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Plant tools & society

Plants were used for more than food and medicine. Fibre was used for string, rope, nets, bags and baskets; timber for weapons, utensils, musical instruments, tools and other implements; bark for shelters, containers, shields and canoes; resin for binding and as a cement; down, seed and pigments for ornamentation.[1] Occasionally species were given totemic status and became the focus of ritual.

Spirituality, symbolism, ritual and ceremony

Plants acquired symbolic and spiritual significance through their associations with the Dreaming. Some ancestors of the Dreaming were transformed into parts of the general vegetation or perhaps specific trees. In this way they gained significance that reached beyond practical and economic interests. Sometimes trees and plants were home to spirits, both harmful and benign.

Some plants had totemic significance. Trees were engraved and sometimes painted as well and those sacred to a particular people were treated with great respect; they also occasionally served as territorial landmarks, indicated where burials had occurred, or played a role in initiation ceremonies. Woody thickets were often burned, not only because they were seen as untidy impenetrabble areas but also because they protected evil spirits.[8]

Body ornamentation with coloured down and painting with coloured ochres was sometimes supplemented by the red dye extracted from sundews (Drosera spp.), and white compounds extracted from Caustic Bush (Sarcostemma australis) and spurges (Euphorbia spp.).


A small fragment from the edge of a 46,000-49,000-year-old polished stone axe more than 10,000 years earlier than any previous ground-edge axe discoveries in the world and the earliest evidence of hafted axes. It was excavated in the 1990s from a large rock shelter known to be one of the first sites occupied by modern humans in Windjana Gorge National Park in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.[11]

(Grinding stones to convert cereals into meal in some parts and over 15,000 years old.Plant glues and cements were used for spears, knives and axes and other implements using resins from wattles and eucalypts. Good sources included a black resin from he leaf sheaths of spinifex.Plants were also a source of water. In desert areas morning dew on the grass tussocks would guarantee survival but trees and bushes could be tapped observed sources being the roots of Casuarina, Eucalyptus transcontinentalis, Crrujong, needle was based on bush know-how in relation to resources – what to use, where to find it and when).

Since the nomadic lifestyle required light portable materials this may have been why shell, bone and wood were often used in favour of stone, even when the latter was available and the technology familiar, except in the Kimberley and C Australia.[3] For most purposes it was selected woods that were the material of choice, often cured by fire and treated with animal fats and oils. Basic artefacts displayed regional variations in construction and ornamentation. Bark was fashioned into shields, canoes and water carriers while the paperbark of tea tree and melaleucas found a wide range of uses from clothing and food wrapping to bandages, toilet paper and menstrual pads.[4] Fibres were needed for cordage and string to bind tools and weave baskets, bags, mats, fishing line and nets. Sources of fibre included chewed bulrush roots and the bark of hempbush (Vic), Black Kurrajong (E NSW) and in the north it was extracted from the bark of many trees, and sometimes combined with human hair.[7] In Tasmania it included the Melville Kurrajong and Kangaroo Grass while seaweed coolamons (water-carriers) were made out of Bull Kelp (Sarcophytum potatorum) collected from the beach.[5]

The Aboriginal toolkit consisted of a few light and portable multipurpose weapons and tools used on hunting trips; tools left at specific sites when they had a specific purpose at a particular season; anda few ‘disposable’ tools that had a single use. It was a basic toolkit across Australia with local variations according to local culture and custom as well as the particular demands of the local sources. Bows and arrows were used only by Torres Strait Islanders.

Spears, digging sticks and like objects were treated as personal property.


Recognising trees that indicate water near the surface, roots containing water, hollows containing water sometimes from morning dew, using cover to reduce evaporation. Sprigs in water containers helped prevent splashing. Special water-extraction tools, such as reed straws and hollow water-lily stems helped access the cooler water at the bottom, were used after water discovered by wood discolouration and insect activity.

Muddy water was filtered using leaves, sometimes even by sucking water through wads of grasses, (sometimes pulverised) or an entire banksia cone.

Simple objects performed multiple tasks and could be constructed from whatever was locally available. Economy was always utmost.

Shade, fire, cooking, repelling unwanted creatures, and medicines

Settlers could tell Aboriginal seasonal campsites by the coppiced trees, plants favouring disturbed ground, sometimes the growth of food plants growing from seed and tubers thrown on middens which supported their own specialist flora, spitted pips and in Central Australia aiding the dispersal of plants like Desert Raisin (Solanum centrali) and reflected the seasonal reason for the camp site in that location. Ground was prepared by early-arriving women and children by burning and the use of simply on-the-spot brooms which were also used to conceal tracks. Shade trees included plants like mulga where food could be stored and the meat hung out of reach of the dogs along with blankets, nets and other domestic items. Some trees like Spring Pandanus were effective in directing rain away from a dry area. Banyan trees, echoing traditions found in south-east Asia, are renowned for their rich association with the spirit world.
A range of saplings, bark, bushes etc. were used to protection from wind, rain and cold.

A wide range of plats were used as blankets and as bedding.


