Monday, May 11, 2020

There's gonna be a Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On in Heaven

With Sounds Unlimited as the backing band and the Shirelles on backing vocals.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Difficult, rocky, sandy, stoney, flowery: Aboriginal ecology in the Blue Mountains


This chapter will focus on the food resources of the Mountain People before the coming of the European settlers. To live well on food collected from the wild there are important decisions to be made, skills to be learned and knowledge to be acquired. One must know where to locate the many plant and animal foods available, how to hunt or gather them and the best season to go looking for them. All hunting and gathering peoples live on a budget, not of money but the effort required to obtain food. The nutritional returns in fat, carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals and protein must be more than the energy used in the food quest. The key to survival is to know how to be in the right place at the right time. 

Cultural Attitudes to Food

In the Blue Mountains, as in the rest of Australia, the early settlers and explorers found an alien landscape that was apparently poor in food resources. Many inland explorers starved when their supplies ran out, although they were surrounded by bush tucker. Fish and birds were familiar categories of food to the Europeans, to which game such as kangaroos and emus were soon added, but the majority of bush foods were completely outside their experience.

To the white settlers, food was provided by a narrow range of mostly domesticated species of plants and animals. Diet was determined by a long history of cultural preferences. Europeans regarded the eating of such things as dogs, snakes, grubs and lizards with disgust, and there is a long history of cultural demarcation and national insults based on food.  Because of the strong links between food and identity, outsiders may have great difficulty in answering the apparently simple questions: what does food look like and how do get hold of it?

Modern commentators have remarked that there was little permanent Aboriginal settlement the Blue Mountains because the environment was so poor in resources. (1). This chapter was written in large part to correct such views and to demonstrate what information was already available in the literature and should have been known to researchers. It is therefor not a bush tucker guide and does not pretend to represent traditional knowledge. Knowledge, that, as we shall see, was passed on to the initiated, through ceremonies and daily teaching that stretched over many years, perhaps a lifetime.  

To Aboriginal people, foods had mythical, ceremonial and social dimensions, as well as nutritional value. Thousands of years of experience had refined their knowledge of plant use - for foods, medicines, tools, fibres and other technology; and of the times and places to collect them. Their intimate knowledge of animal behaviour gave them the ability to hunt and collect a wide range of species, from insects and grubs and fish to reptiles, birds and mammals. They were in the most basic sense practising ecologists, because their survival depended on it.

As we shall see, there was a wide range of traditional foods available in the Blue Mountains at the time of white settlement; collection and use of the various foods was scheduled throughout the seasons and they were ranked by nutritional and ceremonial importance; the size of kinship groups was determined by the availability of food resources; people made the best use of seasonal abundances and ensured against famine; and traditional social and territorial organisation was interwoven with the food quest. The country of the Mountain People was a place rich in resources of every kind and home to a thriving permanent population.

Sources of Evidence

The historical narratives of 19th century explorers and travelers provide useful information about the wildlife and vegetation, and at times refer to the Aboriginal people and their diet. The Blue Mountains were a barrier to settlement until 1813 so there was, until then, little contact with the local inhabitants. There are good records of traditional plant use from other parts of Australia and these have been compared to current guides to local flora and the results summarised in Table 1 showing the staple food groups. Table 2 provides a comprehensive species list. A similar procedure can be applied to the animal species, but because much of the local fauna is now rare, endangered or extinct when compared to the situation in 1788, early records help to supplement the current guides.

The Explorers and Early Travelers

The journals of the Australian explorers record at first hand the wildlife and vegetation of the country they traveled through and in some cases there are useful observations of Aboriginal people and their activities. In the Blue Mountains, the journals of Barrallier and Blaxland provide some observations of traditional life and diet. Further scattered observations are contained in the journals of travelers who crossed the Mountains in the years following the opening of the road from Sydney to Bathurst in 1815.  

Sir George Grey

Other explorers outside the Blue Mountains area made detailed and perceptive observations of traditional life. Sir George Grey visited several parts of Western Australia in the 1830’s and wrote in his journals, published in 1841 (2), of his fellow explorers, including Charles Sturt:

They lament in their journals that the unfortunate Aborigines should be reduced by famine to the miserable necessity of subsisting on certain sorts of food, in many instances the articles thus quoted by them are those which the natives most prize, and are really neither deficient in flavour nor nutritious qualities .  

Generally speaking, the natives live well; in some districts there may be at particular, seasons of the year a deficiency of food, but if such is the case, these tracts are at those times deserted. It is however utterly impossible for a traveler or even for a strange native to judge whether a district affords an abundance of food...But in his own district the native is very differently situated; he knows exactly what it produces, the proper time at which the several articles are in season, and the readiest means of procuring them.  
According to these circumstances he regulates his visits to different portions of his hunting ground; and I can only say that I have always found the greatest abundance in their huts. 

Grey says in a few words much of what this chapter sets out to do, but there is more detail to come.

 Francis Barrallier

The only Blue Mountains explorer who actually met any of the Mountain People at close quarters was Ensign Francis Barrallier. His orders from Governor King were to find a path across the Great Dividing Range to allow westward expansion of the new colony, which desperately needed more fertile land suitable for farming and grazing.

Under his command was a party of four soldiers from the NSW Corps, accompanied by a bullock wagon of supplies, his greyhounds and an Aboriginal guide called Gogy. Barrallier crossed the Nattai and Wollondilly rivers and reached Christy’s Creek, a tributary of the Kowmung River at a point about 25 km south of Jenolan Caves.  There he was turned back by an impassable waterfall and was forced, by lack of supplies and attacks from hostile tribesmen, to return to Sydney.

After crossing the Nepean River on 6th November 1802 he met with a ‘mountaineer’ called Bungin and another who 'knew white men' called Wooglemai. After exchanging gifts, and following custom, Bungin built a bark hut for the strangers, Barrallier records (3):

The natives do not allow any stranger to inhabit the territories they have appropriated for themselves. They themselves build huts for the strangers they wish to receive as friends. 

The next day they crossed a 'vast plain full of kangaroos' and saw plumes of smoke from several fires in the distance, Bungin informed them that this was a chief called Canambaigle who was hunting with his tribe and had set the country on fire.

