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Pre-European introductions

What plants did humans introduce to Australia prior to European settlement?

Today about 10% (c. 3,244 species in 2011 and increasing at the rate of about 10 a year) of all the plants growing in Australia have been intentionally or accidentally introduced by humans from other parts of the world.  Over 95% of these naturalised plants or ‘aliens’ have arrived in Australia since European settlement, most of them as a more or less Neo-European[15] post-colonial flora that grows in pastures, roadsides and waste places, a substantial proportion being ornamental plants that have escaped from gardens.



Austronesia – the region where the Austronesian language is spoken
Taiwan, SE Asia and Oceania
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Accessed – 18 June 2013


But how many of these non-native plants arrived before European settlement – what were the species, who introduced them, and why were they introduced?  And once these new introductions were established what part did humans play in their further dispersal? Questions like these will likely remain speculative although multidisciplinary analytic techniques are shedding light on prehistoric human migrations and drawing on evidence from archaeological, linguistic, ethnographic and genetic sources – with further clues gleaned from the distribution of human commensal animals like the rat and human pathogens.[18]

The question of plant origin is of obvious historical interest: scientifically it provides information about plant dispersal mechanisms, evolution, and biogeography – but it also has a practical bearing on species conservation, vegetation management, and weed control.[3]  However, a plant’s nativity is not always apparent, as is the case with many highly adaptable ‘pantropical’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ plants that thrive under a range of ecological conditions: many of these assumed to have been dispersed by humans over much of their present-day range.[3] Kloot has drawn attention to the need to distinguish between ‘origin’ and ‘distribution’ and the distinction between: ‘alien flora’ as species arriving by passive or active association with humans, usually in the historical period; ‘acquired flora’ species originating elsewhere and spread by ‘natural’ means; the ‘native flora’ species evolving from progenitors in the area or introduced in the past.

In devising a means for assessing which plants are truly indigenous to Australia Queensland botanist Tony Bean has estimated that the number of ‘alien’ species present in Australia in 1770 was about 150, less than 5% of the present-day naturalised flora.  Clearly the rate of Anthropogenic plant introduction has accelerated over time being very low before 1500 with a substantial rise around 1600 resulting from increased trade and first European contact, followed by an exponential increase after settlement.[6]  Unsurprisingly by far the greatest environmental impact is from introductions that have taken place over the last 200 years.

Aboriginal trade

After Aboriginal occupation of Sahul about 55,000 years ago there were a number of ways that people could have brought plants to the continent before official European settlement in 1788.  Much remains to be uncovered and there are tantalizing hints at possible past Aboriginal activity such as the dingo (Canis lupus dingo) which was introduced to Australia in about 4,500 BP, probably with the wave of expansion of Austronesian people into the Pacific islands that occurred at about this time.[1]

Perhaps surprisingly there are no unambiguous records of Aboriginals bringing plants into Sahul. Also of interest, but poorly understood, is the dispersal by Aboriginals of plants within Australia.  It is possible that trade across the continent, which has occurred for tens of thousands of years, has significantly altered what botanists have assumed to be natural distributions.  Resolving such issues is extremely difficult but improved genetic techniques present this as a challenge for the future.[17]

Cabbage Palm Livistona is known to be both edible and relatively easily cultivated.  Botanists have long been curious about populations of Livistona mariae that occur in gorges along the Finke River in Central Australia, notably at Palm Valley.  Its nearest relative is Livistona rigida which grows over 1,000 km away on the Roper River in the NT.  This wide separation was assumed to be the result of the onset of aridity about 15 million years ago leaving this relictual pocket of plants isolated near permanent water today.  Genetic analysis has shown that the two related species diverged from a common ancestor about 15,000 years, its ecology suggesting it more likely that the plants were spread by human than animal vectors.[1] An isolated relictual population of the Cabbage Palm, Livistona australis, at Cabbage Creek in Victoria’s East Gippsland, is also a possible consequence of Aboriginal dispersal.