Funeral customs varied. Bodies were wrapped in animal skin or bark and grass tied with string. Some were burned, others put on platforms, either free-standing or up a tree, in a pit, or in the hollow of a tree or in caves.


Wooden mallets and stone mortar and pestles were used to pound and crush food and make it more palatable, especially for babies. Stone and shell knives were used for cutting or occasionally bamboo or other woods and spines.

Earth ovens were used, sometimes lined with leaves, sometimes aromatic, which helped steam and flavour the food but meat usually cooked by throwing on the fire or skewering on sticks. Eucalypt and other leaves were used for wrapping.

Various plants were used as brushes, the frayed or chewed ends used to soak up honey and nectar from poorly accessible sources. Bark was folded to form cups and large leaves as plates.


Various flowers are used as necklaces, make eye-shadow, and adorn the body.

Musical instruments

Apart from the didjeridus and bull-roarer there was the blowing of fresh gum leaves and some plant stems, assisted by removal of front teeth (tooth-evulsion). Popping by squeezing naturally inflated fruits and rattles from dried fruits. Whistles made from many different plant structures but especially hollow stems.


Splints, ligatures and slings were made from locally accessible plants and aromatic plants were used in many ways, in pillows and to assist sleep in various ways, burned slowly on a fire, to conceal unpleasant smells and ward off insects. A range of leaves, barks and plant parts were the source of bush-soaps. Animal greases and oils as well as muds, ochres and paperbark ‘coats’ were used to repel and protects from stinging insects, the sap of bulrush to keep off leeches.

Timber for artefacts

A wide range of timbers (but most in the Fabaceae and Myrtaceae) were used to produce artefacts and selected for a wide range of qualities to produce spears and harpoons, clubs, shields, containers, tapping sticks, digging sticks, fire-sticks and so on. There were some painted ceremonial objects. The naming of plants often related to use and ecological relationship, names of plants and artefacts being the same. Exceptional timbers were traded with other nations. There was some specialisation in tool-making which was worked with stone tools like hatchets and adzes, but also mud-shell scrapers and shell knives, bone and tooth, and mostly performed by the men, and all men were expected to possess the basic skills which included damping of the wood and using fire to mould and harden the shape. Smoothing was done using various tools and barks but also the abrasive leaves of the sandpaper fig. Wood could be seasoned in water and/or sand and grease used to reduce splitting. They were then regularly maintained and protected with grease, beeswax, ochres, resins, oils

Wood density was selected for function – whether, for example, hard fire-drills, or soft dugout canoes and occasionally timbers were combined as in softer spears easier to carry but with hard-wood heads. Rot-resistant timbers used for fish-traps and canoes.

Glues and cements

A wide range of gums, resins and beeswax used as adhesives and for joining, caulking and sculpting often used with plant fibre and animal sinew strings. These could often be moulded when hot to become hard when cooled sometimes more malleable when mixed with fire ash. Resins came from grasstrees, wattles, sandalwoods, spinifex (Triodia), eucalypts (gums), pines, sap of some figs and many other sources and were traded.


Soft bark was used for dress to ward off the rain or as pubic shields or, in rugged terrain, as a protection for the soles of the feet. Sometimes cylinders or cones were used for ceremonial headgear and sheets of paperbark as funeral shrouds. Bark of different consistency was used for bandages, splints, and menstrual pads.

Wrapping for food
Food was protected by wrapping in bark, sometimes after special preparation, allowing storage. Seed and flour was stored in caves and sun-dried waterlily roots could be preserved for four years or more. Paperbark wrapping also worked well as food cover in earth ovens.


Green bark sheets could be shaped into containers over the fire and paperbark tied at the ends, a quick solution that contrasted with the basketry and wooden bowls (often made of bark) that required hours of crafting. Difficult foods included honey, water and shellfish but containers were also used when carrying babies. Quickly constructed bowls might soon split and were discarded. Bark removed from eucalypts was not used solely for canoes but for various containers. Grass pads were used to protect the heads women supporting loaded containers. On the northern coast shells were the preferred water containers.
Stone flakes like those used for spearheads were protected in paperbark wallets.


Bark shields were made in Victoria and South Australia from bark of eucalypts taken in the spring when the sap was flowing, making removal easier, in Victoria this was usually the Mannah Gum: they were used to ward off the lighter reed spears.


Bark sheets doubled over, sown and sealed at the end as in the River Red Gum canoes used on the Murray where ‘canoe trees’ can still be seen: they were propelled with paddles or a punting pole. In the north of the continent rafts were constructed from paperbark on a frame of pandanus. More elaborate strengthening was sometimes used. Macassans and Torres Strait islanders introduced dugout canoes.


Windbreaks and shelters had walls made of both hard and soft barks as well as large leaves all obtained from a wide variety of plants.

Certain plants served a wide variety of uses: palms had leaves used for hats and baskets and as a source of fibre, some having basal leaf sheaths that could be converted quickly into containers. Entire leaves were used as mats or to cover meat.

Seaweed, especially the thick Bull Kelp washed up on Tasmanian beeches, was used for cups, containers and shoes.