Bungin then showed Barrallier some human footprints and explained that he could tell from them, 'what natives had passed'. This demonstrates how intruders were recognised, and how the fires and bark huts made statements about rights to use land that were vigorously guarded. As we have seen from Grey’s quotation earlier, the ability to use land depends absolutely on detailed knowledge of where, when and how to locate and capture plant and animal food resources. Other items such as water, campsites, stone and wood for tool making, pigments for painting, fibre for string and adhesive gums would also have been part of this knowledge.

This knowledge of the survival skills of hunting and collecting were learned by children from an early age, first from their mothers and later through the stages of initiation, where survival went hand in hand with spiritual and ceremonial knowledge. For example we know from central and northern Australia that hunting success relies on the proper increase ceremonies being performed at the appropriate sacred sites to ensure breeding and fertility of animals, and the cooperation of neighbouring groups is needed to ensure the success of complex and lengthy rituals. Consequently when these sites are threatened or damaged by European settlement, so also is the knowledge of maintaining the food supply and the necessary group co-operation.

Barrallier’s evening meals for most of the trip, consisted of a soup of boiled rice and pickled pork, this his Aboriginal companions viewed with utter distaste and refused to eat. He notes that on one occasion the Mountaineers, as he called them, dined instead on roasted lizard which he remarked had a taste that he found preferable to possum. He also tasted other bush foods, such as edible grubs from wood boring beetles. These were a favourite food of his companions and are called burradhun in the Dharug language. They may contain up to 35% fat, which would make them a good energy food compared to the lean meat of most native animals; possum meat and goanna tail for example have only about 3% fat (4).

Barrallier describes how grubs were collected by the Mountain People:

They always carry with them a switch about 12 inches long and of the thickness of a fowl’s feather, which they stick into the hair above the ear. One of the extremities of this stick is provided with a hook. When they discover on the trunk of a tree the mark of the hole made by some of these grubs, they make the hole larger with their axe and if they are certain the grub is there, they dip their switch into the hole, and by means of the hook, draw it out, and eat it greedily, it is a delicacy of which they never tire.

On the 12th November Barrallier met a second group led by Goondel, and camped for the night with them. He noted that these people used the boomerang for hunting and remarked that 'when they throw it along the ground it is exactly like a cannon ball, knocking down everything in its passage'. They also possessed a small steel axe of English make which was carried in a plaited possum fur belt about 10 or 12 feet in length which was also used to 'hang their various instruments on such as the axe, whamharha, whady, etc'. 
Their food consisted of:

Different species of kangaroos, opossums, squirrels, wild dogs, river and swamp fish, shellfish, lizard eggs (which they find in the sand on the banks of rivers at a depth of one foot), large eggs, colo or monkey (a species of opossum different from the others) wombat, serpents, lizards with red bellies, and other species etc. Goondel’s troupe was well provided with opossums. They also had a wild dog, which they roasted in a hole after the style of the Hunter River natives. They also appeared to be good hunters and had five hounds with them. 

The whamharha is the woomera or spear thrower which, with a stone flake set with gum into one end, also served as a chisel. The whady is a club and the colo monkey is the koala which in the Gundungurra language was called goola or gula and in Dharug was kula or kula-man. The squirrels were probably smaller species of possum.

On the 27th November Barrallier followed a small stream in a westerly direction 'passing over waterfalls and frightful precipices', the party rested at noon among tree-ferns with trunks ten inches in diameter and prepared their meal:

My young natives started cutting the trunk of one of the ferns with axes, and when it fell they were frightened by a snake which came in our was 7 feet long and had a girth of 3 inches. The natives skinned it and roasted it with some portion of the trunk of the tree-fern which they ate with it.

After lunch they continued until they were halted by an impassable waterfall, their food supplies exhausted, they found little to eat except snakes which the area abounded in, but to the explorers these 'were repugnant to eat'.  They retraced their steps and reached base camp on the 30th November only to find that their bark huts had been burnt. So in retaliation, Barrallier notes, 'Gogy set the country over which we were passing on fire to avenge ourselves on the natives who had burnt our huts'. 

On the return journey Barrallier gives an important description of hunting with fire:

My attention was attracted by a large number of rats nearly of the same kind as ours, which live in holes they make in the ground and in the trunks of tees. The natives make them come out by lighting fires in the holes, and they then catch them with their hands.

These would be bush rats which are still widespread and common east of the Great Dividing Range, their ease of capture and high population densities would make them a reliable food. Barrallier also gives a detailed description of a kangaroo hunt which vividly captures the excitement of the fleeing animals, the shouting, the smoke and the flying spears.

When the natives assemble together to hunt the kangaroo, they form a circle which contains an area of 1 or 2 miles. They usually stand about 30 paces apart, armed with spears and tomahawks, each one of them holding a handful of lighted bark, they at a given signal set fire to the grass and brush in front of them and as the fire progresses they advance forward with their spears in readiness, narrowing the circle and making as much noise as possible, with deafening shouts, until they are as close as to touch one another.

The kangaroos, which are thus shut into that circle, burn their feet in jumping on every side to get away, and are compelled to retire within the circle until the fire attacks them. Then they try to escape in various directions, and the natives frightening them with their shouts throw their spears at the one passing nearest to them. By this means not one can escape. They roast the product of their chase, without skinning nor even gutting the animals, and then divide it among themselves, after having cut each animal into pieces.

A hunt of this size would require a large group of several hundred people which may have come together only on an annual or seasonal basis to feast, perform ceremonies, exchange goods with trading partners and arrange marriages.

Barrallier refers to the possum fur belts, called knolling in the Gundungurra language, these were an important trade item in South East Australia, as were the steel tomahawks which were highly prized for their greater efficiency compared to the traditional stone types. While some steel axes were traded directly from the settlers, they were also spread far beyond the frontiers of settlement through the network of traditional trade routes along with fur belts, spears, the narcotic pituri, ochre for painting and non-material items such as dances and songs (5), and of course, infectious European diseases. 

Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson  

The next European attempt at a crossing of the Blue Mountains, which succeeded by following the ridges and not the valleys, was the famous 1813 expedition of Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson. In fact they found the only accessible route, which the highway and railway still mainly follow today. The key to the crossing was locating the 20 metre wide Linden ridge; whether this was a traditional pathway is unclear. Governor Macquarie played it safe and referred to them as the first Europeans who had accomplished the passage over the mountains . Bell’s Line of road to the north of the Grose Valley was a traditional route, shown to the young Archibald Bell by an Aboriginal woman. Early settlers in the Burragorang Valley traveled to Penrith via The Oaks and Wallacia partly following Barrallier’s route, perhaps this was a traditional pathway.