There are many ways that Aboriginals may spread plants.  Certainly fruit trees grew on middens near camp sites presumably as where the pips from meals had accumulated.[2]  Groves of such trees were used as an indication of old Aboriginal camp sites.  Hard seed, such as that of Acacia, may have been carried considerable distances.


East coast c. 3,000 kmTorres Strait, NE Cape York, Great Dividing Range, Victoria
Included major bora grounds
bunya nuts down Great Dividing Range
South-eastern routeMurray-Darling Basin to Port Augusta and the East coast. A major stock routeAxe heads, twine, possumskins
Cape York to South Australia routeWestern coast of Cape York to Normanton, inland rivers connecting to the Murray-Darling. Includes the Birdsville Track and its many storylines
Kimberley to Eyre Peninsula routeCentral Australian route with three branches from the Kimberley: SW to Tennant Creek and Mt Isa; Victoria and to Daly Rivers along the Route and Eyre reached through present-day Tanami Track and Stuart Hwy.
Kimberley to SW Australia & NW to Arnhem LandConnects to southern route through Central Desert dividing into two branches: Alice Springs SE to Lake Eyre via Oodnadatta track; SW to Ooldea

Major Aboriginal Dreaming trails (Adapted from Kerwin 2012)

Austronesian expansion

Austronesia is the region where the Austronesian language (an ancient language group like Indo-European) is spoken by about 386 million people. Mostly north of Australia Austronesia extends from Madagascar in the West to Easter Island in the East and is divided into three sub-regions: Taiwan, maritime Southeast Asia, and Oceania (Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia).  Also in the region are Singapore, the Pattani region of Thailand, the Cham areas of Vietnam (the former Champa kingdom which covered central and southern Vietnam), Cambodia, and Hainan, China.

Linguistic analysis has given rise to two major migration theories for people in this region, the ‘Out of Taiwan’ and ‘Out of Sundaland’ theories.

The ‘Out of Taiwan’ model suggests the dispersal of an agricultural people from Taiwan into insular Southeast Asia, Melanesia, and, ultimately, the remote Pacific. Commencing in about 5,000-2,500 BCE Austronesian peoples of maritime Southeast Asia sailed eastward entering Melanesia and Micronesia between 1200 BCE and 500 CE respectively, Polynesia by 1,000 BCE, Easter Island by 300 CE, Hawaii by 400 CE, and New Zealand by about 1280 CE. Westward expansion was through maritime Southeast Asia reaching Madagascar by 0–500 CE, genetic analysis of Malagassy people indicating their origins as Indonesian traders from Kalimantan.

The ‘Out of Sundaland’ theory relates migrations to an earlier period – the inundation of ancient Sundaland (which included the Asian landmass extending to Borneo and Java) with migrations from the Philippines north to Taiwan 15,000 to 7,000 BP after the last Ice Age when rising sea levels flooded the Sunda Peninsula creating the Java and South China Seas and the islands of the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos.

Eastern Indonesia has people of both Asian and Papuan ancestry and genetic analysis supports linguistic and archaeological evidence for a pre-Austronesian Papuan presence with an eastward spread of Austronesian-speaking farmers beginning about 4,000 to 3,000 years ago.[16]

Indonesia and Southeast Asia

From about 1,500 BCE to 0 CE there were major trade routes extending from Western Asia, the Mediterranean and Africa into the Indian subcontinent and China.  No doubt minor trade routes extended this trade into the Indonesian Archipelago. We can assume that the transport of plants by maritime traders and explorers in the Indonesian archipelago and west Pacific has occurred for at least 3,000 years.[3]

Who were these traders, how did they operate, and what were they likely to be carrying?

