Aboriginal medicine was based on the mediation of supernatural forces by those with specialist skills (medicine men and women). The body was animated by spirit(s) that can be lost, taken, or damaged by other spiritual forces. Illness was therefore supernatural in origin and healers were ‘clever’ people who were engaged with the lawful, therapeutic and spiritual aspects of community life.
Continuous with medicine in the West and the civilizations of China and India, Aboriginal medicine was performed by high status individuals with unique skills and knowledge. Remedies and treatments were also overwhelmingly plant based.
It seems that fatal epidemic disease, so characteristic of dense and settled populations with domesticated animals, was not a feature of nomadic lifestyles.
Illness was treated by ‘healers’ skilled at communication and familiar with plant treatments and the ritual remedies used to deal with illness attributed to sorcery. The Aboriginal pharmacopoeia was vast and has been best recorded in tropical and desert regions. Ailments to be treated included sores and skin infections, digestive and respiratory problems, cuts and fractures, headaches, coughs and diarrhoea as well as post-natal care. Treatments included drinks, potions, oils, washes and aromatherapy.
As in other cultures a range of psychotropic (mood-altering) substances were used which included the fermented sap of the cider gum in Tasmania, honeysuckle and grass trees in WA. There were arrange of specially prepared ‘tobaccos’ that were formed into chewing quids using wood ash and ar range of additives but the most popular
In the late 1960s it had been determined that at least 124 native species of plants had been used by Aboriginals for medicinal purposes although this would have been divided across the continent by region. Webb’s survey indicates many of these, such as remedies for diarrhoea, ointments, coughs, contraceptives and narcotics accord with the findings of modern pharmacy but others would have had little effect. The sap of cider gum was collected in quantity and tasted like sweet cider. Bottlebrush honey could be sucked and sweet manna of peppermint gum dissolved in water.
Nicotine-rich Native tobacco, Duboisia hopwoodii, generally known as Pituri was chewed as a wad and reported by Wills to be “highly intoxicating”: it was a mojor item of exchange along central Australian trade routes, growing in he Channel Country. Flowering in August its leaves and dry stems were harvested and dried and transported in net bags. Narcotics were also used for hunting and fishing, especially in central Australia, pituri placed in waterholes would stupefy emus, along rivers in pools it could stun eels. Barringtonia racemosa had a bark which, when crushed, was used to poison water holes as were the pods and leaves of Tephrosia.
Torres Strait islanders smoked and salted meat, perhaps Aboriginals had not absorbed this or felt it was useful.
In the arid and semi-ariz zone across the centre of the continent it was seed that made up the major part of the diet. In the tropics roots and tubers were eaten in the wet season. In the south-east the Yam Daisy (Microseris lanceolata) was plentiful and an hour’s work would have been sufficient to gather food for the day.
Punk was a bracket fungus (Laetiporus portentosus, White Punk) which grows on living eucalypts, dry specimens can smoulder for long periods and it was an extremely effective way for Aboriginals to transport fire: it was also eate when fresh. Grasstrees were the source of resin used as a glue in the construction of artefacts.
Among the greens were Portulaca oleracea used also by explorers like Gregory and Mueller.
In the tropics it was the potato-flavoured Long Yam (Dioscorea transversa), that was the staple.
Energy-rich nectar was licked from the compound flowers of plants like bottlebrushes, banksias, hakeas, grasstrees and some grevilleas or dipped into water to make a sweet drink.
Water was obtained from the root and pith of the bottletree and baobab.
A number of plants requied special preparation to remove toxins, being put through a process of grinding, leaching, fermentation and baking into biscuit-like loaves, this included the removal of alkaloids like cycasin from cycad seed and in the preparation of nardoo (Marsilea spp.) for feasting. A paste made out of the fine seed of Portulacca oleracea, Munyeroo, was popular in desert regions.
Grass seed was prepared, as elsewhere in the world, by a process of threshing or beating to remove the seed, winnowing to remove the husks by throwing inhe air, then grinding into a flour using special grinding stones before baking into damper-like loaves.