Gregory Blaxland left his farm at South Creek near St Mary’s in May 1813 with his companions William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth, a party of four servants, four horses and five dogs. They traveled from Emu Ford on the Nepean River to Mount York in eighteen days and descended the plateau to the River Lett before returning home on the 6th June. The party took no Aboriginal guides which was not surprising in the light of Blaxland's comment on his earlier trip along the Nepean River:

The natives proved but of little use, which determines me not to take them again on any more distant expeditions. Very little information can be obtained from any tribe out of their own district, which is seldom more than about thirty miles square. (6)

Furthermore they avoided contact with the Mountain People, probably due to the fact that from 1795 there had been growing conflict between Aborigines and settlers on the edges of the colony. Along the Hawkesbury River there had been massacres of farmers, burning of crops and houses, and spearing of stock.

The explorers hunted large and small kangaroos to supplement their food supplies, sighted bandicoots and kangaroo rats and the tracks of emus and wombats; they heard the calls of emus and lyrebirds and the howling of dingoes, but few sightings were made of Aboriginal people. As Wentworth records: 

Towards the latter end of our track on this range of mountains whilst we were one evening marking our way we came unperceived within about 15 yards of a native who was busily occupied in cutting a worm out of a tree with his Mogo. Not choosing however to molest him as we had made a determination to avoid all intercourse with them we shouted upon which he immediately retired and alarmed all the natives in the district; for two or three days afterwards we saw in the low country three camps of them within a short distance of one another at each of which were seven or eight fires from this I conclude that their numbers cannot exceed fifty or sixty. (7) 

Here is another instance of the grub collecting described by Barrallier; Mogo in the inland Dharug dialect, is an edge ground stone axe. We also have an important description of a large group gathering. From what we know of how Aboriginal people use campfires, each hearth is generally surrounded by a group of mothers and children or a group of young or older men; four to six per camp fire would not be excessive. So with twenty to twenty-five fires we could easily be looking at one hundred people. This quote also shows that the Mountain People were just as determined to avoid contact with the explorers.

Later the explorers came to a deserted campsite on the Western side of the River Lett, Wentworth wrote:

Traces of the natives presented themselves in the fires they had left the day before, and in the flowers of the honey-suckle tree scattered around, which had supplied them with food. These flowers which are shaped like a bottle brush, are very full of honey...from the shavings and pieces of sharp stones which they had left, it was evident that had been busily employed in sharpening their spears.

There are two things to notice here, firstly the use of stone tools to make and maintain wooden tools reminds us that the stone tools revealed in the archaeological record were used to manufacture and maintain other wooden tools which have not survived in the earth. Secondly the food remains: nectar from the bottle brushes, banksias, waratahs and other plants was a seasonally important part of the Mountain People’s diet and will be examined in greater detail later. Blaxland also draws attention to the relatively small size of tribal territories on the Cumberland Plain where resources were richer and populations higher than in the Mountains; and the inability of outsiders to survive in a strange territory. 

The French  
In 1819 three members of the Louis de Freycinet scientific expedition to the South Seas, traveled over the Blue Mountains with William Lawson as their guide. They made observations of the wildlife and identified the lyre-bird (Menura novaehollandiae) and the greater glider (Petauroides volans) (8)

Springwood is a place abounding in game of every kind. Its tall woods harbour great flying phalangers...the birds are no less numerous...the brilliant family of parrots...and the superb menura, or lyre tailed pheasant.  

They also remarked on the effects of fire on the trees:

The Springwood road opens in the midst of vast forests where you walk beneath very pleasant domes of verdure. We noticed that all of these were blackened right up, a circumstance due to the fact that, the natives liking to set alight the grasses and brushwood obstructing their way, the fire often catches the fibrous bark of the largest trees, which then burn without their trunk being in any way damaged by it and without injuring the vegetation on their tops.

Here is a firsthand account of the effects of low intensity Aboriginal burning in a local setting. Fire was a powerful tool that was used to manipulate the environment and the food supply and will be discussed in greater detail later.  

William Romaine Govett 
 The colonial surveyor William Romaine Govett toured NSW in 1836-37 and recorded Aboriginal foods and food gathering in the Blue Mountains: (9)

 The deep recesses and dingles of Mount Victoria as well as the adjoining range of mountains abound with the warrang and wallaroo, rock kangaroos, flying squirrels of various descriptions, and the wild pheasant.

While travelling in the southern Blue Mountains near the Wollondilly River, Govett recorded the following detailed description of how foods were collected and eaten:

It may here be observed as a peculiar characteristic of the blacks, that whenever they wander from one place to another, their eyes are continually on the lookout, sometimes directed to the ground, then to the tops of the trees, and again to the trunks of them, so that, as they walk, they are constantly stopping to examine this, that, or the other. We had not left the tents many minutes, when I perceived one of them cutting away with his tomahawk into the bark of a tree from which he soon extracted about seven or eight grubs, thick, fat, yellow insects which he put into his mouth head, legs, and all, one after another, and pronounced them, tapping his chest, Capital!

Thus in the lapse of only two hours, having walked leisurely about a couple of miles, I saw them collect opossums, kangaroo-rats, a bandicoot, grubs, ant’s eggs, and honey, without much trouble and exertion; and they not only excited my surprise by their activity, but afforded me great amusement by the droll and humorous way they have when engaged in any employment.

On one occasion a native who accompanied me killed a she iguana and carried it as far as five miles to the tents, when he immediately commenced eating it. He took from it a string of eggs about thirteen in number which were as large as pigeons’ eggs; these he put under the ashes and soon after he commenced eating them; I also ate two or three and they were delicious. It is commonly asserted that the natives eat snakes whether poisonous or not. I have seen them kill the diamond snake and take from it all the fat and they seldom pass a snake without killing it.

Govett describes the use of eucalypt gum as a wound salve and then explains how ant eggs were collected:

With a small parcel of this wad of teased out stringy bark he constantly took up as many ants and their eggs as the tow would hold and then carefully putting them in his mouth, he chewed them very composedly. After spitting out the quid, he took another supply and so on until he had finished the whole. He described them to be very sweet. All edible insects the blacks swallow whole while alive.

