The Aboriginal people of Australia have existed on this continent for at least 40,000 years. Over that period, they developed a series of specific treatments for various ailments. It should be remembered that their knowledge of plant and animal lore was encyclopedic. It would be unwise for those without detailed knowledge to attempt to use any of the remedies that follow:
Plants produce chemicals that defend them from the myriad creatures that dine upon them. In the main, these chemicals are poisonous. Man has learned to make use of these toxins to attack bacteria or deaden pain. You should never forget that many plants produce toxins that can make you very sick, so do not attempt to use any of the following remedies yourself.
Aboriginal medicine is also referred to as 'bush medicine'. Most medicines are derived from plant leaves, seeds or tubers. A variety of different methods were developed for using different types of plant including roasting, pounding and washing and cooking.
Aboriginal people had no understanding of bacteria and viruses (to be fair neither did Europeans for most of recorded history) and death was generally thought to be caused by the actions of other people from other tribes. There was no such thing as an accident. Even if someone fell from a tree it was thought to be the work of some rival or enemy. In Aboriginal culture each death had to be avenged and this was an effective means of population control ensuring that no tribe managed to number much more than its local rivals.
Just as there was no comprehensive Aboriginal language, there were also no comprehensive remedies used by all tribes. Each tribes derived different medicines from the plants available in its own territory.
Any illness that did not have an obvious cause was thought to be caused by evil spirits. To the Aboriginal people there were spirits everywhere. Some were good, others were bad. When an illness was thought to be caused by an evil spirit then the tribe's medicine man would administer a special spiritual cure in addition to any plant medicines believed to be necessary.
Apart from plants some types of clay and even earth from termite mounds was used to help cure stomach upsets. It has been noted that some animals also seek out special types of clay that can help deal with toxins present in some food plants.
Animal fat was also sometimes used in a mixture with various plants to produce an ointment.
Prior to European settlement (invasion) the Aborigines of Australia were not exposed to many ailments that are common in Europe. When these new diseases arrived with the settlers, the Aboriginal people had no immunity and thousands died from everything from the common cold to more serious conditions like smallpox and tuberculosis.
Europeans also brought items that changed the way Aborigines processed plants. Cooking pots allowed plant remedies that had taken overnight soaking to be done much more quickly by heating in water over a fire. Although this made processing the plants faster, it may have changed the chemicals extracted from plants due to the addition of heat.
Western medicine has largely supplanted Aboriginal remedies and as a result a great deal of traditional knowledge about the medicinal value of plants has been lost.
In an effort to record useful traditional knowledge about bush medicines and bush foods, the Australian Army undertook a survey to see what knowledge still remained with the Aborigines. Maj. Les Hiddins (well known for the ABC-TV Bush Tuckerman series) travelled far and wide collecting information. This was then recorded on maps used by the army so that personnel in the field could find and use traditional foods and medicines. A commercially available Bush Tucker Field Guide was also produced.
The following plants are just a brief sample of some used for medicinal purposes by the Aborigines of Western Australia.
Billy Goat Weed (Ageratum)
The plant is crushed and applied to open wounds. Other plants used to treat wounds are Tree Orchid (bulb sap), Spike Rush (decaying plant bound to wound), Tea Tree (bark bandage), Cocky Apple (bark infusion).
Blood wood (Eucalyptus dampieri/ Eucalyptus polycarpa)
Used as a painkiller for toothache. It's gum is rubbed directly on the area of the pain.
Bush Plum (Santalum lanceolatum)
A poultice of mashed warm leaves is used to treat rheumatic pain. Liquid from the bark soaked in water is used to treat skin sores. Smoke from burning the bark and leaves is used as a mosquito repellent.
Cocky Apple (Planchonia careya)
Liquid from the bark after soaking in water is used as a treatment for skin sores. The roots are soaked in water and mashed to treat prickly heat. The inner bark has been boiled to create a treatment for scabies.
Desert Walnut (Owenia reticulata.)
Leaves and young stems are heated then crushed and soaked in water. The resulting liquid is then thickened and used as a poultice. Seeds are roasted and extracted, then used to rub on external sores.
Dodder Laurel (Cassytha filiformis.)
Used as a primary ingredient for a poultice to help with joint and muscle pain.
An infusion made from the bark is drunk and used as a cure for Diarrhoea. Other plants used for this treatment include Native Raspberries, Sacred Basil (leaf), Dysentery Bush (root), Cluster Fig (bark) and Lemon Grass.
Green Plum (Buchariania obovata)
Plugging the affected tooth with shavings of wood treats toothache. Other plants used to treat toothache are Coast She-oak (inner bark), Supplejack (stem chewed) and Quinine Berry (fruit held in mouth).
Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon)
Crushed and simmered in water. The resulting liquid is drunk or applied as a wash to relieve coughs. Other plants used in the same way are River Mint and Fuchsia.
Pig face (Carpobrotus glaucescens)
Leaf juice is applied to stings from marine animals like jellyfish.
Red Ash (Alphitonia excelsa)
Leaves are crushed in water and the head is bathed with the resulting liquid to cure headaches.
Snake Vine (Tinospora smilacina)
The leaves and stems are warmed and mashed into a paste that is then applied as a poultice to relieve joint pain.
The gum produced on the spiky heads was burned and the smoke inhaled as a decongestant and to relieve headaches.
Tea Tree (Melaluca)
Leaves crushed and vapour inhaled to relieve congestion. Other plants used in this manner include Toothed Ragwort and Jirrpirinypa.
White Berry Bush (Flueggea virosa/melanthsoides.)
Leaves and bark are made into a paste that is then painted onto sores, rashes and itches. Weak infusions are also made for drinking to treat internal pains. The fruit is prized as food.
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40,000 years in Australia
Evidence clearly shows that the Australian Aborigine's ancestors have been on this continent for over 40,000 years. That alone is an amazingly long time in the history of human evolution but it needs to be put into some sort of perspective to allow us to appreciate what it really means.
The last Neanderthals died out in Europe 28,000 years ago as modern humans moved north out of Africa and completed populating Europe. The question that needs to be answered is how did Australian Aborigines get as far east as Australia more than 40,000 years ago if modern humans only started moving out of Africa at around that time? Other estimates state that modern humans moved out of Africa 60,000 years ago but even if that was the case it seems highly unlikely that people would have moved east into Asia and then south into Australia in such a relatively short time.
Even more puzzling are the remains found at Lake Mungo that suggest humans may have inhabited Australia as much as 68,000 years ago. If this is true (and it has yet to be proven) it would mean that the 'out of Africa' theory is wrong.
Ice age sea levels allowed humans to reach the Australian continent more easily and the lowest sea level due to the last ice age, is thought to have occurred at about 65,000 years ago. Ocean levels rapidly rose from 60,000 years ago and so this 'window of opportunity' seems the most likely period for the population of Australia by the ancestors of the Australian Aborigines.
Related topic : Aboriginal Resistance to European settlement.
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