Southeast Asian prehistory is not well known, the first firm written records dating to about 200 CE when several south-east Asian kingdoms arose, all more or less influenced by Chinese and Indian trade and culture. Among the early written records of Indonesian kingdoms were Sanskrit stone inscriptions and Chinese writings both dating from the early 5th century.  This period is renowned for its Classical Hindu temples and architecture and a political organisation similar to that found in India at this time.  The best known settlement from this period is at Angkor Wat in present-day Cambodia which has the largest temple complex in the world.  It was flourishing in 900 CE but with a history extending from about 800 CE.  Built in the early 12th century its economy was based on rice agriculture as was that of the Pagan empire of modern-day Myanmar (Burma) which reached its height in about 1210, this culture was followed by the Ayutthaya Siamese Kingdom that flourished from 1350 to 1767 on the Chao Phraya River delta.


Common nameBotanical name
TaroAlocasia esculenta
Polynesian arrowrootTacca leontopetaloides
Round-, Parsnip YamDioscorea bulbifera
- rotunda
- elongata
Wild riceOryza rufipogon
Native milletPanicum decompositum
Bloomfield cherry treeAntidesma bunius
Manilkara kauki
AlmondTerminalia cappa
CandlenutAleurites moluccana
Macadamia (genus only)Macadamia


Srivijaya kingdom (650-1377 CE)

Early Chinese records refer to the kingdom of Kantoli which was flourishing in the 5th century, its capital city of Palembang being a thriving port for ships trading on the Spice route between India and China.  Later, in about 700 CE, in southern Sumatra this culture was replaced by the Srivijayan kingdom (and later, from the 13th to 15th centuries on the north coast, with the Muslim Pasai (Sumudra) kingdom.

Trade in the Srivijaya kingdom at its height c. 750 CE
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Gunawan Kartapranata. Accessed 21 Dec. 2015


Srivijaya was a Buddhist monarchy and from the 7th to 9th centuries Palembang became its headquarters during a period of trade and conquest.  In the 7th century Hindu control of trade in West Java passed to Buddhists who took over the Malacca and Sunda Straits to form the kingdom of Sumatra, a maritime empire based in present-day and from here it exerted a strong influence through most of for about 600 years from the 7th-13th centuries.  It is a culture noted for its massive 400-600 ton ships, the largest in the world at this time.  In the 8th century these juggernauts were used to trade with China, India and Arabia.  To protect its interests this empire controlled two critical sea passages between India and China – the (controlled from Palembang) and the (from Kedah).  Arab accounts state that the empire of the maharaja was so vast that in two years the swiftest vessel could not travel round all its islands, which produced camphor, aloes, cloves, sandal-wood, nutmegs, cardamom and cubebs (Piper cubeba, grown for the peppercorns but also containing a popular essential oil), ivory, gold and tin, making the maharaja as rich as any king in India.  Although there was control over E Java, W Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, Central Java was the only area that could support wet-rice agriculture and it was this Hindu region that first supplied and then competed with the Surijiva.

Makassar, today’s capital of Sulawesi, has a long history as an entrepot, though ceding its position to Malacca in about 1400, after the 16th century the Sultan encouraged all traders – Chinese, Arab, Indian – with goods that included Moluccan nutmeg and cloves traded in Banda, Ambon and Ternate. By 1669 the Dutch had taken control from the Sultan, converting his fort to Fort Rotterdam as a key part of the Dutch trading monopoly.

Ambon, a longtime important trading hub, was occupied by the Portuguese in 1512 who established a fort in 1521 which became the major Portuguese base in the Moluccas after their eviction from Ternate by the Dutch who, in 1605 captured Ambon itself converting it to Fort Victoria being the main Dutch base from 1610 until 1619 until the founding of Batavia.

Majapahit empire

From about 1293 to 1500 Java prospered through a combination of rice production on its northeast lowlands combined with the maritime trade of its north coast.  It became one of the greatest and most powerful empires in the history of Indonesia and Southeast Asia controlling the sea lanes of the Indonesian Archipelago through to China and India, its seafarers becoming master mariners and shipbuilders to create the Majapahit empire a Malaccan empire commandeering the Malacca Straits, with Malacca becoming a multicultural trading port.  By providing provisions, trade and facilities this port attracted Chinese and Malay seafaring privateers, including the famous Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s with his massive Chinese fleet.