What emerges now from these accounts is that a wide choice of desirable foods was available. Energy rich foods high in fat and sugar were sought after and once any initial squeamishness had been overcome, even the explorers found the local foods to be quite appetising.  

Oral History 
The oral history collection at Blue Mountains City Library contains some scattered references to traditional foods. One account mentions an echidna being wrapped in clay and cooked in a campfire in the Kanimbla Valley about 1910 (10). Another interview concerns the fringe settlement that occupied the site of Catalina Park racing circuit on the western side of Katoomba. Bush foods collected there in the l920s included witchetty grubs , gum from the black wattle tree, geebung fruit, native currants and milk ant. (11) 

The latter may refer to ant larvae or to lerps which are sugary deposits found on the leaves of eucalypts and are produced by various sap-sucking bugs called psyllids. They are similar to mannas, which are flakes of sweet crystallised sap produced after insect attack. Both were a staple food in some parts of Australia (12). Also from this camp is an account from the l950s of cicadas being collected and cooked in hot ashes, and that the cicada was one of the main tribal totems, the other being the red-bellied black snake (13)

The reference to cicadas is significant because they are available in large seasonal abundances that occur at predictable times. Cicadas are easily collected when the nymphs emerge from their burrows at night and climb tree trunks before their final stage of metamorphosis. They are a rich food source at about 25% protein, equivalent to cooked possum liver (14). Given these factors: large quantities, regular and predictable occurrence, ease of collection and the fact that it was a tribal totem; it is quite possible that as well as being a seasonal staple for small foraging groups, cicadas also provided food for large ceremonial gatherings of people in a similar way to bogong moths on the Southern Highlands (15) . Although people of the cicada totem may not usually have eaten them, they would have received alternative food from their kin.

At this stage we have identified the main themes of traditional life of the Mountain People. Their social organisation was similar to that in the rest of the south-eastern Australia, with a hearth group of between a few and a dozen people, usually a family with friends or relatives; these made up a band of several hearth groups of perhaps forty to fifty people which controlled territory and could deny outsiders access to food and other resources; and finally a tribe of several hundred people. There was an adequate food supply from a range of environments that provided a nutritious and varied diet. The next section will examine plant and animal foods in detail and then we will look at fire which is the key to how the food supply was managed and why it has all but disappeared.

Plant Foods

Open Forest and Heath - more about flowers 
The open forest and heath land are the dominant vegetation types of the Blue Mountains plateaus and ridge tops. These areas support many species of nectar rich flowering plants that are an attractive food source for people as well as the plant pollinators such as birds and bats and insects. These were the “honey-suckle” flowers that Blaxland recorded and they include the banksias, bottle brushes, grevilleas and waratah.

A marine officer with the First Fleet, William Dawes, recorded one of the earliest descriptions of traditional life of the Sydney district. In his journal he noted that the Aborigines recognised three main groups of plant foods: the first was called wig which are berries including figs, geebung fruit and burrawang or cycad fruit; the second was the plants that provided edible roots and tubers; and the last was “flowers bearing honey in sufficient quantity to make them notorious to the natives” (16) . 
The nectar can be sucked directly from flowers, it can be beaten from the flowers into a bark bowl (called kungin in Dharug) early in the morning while still wet with dew or the flowers can be soaked in water to make a concentrated drink that was then allowed to ferment, which in the light of Dawes’ comment above would seem to have been the preferred practice.

Nectar is a high energy food that supplies vitamins and easily digested sugars, and can be collected with little effort so the net energy yield is high. It is also important because it becomes available as the various plant species flower in succession during late winter and spring when other plant foods may be scarce.

The nectar eating birds, bats and possums enter their breeding cycles at the times of nectar flowwhich also triggers the breeding of their predators - the snakes, goannas, kookaburras and others - all of which were food for the Mountain People. This process can be represented by a pyramid where energy flows upwards in decreasing amounts from producers through consumers to predators at the top of the food chain. People have the advantage of being able to tap into the larger amounts of energy available by feeding at the lower levels in the food chain, they can be both predators and consumers.

Swamps, Creeks and Rivers: Food and Water

The Southern Blue Mountains drainage basin which now feeds Warragamba Dam contains the Cox, Kowmung and Wollondilly river systems and their tributaries. To the north of the central plateau, the catchment area of the Grose River is similar. Each creek has a swamp at its source and although individually small, this environment is widespread and was an important food source.

There are two broad classes of swamp in the Blue Mountains: flat swamps found on the valley floors and the flatter parts of the plateau; and hanging swamps which occur on sloping rock faces and valley sides. Both act as water regulators, soaking up run-off and slowly releasing it into the creeks so that even during long dry periods there is a reliable water supply available for animals and people. Swamps have specialised plant communities that supplied foods and medicines and were places to collect yabbies, small fish, snakes and lizards and to hunt swamp rats, bandicoots and small marsupials.

The traditional diet also included a number of aquatic plant species with edible roots or stems, these are listed in Table 2. During prolonged droughts when the smaller creeks dried up, the larger water bodies concentrated normally dispersed game such as kangaroos and emus which could be speared as they came to drink. And the rivers also provided natural barriers to halt or slow the escape of game being driven by hunters.

Although many swamps and creeks adjacent to settled areas are now polluted by urban run-off and damaged by siltation, they remain an important factor for the prediction of archaeological sites because preferred campsites were close to water and with shelter from the cold southerly and westerly winds. Core samples from swamps contain fossil pollen that provide useful information about past climates and vegetation. Swamps are important for our understanding of the past and have a continuing importance for the present and future health of the Blue Mountains environment.

Eel Fare

The rivers and lagoons provided water rats, platypus, eels, fish and shellfish as well as ducks and other water birds. Eels and some native fish species are migratory and collect in large numbers to travel up or down the rivers to spawn; this made them easier to catch with spears, nets or poison. The short-finned eel (Anguilla australis) may grow to two metres long and weigh up to 20 kg.  Mature eels migrate to the sea to breed in March and the young known as glass eels return to the rivers in August (17). On a new or full moon when the tide is running in, the young eels move upstream in their thousands. This phenomenon, called an eel fare or eel run, makes the eels easy to catch in traps and nets or by spearing. Alake Condah in western Victoria the local people caught eels in stone weirs and smoked them in hollow trees for later consumption and trading. (18)

Foods of the Moist Sheltered Valleys


Barrallier’s journal draws attention to the importance of the tree fern as a food source and to its environment: the moist sheltered valleys. Tree fern was apparently an important food where ever it occurred, the missionary James Backhouse traveled in Tasmania in 1843 and wrote (19):

In passing through a woody hollow, we saw many of the tree ferns, with the upper portion of the trunk split, and one half turned back. This had evidently been done by the Aborigines to obtain the heart for food.

