Aboriginal people traditionally were much healthier than they are
today. Living in the open in a land largely free from disease, they
benefited from a better diet, more exercise, less stress, a more supportive
society and a more harmonious world view.
Nonetheless, Aboriginal peoples often had need of bush medicines.
Sleeping at night by fires meant they sometimes suffered from burns.
Strong sunshine and certain foods caused headaches, and eye infections
were common. Feasting on sour fruits or rancid meat caused digestive
upsets, and although tooth decay was not a problem, coarse gritty
food sometimes wore teeth down to the nerves. Aborigines were also
occasionally stung by jellyfish or bitten by snakes and spiders. In
the bush there was always a chance of injury, and fighting usually
ended in severe bruises and gashes.
To deal with such ailments, Aboriginal people used a
range of remedies wild herbs, animal products,
steam baths, clay pits, charcoal and mud, massages, string
amulets and secret chants and ceremonies.
Some of these remedies had no empirical basis, but it
is clear from the accounts of colonists that they worked.
Many of the remedies worked by healing directly through
their chemical or physical action. Aromatic herbs, tannin-rich
inner barks and kinos have well documented therapeutic
effects. Other plants undoubtedly harboured alkaloids
or other compounds with healing effects.
Crushed bulbs of the Onion Lily were
used as a wash for infected skin
Aboriginal remedies varied between clans and in different parts
of the country. There was no single set of Aboriginal medicines
and remedies, just as there was no one Aboriginal language.
Unfortunately, much of the knowledge of traditional Aboriginal medicine
has been lost. Very little is known of medical practice in southern
and eastern Australia, where traditional Aboriginal culture was largely
obliterated more than a century ago.
In recent years there have been attempts to record and test some
of the medicinal uses in central and northern Australia - the most
notable example being a project called the Aboriginal Pharmacopoeia
in the Northern Territory.
Anthropologists have worked over the last 20 years in central and
north-western Australia to record what is left of Aboriginal
medical knowledge. In Arnhem Land, the Kimberley, and in the
deserts of western and central Australia, there are still Aborigines
living who grew up leading traditional lives.
Their testimony has produced a picture of a complex and sophisticated
pharmacopoeia, embracing remedies for all manner of ailments. Whether
Aborigines in southern Australia had the same range of plant remedies,
it is impossible to say.
Since European Colonisation
Compounding the problems of reconstructing the past are the changes
that took place in the last 200 years. Early European settlers brought
in a range of new diseases for which Aborigines had no natural resistance
and no traditional remedies. Horrific smallpox plagues swept through
Aboriginal Australia, killing as much as half the population. It is
not recorded how Aboriginal people responded to these plagues for
they preceded European settlement by several decades. However early
explorers met people disfigured by smallpox scars who told stories
of numerous deaths and mass graves. It is likely that in attempting
to conquer these scourges, terrified Aborigines abandoned old remedies
and experimented with new ones.
The later arrival of influenza, tuberculosis, syphilis and other illnesses
would have further disrupted Aboriginal medicine, as did the profound
changes in diet and lifestyle imposed by white contact.
The diseases afflicting Aborigines today are very different from those
they would have experienced before European contact. Many early colonists,
seeing Aborigines disfigured by disease they had introduced, thought
Aborigines lived short lives of abject misery, in ignorance of any
A second, more benign change was the introduction last century of
the billycan. Almost everywhere in Aboriginal Australia, herbs that
once were soaked in water are now boiled over fires. Aborigines today
rarely distinguish this from a traditional practice, although they
know the billycan is a white man's innovation. Boiling is much quicker
than overnight soaking but it may destroy some active ingredients
and increase the potency in solution of others.
A third change is an apparent decline in the use of non-herbal
remedies. Aborigines today rarely, if ever, engage in bloodletting,
blood drinking, chants and the tying of healing amulets, though
these were important remedies in the past. Aborigines were probably
discouraged in these practices by early missionaries and after
absorbing Western ideas about medicine. Sorcery, however, remains
a potent belief and the casting and removing of spells is still
Aboriginal medicine has also changed in more subtle ways. Several
communities now make use of exotic plants, usually claiming there
to be traditional remedies. In the Northern Territory, medicines are
made from the exotic weed called asthma plant (Euphorbia hirta); from
the African tamarind tree fruit (Tamarindus indica), introduced from
Indonesia up to three hundred years ago; the Latin American shrub,
Jerusalem thorn (Parkinsonia aculeata); the South American billygoat
weed (Ageratum). Central Australian Pitjantjatjara chew South American
tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca), and use the introduced rabbit in
The adoption of so many introduced plants into bush medicine suggests
the possibility that many of the native remedies would also have changed
through time. White Australians often think that Aboriginal culture
was static, but it has always been changing and adapting to new circumstances.
about the Causes of Illness
Throughout Australia, Aborigines believed that serious
illness and death were caused by spirits or persons practising
sorcery. Even trivial ailments, or accidents such as falling
from a tree, were often attributed to malevolence. Aboriginal
culture was too rich in meaning to allow the possibility of
accidental injury and death, and when someone succumbed to misfortune,
a man versed in magic was called in to identify the culprit.
These spiritual doctors were men (rarely women) of great wisdom and
stature with immense power. Trained from an early age by their elders
and initiated into the deepest of tribal secrets, they were the supreme
authorities on spiritual matters. They could visit the skies, witness
events from afar, and fight with serpents. Only they could pronounce
the cause of serious illness or death, and only they, by performing
sacred rites, could effect a cure.
Based on text originally prepared for
Reen at Big River Internet - Edited version reproduced with permission.