'Same Time Poison, Same Time Good Tucker': The Cycad Palm in the South West Gulf of Carpentaria

By Bradley, John J. | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2006 | Go to article overview

'Same Time Poison, Same Time Good Tucker': The Cycad Palm in the South West Gulf of Carpentaria


Bradley, John J., Journal of Australian Studies


The use of cycad fruit as a dietary staple has always caused interest amongst researchers because of its extremely toxic and carcinogenic qualities, and because of the meticulous, labour-intensive methods required to prepare it for eating. (1) Available archaeological and historical knowledge suggests that Indigenous people in Australia have used various species of cycads as a food source for many hundreds of years. (2) Much of the research on cycad use has been done in Northeast Arnhem Land, with some other studies on Groote Eylandt and in northern Queensland. (3) This essay is an attempt to open up the discussion a little further, and to document in some detail the knowledge and historical use of cycad food in the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria. It discusses the Yanyuwa ethnobotany of the plant, the cycad's past economic importance, its importance to the relationship between men and women, and the gathering and preparation of this food source, as well as offering comments on the contemporary views of this plant and the area in which it is found. (4) The information presented here has been gathered over a period of twenty years working with the Yanyuwa and Garrwa people of the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria.

In the Yanyuwa language there are three food sources that are classified as wurrama or 'being of authority': the dugong, the sea turtle, and the fruit of the cycad palm. While the cycad palm is a terrestrial food source, it has both economic and religious links to the sea and the maritime environment. (5) The Yanyuwa people have retained much oral history and knowledge concerning the production of this food, and there is some physical evidence of its importance in the form of large grinding plates that have been found near groves of cycad palms and associated freshwater streams and lagoons. The personal testimonies of Indigenous people I have worked with who have eaten cycad-derived food are stories of how filling and substantial a foodstuff it is. Despite its potential toxicity, it was not seen as 'starvation tucker' by the Yanyuwa, Garrwa and Marra people of the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria, as the following Yanyuwa speaker comments:

   That cycad food, that is the food that reared me from the time I was
   a baby to my womanhood. Truly it is good food, when one eats that
   food one becomes replete, not like the bread of whitemen it does not
   fill you. The cycad food on the other hand fills people, they grow
   strong and they are healthy, I was reared on that food, all of us
   old people we yearn for that food, truly it is a food with a quality
   of excellence. (Minnie Wulbulinimara, 1980) (6)

Amongst the many old people I spoke to concerning the use of cycad food, the above comment represents a standard response: the food was seen to give strength and vitality. Some speakers also attributed this to the fact that the food source, in their area at least, is also associated with a sense of the past, 'old people' long dead, important regional ceremonies and spirit ancestors. (7)

Some 100 kilometres east of the present day township of Borroloola flows the Wearyan River, and on its banks is the locality known as Manangoora, or Manankurra. This is the nucleus of an area that spreads north, east, west and south for some kilometres, and which contains many large groves and scattered palms of the species Cycas angulata. (8) Within the area, there are cycad palms that grow as tall as ten metres, with some reaching even higher. The average height ranges between two to five metres. According to Yanyuwa belief, the cycad palms that spread out from Manankurra were deposited there by a Tiger Shark Spirit Ancestor which travelled from the southern Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland. (9) This Tiger Shark, Yulungurri, is associated with the Yanyuwa Rrumburriya semi-moiety. (10) Some ten kilometres upstream on the Foelsche River is the important site of Kalalakinda, also known as Rocky. …

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