The core of the tree fern is a crunchy material which may contain up to twice the energy content of turnips or pumpkins (Low, T p.103). The young tender green fronds that emerge from the crown are known as croziers and may be eaten raw but the pith was usually roasted as Barrallier described.  
Other species of fern are also common in the Blue Mountains and available all year round, they include bracken fern (Pteridium esculentum), bungwall or swamp fern (Blechnum indicum) and gristle fern (Blechnum cartlagineum). In fact Jim Smith has argued (pers. comm.) that the term Katoomba is a corruption of kedumba, the Gundungurra word for gristle fern which was extensively collected in the valleys below Echo Point, not “falling water” as has been popularly supposed. Gristle fern is a hardy plant and will grow in a variety of habitats from open forest to rain forest. (20)  Fern root as an Aboriginal food was described by the First Fleet journalist David Collins in 1798:

These wood natives also make a paste formed of the fern root and the large and small ant; in the season they also add the eggs of this insect. (21)  

Bungwall was a popular Aboriginal food on the north coast of NSW where the roots were pounded to a paste with a specialised stone tool known as a bungwall basher and roasted in the hot ashes of the camp fire. (22)  A similar stone tool is present in Blue Mountains archaeological material (23)
The ferns are an interesting class of plants with a widespread record of food and medicinal usage by native peoples in Africa, Asia, North America and Polynesia as well as Australia. Extracts and poultices from the fronds and roots were commonly used to treat intestinal worms, asthma, rheumatism, bowel disorders, bruises, burns, sprains, ulcers, insect bites and stings, and to reduce bleeding. (24) 


The moist valleys and gorges also provided edible orchids as well as many edible fruits, especially along the forest edges (Table 5.2). The underground parts of plants are less seasonal than fruits or seeds and are more likely to be eaten for longer periods throughout the year. These parts; rhizomes, corms, bulbs and tubers are also more likely to produce dense patches of plants covering large areas. Finding and collecting them is therefore relatively easy. Ground orchids for example were a significant part of the diet in many parts of southern Australia. The Nodding Greenhood, Pterostylus nutans has been recorded at a density of over 400 plants per square metre which could yield more than 1000 edible tubers. (25) 


Another important food orchid was Gastroidis sesamoides, called the native potato, which may develop large tubers up to 15 cm long and 4 cm in diameter. Added to the importance of edible roots as a food source is the fact that the processes of gathering actually encourages further growth by breaking up and turning over the soil. Clusters of tubers and bulbs were buried by trampling and some roots were deliberately replanted. (26)  Here it is difficult to see a sharp distinction between gathering and cultivating.

Having looked at the broad types of food producing environments, we will turn to the most obvious way in which the food supply was manipulated on a broad scale and this is through the use of fire.

Fire-Stick Farming

Fires and the blackened bushland were remarked on by almost every explorer and early traveler in the Blue Mountains. Barrallier and others described fire being used for hunting, in particular kangaroos and bush rats; as a weapon against strangers and to recognise and identify neighbours from a distance. But fire had a greater importance. Fire was a tool that could be used to remodel the environment.

The country the explorers first observed was not a natural but a human environment, a landscape in which fire had been the dominant evolutionary force since the arrival of boat people from South East Asia in prehistoric times. In fact the germination of many native plants, such as the banksias and acacias is promoted by the heat and smoke from bush fire. 
In 1969 the Australian archaeologist Rhys Jones published a short but seminal paper on the Aboriginal use of fire entitled “Fire-Stick Farming” (27) and a new term entered our imagination as well as a new awareness of the sophisticated environmental manipulation practiced by Aboriginal people.

The traditional fire regime is to burn off when the weather is cool, the humidity is high and there is little or no wind; this generally results in a low intensity burn. The burning is confined by natural fire breaks such as water courses and previously burnt areas, so that a mosaic of bushland in various stages of regrowth is produced. Regular burning does not allow high intensity fires because fuel cannot accumulate, that is why Quoy, Gaudichaud and Pellion remarked that even though a fire had recently passed through, the leaves on the trees had not been burnt or the trunks damaged.

Burning produces a number of effects. Firstly the forest understorey is reduced - low growing shrubs and bushes are cleared and prevented from regrowing. This prevents them from competing with native grasses for nutrients and sunlight. Secondly the burnt leaf litter produces an ash bed rich in minerals which also encourages grass growth. With the grasses come the many species of kangaroos and other herbivores which grow fat on the new grass and time their breeding cycles to coincide with the first flush of new growth. Others, particularly the smaller mammals, will thrive best in regrowth of a certain age that provides a balance of cover and food.

Many of the early explorers throughout Australia remarked on the open park-like appearance of the country. This is precisely the sort of open woodland that is produced by regular burning. Burning made it easier for people to travel and to spot game, and it helped to increase and maintain their food supply. This artificially produced increase in the quantity and quality of food species is at the basis of all farming, but in this case had the advantage of needing a much lower human energy input than our modern concept of agriculture: fire did the work, not peasants or oxen or tractors; and it provided sustainable yields for thousands of years.
Even some of the early explorers could see what was happening. The explorer Thomas Mitchell was an acute observer of the country and wrote in 1848 (28):

Fire, grass, kangaroos, and human inhabitants seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia. Fire is necessary to burn the grass and form these open forests, in which we find the large kangaroo; the native applies that fire to the grass at certain seasons, in order that a young green crop may subsequently spring up and so attract and enable him to kill or to take the kangaroo with nets. In summer the burning of the long grass also disclosed vermin, birds’ nests etc; on which the females and children who chiefly burn the grass, feed.

The omission of the annual periodical burning by natives, of the grass and young saplings, has already produced in the open forest lands near Sydney, thick forests of young trees, where, formerly, a man might gallop for hours, and see whole miles before him. Kangaroos are no longer to be seen there; the grass is choked by under wood; neither are there natives to burn the grass, nor is fire longer desirable there amongst the fences of the settler.

