in many particulars resembled those of our friends. I observed particularly the same superstitious ceremony of sprinkling water over a seal or walrus before they commence skinning it. 


Their amazement at seeing one of the seamen shoot a seal was quite unbounded. They heard for the first time the report of a musket, and turning round in the direction in which the animal was killed, and floating on the water, one of them was desired to go in his canoe and fetch it. Before landing it he turned it round and round, till he observed where the ball had penetrated, and, putting his finger into the hole, set up a most extraordinary shout of astonishment, dancing and capering in the most absurd manner. He was afterwards desired to skin it, which he did expeditiously and well. Wishing to give them farther proofs of our skill in shooting, several muskets were fired at a mark, but without permitting them to see us load. A pistol was afterwards put into their hands,and one of them fired into the water; the recoil startled him so much, that he immediately slunk away into his tent. 


The following morning we found they had all left us, leaving their tents and every thing behind, which I have no doubt was occasioned by their alarm at the firing.

January 2, 1906

The Natives of Australia

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It might be thought that the natural difficulties of securing a good meal were sufficient without any addition of artificial ones ; but this is not the view of the Australian native. Complicated rules, which varied with the tribe, limited the species and parts of the individual animals which were lawful food for boys, young men, girls, married women, and so on.

FOOD TABUS


 It might be thought that the natural difficulties of securing a good meal were sufficient without any addition of artificial ones ; but this is not the view of the Australian native. Complicated rules, which varied with the tribe, limited the species and parts of the individual animals which were lawful food for boys, young men, girls, married women, and so on. In the Wotjoballuk tribe boys might not eat of the kangaroo, padimelon, or young native companion ; until he reaches the age of forty a man may not partake of the tail part of the emu or bustard. In the Bigambul tribe young men might not eat of the female opossum, carpet snake, wild turkey, and so on. Honey from certain trees is also a forbidden sweet. Sometimes the penalty believed to follow the breaking of these rules was nothing more serious than grey hairs ; more often illness, skin diseases, and death were prophesied as the judgment that would overtake the offenders. In the Wakelbura tribe it was believed that the young man or young woman who ate emu, black-headed snake, or porcupine would pine away and die, uttering the cry of the creature which they had eaten, for the spirit of the creature would enter them. 


The origin of these food tabus is very difficult to get at ; but in some cases there can be little doubt that the old men were simply playing for their own hand in imposing them. 


This was not all, for there were superadded complicated rules as to the distribution of the game which a man might kill and enjoy personally. Among the Kurnai a catch of eels might be divided as follows : The fisherman and his wife would take a large eel, his mother's brother a large eel, the children of his mother's brother a small eel, and his married daughter a small eel. If a Ngarego man killed a native bear it would be divided as follows : he himself would take the left ribs, his father the right hind leg, his mother the left hind leg, his elder brother the right and his younger the left foreleg, his elder sister would receive the backbone, the younger the liver, his father's brother the right ribs, his mother's brother a piece of the flank, while the head was sent to the bachelors' camp. In the case of a kangaroo both the father and mother of the hunter would get a large portion, but they would have to share it with their own parents. 


It will be noticed that there is no provision for the children of the man's own family ; this is due to the fact that they are often provided for by their grandparents. The supply of vegetable food obtained by a Kurnai woman belonged to her and her children. Among the Yerkla Mining there was a still more communistic arrangement, for the food was shared equally between the whole camp. There were also rules in many tribes as to property in game ; if a hunter wounded an animal it was his property, if it was finally taken, whether he gave it the coup de grace or not.

January 3, 1906

Natives of Australia - Disposal of Dead

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Mr. Gason, not a very reliable authority, says that the fat of the corpse is eaten.

Further to the north-east, on the Gulf of Carpentaria, the tribes eat the flesh of the dead man, and then, after some elaborate ceremonies, bury the bones. In the Binbinga tribe a fire is made in a hole in the ground, the head is cut off, the liver taken out, and the limbs dismembered. No woman may take part in the cannibal feast. The bones are taken to the camp of the dead man's father, and he puts them in a parcel : a stout stick is placed upright in the ground, and in the fork of this the parcel is placed ; a fire is lighted in a clear space round it, and in the smoke of this fire is supposed to be seen the spirit of the dead man. Only his father and mother may approach the fire. After a time the bones are placed in a log, and this in the boughs of a tree overhanging a water-hole, to be finally disposed of by a great flood or some similar catastrophe. 


South of the Arunta are the Dieri. After a death they wail for hours at a time and smear their bodies with pipeclay. Tears course down the cheeks of the women, but when they are addressed the mourn- ino- stops as if by magic. As soon as the breath leaves the body of the sick man, the women and children leave the camp, the men pull down his hut so as to get at the body, and it is prepared for burial by being tied up. The great toes are fastened together, and the thumbs are secured behind the back ; this they say is to prevent 'walking.' Eight men take the corpse on their heads, and the grave is filled, not with earth, but with wood, in order to keep the dingo at bay. The space round the grave is carefully swept, and the camp is moved from its original situation, so as to evade the attentions of the spirit if it should happen to get back to its old haunts. Mr. Gason, not a very reliable authority, says that the fat of the corpse is eaten ; the mother eats of her children, the children of their mother, brothers-in-law eat of sisters- in-law and vice versd ; but the father does not eat of his offspring, nor they of him.

January 2, 1908

Some Notes on Cannibalism

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Human kidney fat was used by cannibals in the belief that it conferred magical qualities on the recipient. and they were "fond of the fat of a dead foe, which is not only eaten as a delicacy and as a strengthening food, but is also carried as an amulet."

The utilization of kidney fat in the belief that it conferred magical qualities on the recipient seems to have been practised in both the northern and southern halves of the survey area. In the Maryborough district, after the flesh had been eaten, the kidney fat was rubbed on the points of spears and the kidneys themselves affixed thereon to make the spears more deadly.'*'' 


Mrs K. Emmerson 48, now residing at Chinchilla, relates that when she was living near the Bowen River in 1908, an Aboriginal employee of her father was killed by members of a local tribal group and his kidney fat eaten. 


An instance was reported 49 in the wild country between the headwaters of the Herbert and Burdekin Rivers as recently as 1934. In fact fat in general was highly regarded for its magical powers. Howitt 50 recorded how Aborigines of the "Turrbal tribe" rubbed it over their bodies; Thomas 51 that it was rubbed on the faces of the "principal medicine men". Duramboi left behind an account 52 of how an Aborigine would hold a receptacle under his portion of flesh in order to catch the melting fat, which he then imbibed. Lumholtz 53 reported that the Aborigines of the Herbert River were fond of the fat of a dead foe, which is not only eaten as a delicacy and as a strengthening food, but is also carried as an amulet. A small piece is done up in grass and kept in a basket worn around the neck, and the effect of this is, in their opinion, success in the chase, so that they can easily approach the game.



47. Howitt, A. W.: op. cit. P. 753. 


48. Letters from Mrs K. Emmerson to the writer. 


49. Registry of Northern Supreme Court, Townsville. Cases 370 and 371 of 1934. In the case of the two North Queensland instances reported on Page 27 where Aborigines were killed and their kidney-fat eaten, the writer considers that investigations could be made with advantage of the belief by local white residents, that the two victims had been so treated because of their alleged violation of tribal laws relating to women. 


50. Howitt, A. W.: op. cit. P. 752. 

51. Thomas, A. W.: op. cit. P. 110. 

52. Lang, J. D.: Cooksland. P. 427. 

53. Lumholtz, C. op. cit. P. 272.

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