Majapahit Empire

Majapahit Empire
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Gunwan Kartapranata Accessed 21 Dec. 2015

Trade routes

It is likely that plant and animal exchange was part of trade between SE Asia, Melanesia and the Australian north coast.  Though anthropogenic plant introductions may have occurred by accidental seed and fruits on clothes and other items the most likely plants would have been those used for food and trade, identification of less usual plants from seed and fruit being a potential difficulty.  We can only surmise that occasional vessels may have unintentionally veered off course for some reason, visited out of curiosity, or perhaps seeking trade with Aboriginals of the north coast.

Most cultural contact with southeast Asia and Asia would probably have passed through Timor as a stepping stone to Arnhem Land.  Interaction between seafaring Pacific Melanesian cultures and the Aboriginal people of northeast Australia would have been via the Torres Strait Islands and New Guinea.  This contact need not necessarily have been associated with major trade links as much trade in the region was via small family seafaring boats including Indonesian bajau fishermen from the Spice Islands fishing off the coast of Australia for hundreds of years and the orang laut or sea gypsies, small maritime traders operating throughout the archipelago including Borneo, Sulawesi and southern Philippines.

Some historians believe that Tamil sea-farers might have had knowledge of Australia and Polynesia long before European contact (see Wikipedia).

Anthropologist Philip Clarke lists plants growing in northern Australia and possible introductions from cultures to the north of Australia prior to European settlement (see table below).[4]

Dioscorea bulbifera (Air Potato)SE Asia (many varieties)
Nelumbo nucifera (Sacred Lotus)Africa to Asia to Australia
Cucumis melo subsp. agrestis (Bush Cucumber, Ulcardo Melon)Africa to Asia to Australia
Areca catechu (Betel Nut Palm)Found in 1818 on Coker Island off the Coburg Peninsula by Phillip King
Cocos nucifera,Populations pre-dating Europeans are uncertain as is its indigenousness
Alocasia macrorrhiza (Taro),Probably recently naturalised except possibly on Maer Island in Torres Strait[1]
Bambusa,Old joints of drift bamboo found on beaches by King
Physalis minima (Wild Gooseberry)Tropics

Trade plants

Trade plants passing through Timor and its associated islands would have involved mostly food plants and possibly ornamental or sacred plant objects.  Archaeological analysis of human occupation on the island revealing the presence of the pig, dog and goat about 5,000 BP along with plants like Foxtail Millet (Setaria italica), Bottle Gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), Coconut (Cocos nucifera) and various fruits, other pre-European plant records including Rice (Oryza sativa), Mung Bean (Phaseolus aureus), Sesame (Sesamum indicum), Ginger (Zingiber officinale), Cucumber (Cucumis sativa), Banana (Musa sp.), Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) and Mango (Mangifera indica).[3]

Apart from the Arnhem Land and Torres Strait routes it is known that there was also trade and contact with Macassan fishermen (from Sulawesi) along the northern coastline.  The botanical significance of the Macassan fishermen is that, as the Australian Aboriginals had made no known plant introductions, it was the Macassar fishermen who introduced the first confirmed and uncontested naturalised alien plant to the Arnhem Land coast (which they called Marege the ‘land of the trepang’) this plant being the Tamarind (Tamarindus indicus).  All other introductions must be surmised from known historical trading routes and transport to the north of the continent.

These were not small occasional visits by family enterprises.  Flinders in 1803 encountered a fleet of about 60 praus at the tip of Arnhem Land estimating that it carried a combined crew of about 1,000 men, a similar fleet being observed off the Kimberley coast by Philip Parker King while engaged in his coastal survey work in 1818-1821.  The only certain record of pre-settlement plant introduction is that of Tamarind by Macassan fishermen.