The members of the Blaxland expedition of 1813 had to literally cut their way across the Blue Mountains and for every mile they advanced they had to travel three: one to clear the track, another to return to the camp and another to retrace their steps to bring up the horses and supplies. It is clear that even by this early date there had been a significant reduction of the amount of traditional burning that had previously kept the bush open.

The introduced diseases had already decimated the population and because of this there were not enough people to maintain the traditional extensive burning practices that in turn maintained the food supply; added to this was the government prohibition mentioned by Mitchell. This placed further stress on the remnants of local groups who were then forced into open conflict with the settlers, not only in attempting to protect their hunting lands from appropriation, but in trying to feed themselves by spearing livestock and stealing food. In doing so they came into even closer contact with infectious diseases. But before traditional society began to undergo the processes of destruction it had evolved a finely tuned set of behaviours related to the food quest, as outlined in the next section. 
Strategies for Survival

No discussion of traditional subsistence would be complete without a look at the way people organised their individual and group actions around the food quest. Many of these ideas have been developed from studying fishing, gathering and hunting peoples in many parts of the world and have been found to be applicable to the Australian situation because similar solutions have been developed for similar problems.

A Time for Every Purpose  

All movement within and between territories was governed by detailed traditional knowledge concerning the seasonal availability of foods. Weather cycles and movements of the stars were correlated with the flowering and fruiting of plants and the migration and breeding of animals. Astronomical knowledge included the seasonal changes in the rising and setting of the moon, stars and planets which are widely incorporated into mythology. The Pleiades appear to have been known to local people but there are now so many competing versions of three sisters legends in existence that it's difficult to know if they are related. Diane Johnson in "Night skies of Aboriginal Australia" 1998 mentions the Pleiades' widespread occurrence in Aboriginal legend and there is a Gundungurra legend concerning the Pleiades and the origin of the Three Sisters at Katoomba. (29) The Gundungurra origin of the Pleiades was recorded by RH Mathews in "Some mythology and folklore of the Gundungurra tribe", 1907. 

Traditional calendars have six or more seasons and include totemic species and ceremonial gatherings (ABC online, The Lost Seasons, Indigenous Weather Knowledge project, The Lab 7/05/2004). Based on weather indicators and food availability determined by plant and animal activity (from Smith, 2002), traditional Blue Mountains calendar knowledge would include the following sorts of things that people would have observed.

The Annual Cycle of Nature

Spring (approx. Sep-Oct-Nov)

·         Weather moving from dry to warmer & wetter
·         Grevilleas, waratahs in flower
·         Bush rat and swamp rat numbers high
·         Southwards honeyeater migration peaks
·         Channel-billed cuckoos arrive
·         Native currants fruiting
·         Koels arrive from Indonesia
·         Satin bower-birds display, mate and lay eggs
·         Cicadas emerge
·         Lizards become active, chasing & mating
·         Snakes emerge, copperheads & red-bellied black snake
Summer (approx. Dec-Jan-Feb)

·         Weather hot with NW winds, hail in December, February wettest month with storms
·         Broad-headed snakes move from rock shelters to tree hollows
·         Tree frogs call and breed
·         Young mammals disperse
·         Lots of baby lizards, blue tongue & mountain dragon
·         Mud wasps nesting, crickets call, sawfly larvae feeding
·         Mistletoe fruits, gums shed bark
·         Persoonia, callistemon, cymbidiums, flannel flowers in flower
·         Many young birds, currawongs feed young channel billed cuckoos
·         Red wattlebirds and noisy friarbirds feed on banksia serrata flowers

Autumn (approx. Mar-Apr-May)

·         March is one of the wettest months, still cloudless days in April
·         Time to make skin cloaks & begin move to winter territory
·         Bush rat numbers peak in May
·         Greater gliders born in April
·         Whistling tree frogs begin to call
·         Crayfish moult, eels migrate to the sea
·         Easter moths, ghost moths emerge
·         Currawongs and red-browed finches flock, many birds migrate north including tree martins, satin flycatchers, silvereyes, honeyeaters
·         Gang-gang cockatoos feed on scribbly gum and peppermint gum seeds
·         Spotted pardelotes migrate north through mountains
·         Fungi abundant after rain,
·         Red bloodwood flowering, flying foxes attracted to flowers
·         Orchids in flower
·         Banksia spinulosa, Acacia suaveolens in flower

Winter (approx. Jun-Jul-Aug)

·         Cold westerly winds, frost, snow, waterfalls freeze
·         Time to build shelters facing the rising sun
·         Bush rat numbers peak May-June, adults die off July
·         Quoll breeding season, males wander
·         Marsupial mice (Antechinus) mate August, males die at end of mating season
·         Goannas and broad headed snakes bask in sun, most reptiles in torpor
·         Pygmy possums, feather tail gliders in torpor
·         Eels migrate from sea to rivers and streams
·         Mountain minnows (Galaxias) hibernate in mud
·         Lyrebirds call, peak of breeding season, eggs laid
·         New Holland honeyeaters, powerful owls, wedgetail eagles breeding
·         Black cockatoos, male satin bower birds, red wattle birds flocking
·         Major honey eater migration back from north begins
·         Lilly pilly berries fall, greenhood orchids flower
·         Banksia spinulosa, B. ericifolia nectar flow
·         Winter wattles flower

Traditional terminology might include expressions in the form of “Cunark the great eel calls his children to him” in the Gundungurra language to describe the eel fare migration; or “the tiger quoll Mirragan seeks her mate” (ABC online, science, indigenous calendar). It also appears that people were aware of a longer term seasonal cycle of 11-12 years possibly corresponding to sun spot and El Nino activity (ibid.). 

Scarred for Life

Personal access to food species was strictly controlled through ceremonies as recorded by R. H. Matthews in 1904 among the Wirradjuri speaking people of the upper Lachlan (Ethnological notes on the Aboriginal tribes of New South Wales and Victoria part 1, Journal of the Royal Society of NSW, pp. 203-381). He describes how through a series of ceremonies known as Burbung spread over a number of years, a youth would have rows of incisions made on his back and chest to indicate the lifting of taboos one by one that prohibited the killing and eating of animals, prohibitions imposed at the time of first initiation at puberty.

