Traditional Aboriginal Bush Medicine


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.

Onion Lily

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.

Changes 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 medicinal treatment.

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 practised.

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 medicine.

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.

Beliefs 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.