Tamarind trees (Arabic tamr-date, Indian hindi-Indian hence Indian Date) now mark the location of trepang fishermen campsites whose remains have been found from the Kimberley east to the Gulf of Carpentaria.[6]  Pods of Tamarind have a sticky, nutritious and edible fleshy pulp that tastes like sour apricots (used in Asian curries and drinks).  Ripe pods are long-lasting and would have been carried with the provisions of the Macassan praus, the pips being spat out around the camp sites.  Tamarind trees are widespread on the Northern Territory coast and abundant in some spots, being important to local people at places such as Milingimbi and Moyle River plains, the trees featuring in Aboriginal stories and ceremonies which recall the Macassan’ visits.[7]  Though distributed through the Old World tropics the true native distribution of this species is uncertain and is currently, at least in part, the result of human dispersal.

Macassans loaded returning praus with turtle and trochus shells along with a range of woody plant products including: Northern Sandalwood (Santalum lanceolatum), used to make incense sticks; Northern Ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys) and Northern Cypress Pine (Callitris intratropica) used for construction and boat repairs; and the bark from the roots of the Cheesewood which was used to produce a red dye.[8]  The influence of Macassans can be seen in the use by northern Aboriginals of Macassan words and historical intermarriage apart from obvious references in their ritual, mythology and material culture, so they have left a genetic, linguistic, ideological, archaeological and culinary trail.  Historian Regina Ganter asserts that ‘The Macassans planted a range of crops, including tamarind’ and that ‘The Yolngu understanding is that they (Macassans) planted abrus (Abrus precatorius) seed with the same symbolic significance as the Europeans planted flags’.[9]

The coconut (Cocos nucifera) grows in the Torres Strait and Pacific Islands and are known to have been traded between the islanders and Cape York Aborigines but they were strangely absent from the Australian mainland.  Putative wild populations occur in Qld, Cape York P. and nearby islands[10] but possible natural and introduced populations are now difficult to differentiate.[11] In the mid 19th century old trees grew on Russell Island SE of Cairns probably from beached drift nuts, prevailing currents likely to carry them to eastern Qld but not the north coast.  When beached on the mainland they were probably eaten by termites, the White-tailed Rat (Uromys caudimaculatus) and foragers who probably also ate the growing tip or ‘heart’ when the trees did manage to germinate.

Using chloroplast and nuclear genetic markers French researchers have demonstrated strong support for the prehistoric transfer of Sweet Potato, Ipomoea batatas from the Peru-Ecuador region of South America into Polynesia but they note how several disciplines may be needed to discriminate patterns of reintroduction and shuffling of gene pools, noting the similarity between the Polynesian name “kuumala” for the plant and the name “kumara” or “cumal” used by NW American indigenous people. They discuss possible hypotheses for its introduction from South America by Polynesians through Polynesia, islands like Hawai and Easter island and also into New Zealand as well as possible later introductions.[13]

Tony Swain has suggested that rice (as present-day Oryza meridionalis) was introduced to northern Australia, probably by Chinese and Macassans, several centuries ago when it was then cultivated in areas of Arnhem Land, the song lines of the region identifying both its locations and its method of husbandry.[14]

Vachellia (Acacia) farnesiana, a native of C America that is naturalised in subtropical and tropical America, Africa and Asia, is believed to have been introduced before settlement via the Philippines. Its pods are roasted and eaten by Aborigines and it is widely used in Europe for perfumery.[12]

Recent history

The independent Republic of Indonesia was declared in 1945 by General Sukarno and Hatti with a vision for the unification of the various cultures, ethnic groups, and 700 languages to create a single people speaking a national language (Bahasa Indonesia) and with independence from Dutch control. Independence was begrudgingly acknowledged by the Dutch in 1949 after Sukarno cleverly persuaded the Japanese invaders of WW2 to evict the Dutch. The Japanese, welcomed as liberators at first, were in turn evicted from the islands during the war. After an unsettled military rule Indonesia held its first democratic elections in 2009. Indonesia now has a population of 258 million (2011) with the majority being Muslim (87.2% in 2010) of which Sunni Muslims make up 99%.

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