Initially pairs of incisions are made in the area of his right shoulder blade representing the fat male possum, then below these further ceremonies and scars for the male goanna, and later the male emu; this is then repeated at subsequent ceremonies on his left shoulder blade representing the female of each species. Later he receives scars on his right chest area representing first the attainment of the rank of the male carpet snake, then the echidna and later the long necked turtle; then more scars for the female of each on his left chest. Then at later ceremonies his upper arms would be incised to indicate one by one the four species of grub he is allowed to eat. Each incision would have ash and fat rubbed into it and fire sticks held to the wound to make it protrude to produce a raised scar called a cicatrix. These rows of scars covering his back and chest were in fact indicators of his manhood and status as well as the foods he was permitted to kill and eat. Matthews also witnessed a Gundungurra Burbung in the Burragorang Valley.

Balancing the Budget

Energy conservation is a major consideration for people who must generally expend energy in order to obtain energy and this problem is dealt with in a number of ways. Plants of course, unlike animals, cannot run away so if you know where to find plant foods, and they are growing close together, it will save energy to concentrate on eating plants. On the other hand a big animal will provide a lot of energy in its rich fat and protein that will feed a lot of people so it might be worth the risk of using up energy to locate, track, kill, butcher and transport the carcass back to camp.

Just how much energy to expend maybe hard to decide. Too little and the animal escapes or the plants are not located; too much and the energy return may not equal the expenditure. In other words, neither minimising nor maximising energy use will guarantee success. The answer is to optimise, and this behaviour is called optimal foraging. The key to its success is the flow and exchange of information produced by the sort of constant environmental monitoring that Govett remarked.

Govett saw how his Aboriginal companions were continually on the lookout and constantly stopping to examine the ground, the tree tops and every other thing that they passed. They were checking the growth of food plants, the ripening of fruit and the movement of game. Only with a constant supply of this sort of information could they make decisions and predictions about their seasonal and daily movements which determined the optimal use of their resources. And the control and ownership of territory by a group will determine the final access to these resources

No Trespassing

There is no point organizing for the food quest, nurturing and preserving food resources, predicting the availability of food, and knowing all the places to find food, if an outsider sneaks in and takes it behind your back - it is necessary to exclude strangers or at least regulate access to your land. 

Barrallier observed territorial behaviour and Blaxland was also aware that Aboriginal guides were at a disadvantage outside their own land. People claimed land because for example, their mother conceived their spirit at a certain place there or through mythical affiliations to an animal, plant or natural feature, their Dreamtime creation stories of the land and their responsibilities for caretaking and protecting sacred sites . (Berndt, R. Territoriality and the problem of demarcating social space pp133-161 in , N. Peterson 1976 Tribes and Boundaries in Australia Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Canberra).  Or they may simply have been more aggressive and claimed neighbouring territory as Barrallier recorded.

Tools of the Trade

I have mentioned in passing some of the hunting and gathering technology that was used. The key items were the women’s digging stick and coolamon of bark or wood used for plant collecting and carrying, the digging stick also acted as a club for dispatching birds and reptiles and for defence. Dilly bags for carrying food, possessions and babies were woven from plant fibre. Grindstones were used for processing roots and seeds and left at regular campsites. Men had fighting and hunting boomerangs, spears with stone flake barbs, simple barbs or multiple prongs for fishing, spear thrower (woomera), shields for deflecting clubs and spears, hafted stone axe (mogo) and club (waddy, nulla-nulla). There was a kit of stone and bone tools including hammer stones, choppers, blades, scrapers, chisels and awls for wood working and butchering. All were generalised tools with many uses.

What is often overlooked are things that are not strictly tools - traps work without the need for people to expend energy once they are constructed and they continue to operate without a human presence. These facilities include conical fish traps woven from thorny vines and branches that were placed in streams to catch fish and eels. Stone fish trap weirs constructed in river beds such those at Brewarrina have not been recorded in the Blue Mountains but weirs may have been made from branches and saplings. Also recorded ethnographically are nets made from bark string used to catch fish, birds and small mammals.

Cooking Methods

The oral history account of cooking a dingo in a hole prompts this comment from Mathews,

The Aborigines when cooking game in holes in the ground, poured small quantities of water upon the hot clay and stones forming the floor of the oven, for the purpose of creating steam to assist the cooking process.

The type of timber, twigs and leaves used for cooking fires influenced the temperature range, ability to retain heat in the coals and quality of ash bed needed for the type of food being prepared. Heated stones were used to roast grubs, small banks of coals suited smaller marsupials and lizards, while larger specially shaped hearths baked cakes, cooked tenderised tubers and helped to leach toxins from cycads and other plants. Kangaroos were usually cooked where they were killed in larger, temporary fires where the cooking proceeded in stages – first the carcass was singed on both sides then removed and scraped clean of fur, gutted and thrown back on the coals for deep roasting. Heated stones were useful to open hard fruits and explode acacia seeds. (Mathews 1901 pp.213-216)

Men at Work

Men generally have the strength and speed needed to hunt, often far from camp, so their spheres of activity are large. Women on the other hand are often encumbered by pregnancy and the need to care for and breast feed young children so it makes sense for them to concentrate on plant gathering and hunting slower moving prey such as snakes, lizards and small mammals and birds. This is the sexual division of labour, which in effect produces two complementary ways of interacting with the environment. Men and women improve their efficiency and security by occupying different ecological niches, the results of which are then pooled through food sharing. For example there were strict rules governing the way in which a hunter must divide a carcass among the elders, initiates, pregnant women and children and his own kin (Enc. of Aboriginal Aust, p. 52.)

Risky Business

People minimised risk by regulating their group size and population size at or below the level that the food resources would support - known as the carrying capacity. It was therefore important for people to be able to control their population size especially during times of food scarcity. One way was to control birth spacing and this occurs naturally when infants are breast fed for prolonged periods. Others included systemic infanticide and abortion (Yengoyan, A 1977, Structure, event and ecology p.124 in Peterson, 1977)

Further strategies include determining the sequence in which foods were utilised through the seasons, this is known as resource use scheduling, and also includes the preference for certain foods at certain times according to a set of criteria that may range from energy content to capture costs to palatability. 

