Aboriginal Plant Names in Northeastern Arnhem Land: Groote Eylandt-Enindilyakwa Language; Yirrkala-Rirratjingu Language

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The American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (1948)

In 1946, Joseph Garnett Wood, Professor of Botany (1935-1959) in the University of Adelaide (who had spent many happy days exploring with Aborigines at the Point Macleay Mission on the Coorong of South Australia where his maternal uncle was in charge), encouraged his BSc (Hons) student, Ray Specht, to join the National Geographic Expedition to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, as botanist, ecologist and ethnobotanist--without remuneration. The expedition, under the leadership of Charles Mountford, an amateur ethnologist, was delayed until 1948 to enable scientists of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, to survey Bikini Atoll before the first hydrogen bomb was tested. By 1948, the Commonwealth Government of Australia realised that the expedition would help to strengthen post-war Australian-American relationships. The American-Australian Scientific Expedition of ten scientists, two photographers and four support staff spent eight months in Arnhem Land investigating the art, myths and symbolism of Aborigines (Mountford 1956), their anthropology and nutrition (Mountford 1960), the botany, zoology and ecology of hunter-gatherers throughout the Aboriginal Reserve (Specht 1964; Specht & Mountford 1958; Specht & Specht 1998).

The Australian Institute of Anatomy, with Fred Clements as Director, was encouraged to send a team of three scientists--a biochemical nutritionist, Margaret McArthur; a medical doctor, Brian Billington; and an analytical biochemist, Kelvin Hodges--to study the nutrition and health of Aborigines in their original nomadic lifestyle in contrast to that in settlements (Billington 1960; Fysh et al. 1960; Hodges 1960; McArthur 1960a,b). The 'Flying Dentist' John Moody, who was based in Darwin, examined the teeth of all Aborigines in the settlements (Moody 1960). The nutrition and ecology of nomadic Aborigines were studied respectively by McArthur and Specht, with assistance from the anthropologist Fred McCarthy of the Australian Museum, Sydney. These ethnobotanical studies on the survival of Aborigines living entirely on 'bush tucker' (McArthur 1960b; McCarthy & McArthur 1960; Specht 1958) were published in the Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (1956-1964).

Aboriginal plant names in Enindilyakwa and Rirratjingu languages

Thanks to the assistance of a bilingual Woodah Island man, Koombealla, who had married a Groote Eylandt woman, the names of plants used by the Aborigines (47 spp. as food, 25 spp. as implements/weapons, and 26 spp. in material culture) were recorded using the International Phonetic Alphabet in both the Groote Eylandt (Enindilyakwa) and Yirrkala (Rirratjingu) languages (Appendix). Much later, more detailed studies on plants used by Aborigines on Groote Eylandt (Levitt 1981) and at Yirrkala (Yunupingu et al. 1995) have been compiled; a dictionary of the Enindilyakwa words used for plants, animals, habitats, and so on, is in the final stages of preparation (Leeding 2006). As the pioneering studies on nomadic Aboriginal nutrition that were made by scientists on the 1948 Arnhem Land expedition have been forgotten by present-day nutritionists, a special edition of the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition was published (Volume 9, 2000), including an article that summarised the research of the team (McArthur et al. 2000).

Although many descriptive studies have been made on 'bush tucker' in many parts of Australia (Hegarty et al. 2001), nothing is known of the seasonal quantity and quality of these foods in any region. In many areas, only a very small population of Aborigines was able to survive and then only by continually moving from one ecosystem to another as food resources or running water for eluting toxins from yams were depleted (Specht & Specht 1999). Population growth and the reliance on modern technology and foodstuffs have reduced the ability of the original settlers to survive in the wild (White & Meehan 1993). …