Insect, Animal and Plant Foods

WARNING: Many Australian native and introduced plants are poisonous and some are potentially deadly if eaten. In particular, people have died eating certain Australian mushrooms. Do not eat any bush food unless you have a proper knowledge of the plant, insect or animal you are about to eat.

A wide range of plants and animals were eaten by Australia’s Aborigines, and insect foods included certain ants, grubs, moths and beetles, while streams provided fish and eels (in some regions). Birds were eaten, including waterfowl, scrub fowl, the cassowary and the jabiru. The yellow fat of the goanna (a large Australian lizard) was considered a delicacy, and also smeared on the body to protect the skin from drying and cracking in the harsh sun.

When Europeans arrived in Australia, they had no understanding of Aborigines’ vast knowledge of local plant foods. In more than one instance, an early explorer gave the people food, only to have them return it. Some of the overland explorers, ignorant of local foods, perished of starvation, while Aboriginal people lived nearby.

The nature of bush tucker (bush foods) varies throughout the country. In the well-watered coastal regions and tropical north of Australia, a large variety of plant and animal species provides ample food for consumption. In the arid interior, where there is less variety of species, Aboriginal people were still able to find enough nourishment for survival, occupying every part of the continent.

Since people have adapted to European lifestyles over the past two hundred years, the traditional foods which required considerable preparation are no longer generally eaten. These include the soaking and cooking of cycad fruit (nuts) (which are toxic until the poisons are leached and cooked from the food) and the collecting of various seeds, with their subsequent grinding and cooking to make bush breads. (The modern version is damper, made from flour and water, cooked on coals). Knowledge and first-hand experience of the collecting and preparation of such foods is still retained by senior people, and has been recorded for posterity by anthropologists and modern-day Aboriginal families. 

The following lists the range of bush foods available to Australians, and consumed by Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years:

These include the fruit, nuts, seeds, stems, and fronds of different plants. Fruit include figs, lilly pillies, quandong, bush apples and plums. The billygoat plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana) of northern Australia has extraordinarily high levels of Vitamin C. Nuts include those of the cycad, pandanus and Macadamia. The seeds of acacias and various grasses were ground between two stones to produce flour which was mixed with water, made into dough, shaped into small bread cakes and cooked.  The inner portion of Livistona palm fronds were eaten. The plants are referred to as cabbage tree palms because the edible parts taste like cabbage.

Edible bush tomatoes (genus Solanum) often grow beside dirt tracks in Central Australia.
Photo: David M. Welch.

Edible bush tomatoes

Native Pear (Cynanchum floribundum). The outer case and inner white pith and seeds are all edible. Central Australia.

Photo: David M. Welch

Native cucumber (Cucumis melo) which tastes similar to cucumber. The thin outer skin is not eaten. Central Australia.
Photo: David M. Welch.

These include the edible tubers (roots) of a variety of bush potatoes and yams, the bulbs of water lilies and sedges (Cyperus species), and the rhizomes (underground stems) of bulrushes.

Lena Nambula digs around a small shoot, following it down to its edible root.
Central Australia.
Photo: David M. Welch.

Edible roots dug up by Lena Nambula.
Central Australia.
Photo: David M. Welch

These include witchetty and other grubs growing amongst tree roots and beneath the bark, green ants, some moths (e.g. the Bogan moth), native cockroaches, and the whirligig beetle.

Bibaj is an insect larva (grub) eaten by people in the north Queensland rainforest. These larvae are found by looking for the tell-tale signs of powder at the tree or holes in the bark, and then searching under the bark. Grubs can be eaten raw or roasted.

From 17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals.

The wood cockroach (Panesthia), called kalabaj by northern Queensland Aborigines, is eaten by gently crushing the shell between the teeth and then sucking out its insides.
From 17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals.

These include the honey produced by honey ants (the honey sack attached to the ant is eaten, but not the ant itself), lerp and other sugary substances deposited on gum leaves (Eucalypt species) resulting from insect activity, and edible galls which grow on gums and acacias also from insect activity.

Selma Thompson (in green top) and Lena Nambula (in purple top) dig for honey ants with their families in Central Australia.
Photo: David M. Welch.

The honey ants are collected in bark strips.
Photo: David M. Welch

Honey ants (and lumps of red dirt).
Photo: David M. Welch

Large birds like emus and jabirus were hunted with spears. Across Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, light bamboo-grass goose spears were thrown with the aid of spearthrowers into flocks of magpie geese. In Central Australia, stones were thrown into flocks of budgerigars in order to catch whatever birds were hit and fell to the ground.

These include the ornate burrowing frog of northern Queensland.

The Ornate Burrowing Frog (Limnodynastes ornatus) from the Queensland rainforest is eaten.

Photo: from 17 Years Wandering Among the Aboriginals.

These include lizards, snakes, tortoises, turtles, and crocodiles.

Lena Nambula digs down into the burrow of a sand goanna in the desert region of Central Australia
Photo: David M. Welch.

Lena with the sand goanna she has caught.

People collect and cook the eggs of birds, lizards, and freshwater crocodiles (which bury their eggs beside freshwater streams). In coastal areas, people dig up marine turtle eggs after they are laid deep in the sand.

All land animals are eaten, including kangaroos, wallabies, koalas (in the past), possums, bandicoots, native rats and mice, echidnas, snakes and lizards.

Bandicoots are small nocturnal Australian marsupials, with several species found throughout the country.

People eat sharks, rays, dolphins, dugong, whales, turtles and fish, using watercraft to reach deep waters, then spearing or harpooning the animals.

From freshwater streams and rivers, people eat fish, freshwater prawns and crayfish (cherubin, yabbies, etc), turtles and eels.

Coastal people collect a range of marine shells, oysters and mangrove worms which are cooked and eaten. The remains of these meals, as shell deposits and middens, are scattered all along the beaches and coastline of Australia. Inland, people collect and eat mussels from freshwater streams and billabongs.

A boy eating a mangrove worm (a type of mollusc).

Photograph courtesy of the N.T. Archives Service, Humble Collection, NTRS 1168.