Apart from animal fur, sinews, and human hair, various plant fibres were invaluable for netting, binding, string bags, ornaments, lashing, and cordage. Fibre came from roots and stems as well as bark and leaves and were mostly gathered and processed by the women except for certain ceremonial artefacts. It was prepared by an assortment of pulverising, chewing, steaming, and soaking. String was rolled on the womens’ thighs while hairy men used the soles of their feet and it was mostly 1- or 2-ply.


Artwork and tool ornamentation expressing culture, religion, geography, and narrative drew on plant sources both as a decoration for tools, bodies and elsewhere as well as three-dimensional artefacts. Though ochres were the main source of pigment there were also pigments obtained from charcoal, saps, gums, fruits, leaves, and fungi. Charcoals were processed in various ways with water, saliva and oils. Fruits with inky pigments served short-term body decoration along with some saps like the yellow obtained from sandalwood and whites from a range of milk-weeds and reds from the rootstock of plants in the Haemodoraceae like the kangaroo paws.

Body ornaments were extremely diverse both in the way they were worn and the any kinds of plants and almost all plant parts that were used in one way or another – as clothing, necklaces, headgear, scarves, earrings, finger rings, bracelets, arm bands, leggings, nose pegs, waist bands, and so on.

Bags (the expression dilly-bag has passed into English) and baskets were made of sedges and rushes, tea-tree bark, Pandanus and Livistona palm.

Wooden bowls were used as food and seed containers when digging but also as baby carriers and for winnowing. In the absence of metal vessels water was never boiled but was warmed by dropping in heated stones. Kangaroo skins were used for water containers.

Among the weaponry were spears and woomeras, clubs, shields (either light for general protection, or short and narrow hard timber to ward off club blows) and boomerangs, the latter, which were also used as clap-sticks, being found in archaeological deposits of SE SA dating back about 10,000 years.

Cordage used for bags and nets was made of fibre from trees like the banyan and sometimes made of two twisted strands like western string.

Netting was used to catch dugong, kangaroos, wallabies, large birds and also as a containing shroud for the dead.

Matting was used for clothing, as a mosquito guard, for carry-alls and coffins while in Arnhem Land, Pandanus woven into sails.

Musical instruments included wind and percussion instruments like the didgeridoo, whistles, clap-ticks and seed rattles while in the top end there were also drums and the bullroarer.

Various forms of vegetation and smoke were used ritually – to control spirits, the weather, health, fortune, also to indicate intention, whether peaceful or aggressive. Also as lures, decoys or bait when hunting animals and fish.

Watercraft , mostly rafts, in temperate regions were made of buoyant woods and barks, reed or log platforms while on the north coast offshore islands there were outrigger canoes made out of wood as dugouts and, perhaps of more recent origin, boats made of bamboo. A hearth made of earth was often put in to support a firestick.

Ephemeral tools

Museums do not fully represent the many tools that were improvised from local materials for specific purposes at the site of use and then discarded. Among these were camouflage made from local plants and animal dung, colourings, hunting hides, ladders and pegs used for climbing trees, fish hooks, floats for nets, grub hooks to extract larvae from inside logs, even feathers or wispy seed heads attached to bees using resin so that the bee could be followed to a source of honey.

A wide range of plants were used as poisons (mostly as stupefacients that affect the nervous system) to catch fish, birds and animals:

Gums, cements and resins

Gums and resins taken from grass trees, cypress-pine, golden wattle, silver wattle, spinifex and other plants was used to seal stone axes, and to cement joins in tools and implements.[5]

Commentary & sustainability analysis

Aboriginal survival depended on food plants either indirectly as a food source for the animals they ate or directly as the greens, fruits and seed that made up a large proportion of their diet. Inevitable knowledge of plants themselves, their ecology and seasonal variation required constant adaptive change. Our knowledge of past practices is now nearing a limit as new generations of Aboriginals have less knowledge of past practices and ethnobotanists too look to history for their information rather than current practices. Some of the Aboriginal heritage is preserved in names of major vegetation types like mulga, and mallee.

Above all we are drawn to the contrast between, on the one hand, the Aboriginal surviving on the resourcefulness and ingenuity needed to live in constant contact with nature through the day surviving on resources in the immediate vicinity with, on the other hand, ourselves as we live in artificial environments and cultural landscapes drawing on the accumulated knowledge of the past and the globalised trade in both natural and artificial materials and products.
Few of us would survive if placed in Aboriginal environments and we would be challenged in the extreme while the Aboriginal, we might assume, lived life very like us in a state of baseline happiness.

‘Change in Aboriginal material culture commenced with painters and tool-makers shifting to new materials, but eventually, with greater access to European goods, many ‘old time’ objects were superseded. Aboriginal adoption of exotic materials, particularly metal and industrial glass, commenced through their contact with Macassans and Torres Strait Islanders, and increased dramatically after European settlement. Across Australia, indigenous people actively replaced stone with metal and glass, changed from animal skins and bark cloth and barks to cloth and plastic, substituted plant resins with pitch and synthetic glues, and added extra colours to their palette.’ 
Philip Clarke, 2012, p. 239

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