Australian Ethnobotany: An Overview

By Clarke, Philip A. | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Australian Ethnobotany: An Overview


Clarke, Philip A., Australian Aboriginal Studies


Abstract: Australian ethnobotany maintains a common area of interest for a wide range of specialists, some of whom study the physical properties of plants and their potential for use by the wider community, while others focus upon the Indigenous cultural importance of plant species. Rather than being just an antiquarian pursuit, Australian ethnobotany offers a greater insight into Indigenous seasonal calendars, which is leading to changes in land management practices in some regions.

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Ethnobotany is the study of the cultural use and perception of plants. As a term, 'ethnobotany' was first applied to the study of 'plants used by primitive and aboriginal people' in 1895 by a botanist, John W Harshberger, who was addressing a university archaeological association in America (Balick and Cox 1996:3; Clement 1998; Ford 1978:33). The 'ethno' refers to the study of people, while 'botany' concerns plants. It was the beginning of the academic field, taking over from studies referred to previously as 'applied botany', 'aboriginal botany' and 'botanical ethnography'.

The European documentation of Indigenous Australian plant use began much earlier, starting with land and sea exploration in the late eighteenth century. At this stage, it was primarily driven by practical needs, with the plants observed in use by Indigenous Australians in the 'new' land being investigated for their potential economic benefit to eventual settlers. When twentieth-century Western scholars began to study indigenous cultures in their own right, a different way of looking at human plant uses emerged, with ethnobotany becoming a field that also studied the complex interrelationship between culture and the physical environment. This involves the investigation of indigenous taxonomies and the symbolic role of plants in religious and totemic systems. Australian ethnobotany today is an area of interest rather than a discipline in itself, but still embraces both the applied and cultural aspects of human plant use.

Sources of information on Indigenous Australian use of plants is diverse, having been compiled by European settlers, explorers, biologists, pharmacologists, nutritionists, herbalists, anthropologists, medical specialists, ethnologists, social historians, linguists, geographers, archaeologists and by the users themselves.(1) Ashared focus on human plant use means that all can be called 'ethnobotanists'. Many of the individual researchers discussed here could be considered to be part of several of the above categories. The special interests of each recorder have led to various strengths and biases in the compilation of data, with a variety of techniques employed. Here I consider the intellectual traditions that produced the Australian ethnobotanical literature and indicate some developing areas worthy of future research.

Plant exploration

Western explorers and settlers of Australia often wrote detailed accounts of Indigenous life as they discovered it, which included lists and descriptions of Indigenous foods, medicines and artefact-making materials. Explorers in remote regions frequently encountered Aboriginal camps that had been deserted just prior to, or because of, their arrival. For example, in September 1845, the Prussian explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt (2000 [1847]:263-4), came across a deserted Aboriginal camp in the Gulf of Carpentaria where he found that the

   Seeds of Cycas [cycad palms] were cut into very thin
   slices, about the size of a shilling, and these were spread
   out carefully on the ground to dry, after which, (as I saw
   in another camp a few days later) it seemed that the dry
   slices are put for several days in water, and, after a good
   soaking, are closely tied up in tea-tree bark to undergo
   a peculiar process of fermentation.

Leichhardt's interest in wild foods and his botanical knowledge gave him a distinct advantage by allowing him to supplement his expedition supplies. …

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