A further way of minimising risk is to make sure that the size of one’s foraging group is proportional to the structure of the resources available. Patchy and scattered resources mean small bands of people are desirable. Concentrated and plentiful resources mean that large gatherings can occur, which are the best way of coping with abundance because food is not wasted and is available at a low energy cost. This was the function of the kangaroo hunt that Barrallier recorded. The size of groups throughout the year is related to the carrying capacity of the land and this will change with the seasons and availability of resources.

On the Move

Resource use will also determine how often people move around. In a rich environment, groups will be sedentary for long periods; in a poorer environment, people will be more nomadic. In most of eastern Australia there appears to have been a balance between the two lifestyles, often with seasonal movements between the coast and the interior. In the Blue Mountains these movements may have been between high and low altitudes and between the river valleys such as the Megalong, Grose, Jamison, Nepean and Burragorang and the central plateau. However there is strong evidence to suggest that people did visit the colder, high plateau during winter, from the archaeological evidence showing use of the elevated Kings Table site 20,000 years ago at the height of the last ice age, why they did this is unclear. (Stockton, 1974).

On the Menu

I have mentioned above the idea of food preference and this leads us to the concept of diet breadth. This refers to the foods that are chosen to be eaten at any particular time and includes staples which provide the major proportion of the diet during the time they are eaten. Some foods however will only be eaten in times of scarcity when other more palatable or more desirable items are unavailable. These emergency foods provide security because they ensure that even during times of scarcity, perhaps due to seasonal fluctuations, there will still be some food available. A list of possible staples appears in the table below.

Mother’s Milk

Newborn babies were fed a special diet. Following childbirth and tying of the umbilicus at the navel (mumbirri, boomboong), Mathews notes. (i)

The excised portion of the umbilical cord which protrudes from the mother is now placed in the mouth of the infant, into which the nurse squeezes as much blood along the tube of the chord, as the child can swallow without being sick. An infant is never fed from the breast for about three days after its birth. The natives say that if a baby swallows plenty of blood from the umbilical cord it will not require so much food in later times.

Hello Possums

Where food resources are patchily distributed the energy cost of locating mobile or hidden prey is high, perhaps too high. However as we have seen with wood grubs, the indicators of animal presence may be subtle but they exist if you know what to look for.

The convict William Buckley escaped from the isolated Port Phillip settlement near present day Geelong in 1803, he lived for 32 years among the local people and recorded many traditional food gathering practices; this is how he hunted possums.

My brother-in-law had shown me how to ascertain when these animals were up the trees, and how the natives took them; this was, in the first place, by breathing hard on the bark so as to discover if there was any opossum hairs attached to it when the animal ascended. This found, he next cut a notch in the bark with his tomahawk, in which he inserted his toe, and then another notch, holding the tomahawk in his mouth after making the incision, and so on upwards; by this means climbing the highest trees, and dragging the animals out of their holes, and off the branches by their legs and tails and then throwing them down to me at the foot, my business being to kill and carry them. We lived in clover at this place, getting plenty of opossums.

The big brushtail possum is called wai ali in Dharug and wallee in the Gundungurra language, and this demondtrates another use for the mogo. (ii)

Hunting Magic

A more mystical path of the food quest is provided by 19th century ethnographer R.H. Mathews. (iii)

When a man went out hunting he took with him a charmed woomera, the hook of which consisted of a bone from a dead man’s arm, ground to a point. The fat of the corpse was mixed with the gum used in lashing the hook to the shaft of the weapon. When the hunter spied an emu, kangaroo, turkey or similar game, he held up the woomera in sight of the animal, which would thereby by spell-bound and unable to run away until the man got near enough to throw his spear with fatal effect.

When a clever man is out hunting and comes across the tracks of, say, a kangaroo, he follows them along and talks to the footprints all the time for the purpose of injecting magic into the animal which made them. He mentions in succession all the parts of the foot and leg up to the animal’s back. As soon as he reaches the backbone, the creature becomes quite stupid and is an easy prey when overtaken by the black fellow. Before cooking such and animal, the man and his companions dance round the body for the purpose of  exorcising all the magic which it has absorbed from his incantations.

The Call of Nature

People are themselves part of the energy cycle and add to it through their body waste. Traditional sanitary practices were not influenced so much by modesty or disease prevention as by the special powers of excrement (kuni), as Mathews records. (iv)

Human ordure has its place in their mythology, as well as their most important ceremonies. It is supposed to possess many virtues, among which may be mentioned the power of speech, to personify the individual who deposited it. It also enabled a man to catch whatever he was pursing, by the magical element of its ordure.

And also:

Every Aboriginal camp is kept free of excrementitious matter. When any of the people attend to a necessity of nature, they make a hole in the ground and cover the deposit with earth. This is not so much on account of cleanliness as from their superstitious fear of anything belonging to them being picked up by evil spirits or enemies prowling about the camp, at night, or any other time.

It was also important in love magic and a man would go to great lengths to obtain the excrement of a woman he wished to attract in order to put a spell on her and draw her to him (v).

(i) Mathews 1904 p.218
(ii) Bonwick 1856
(iii) Mathews 1904 pp.254-5
(iv) Mathews 1904 p.338, 320
(v) Berndt 1984  

The Original Affluent Society

Studies of fishing, gathering and hunting peoples worldwide show that on average people spend no more than 2-4 hours a day obtaining enough food to live on. Their leisure time can be used for tool making, art work, socialising, painting, body decoration, ceremonies and spirituality (see also Stockton 1995, p.38). There are two paths to affluence: to desire much and use lots of resources to satisfy that need; or to desire little and be easily satisfied. Much of the foregoing discussion has shown how people in traditional society ensured the security of their food supply.  Although some food storage was practiced such as storing acacia gum and smoked eels for winter (Lourandos p.64) and accumulating surpluses such as bogong moths in the Australian alps (Flood 1980) or bunya nuts for ensuing ceremonies (Lourandos p.58); for most of the time, people knew how and where to find all the food they needed; the bush was in a sense their pantry and the animals a walking larder (ref: Sahlins, Stone Age Economics).

Animals and Attitudes — Past and Present
From our perspective, the most obvious advantage of traditional burning practices was that they protected the Mountain People from the sort of disastrous wildfires that have occurred in the Blue Mountains almost every decade for the last hundred years or more. Modern fire prevention strategies now attempt to imitate Aboriginal methods through controlled burning during the cooler months to reduce fuel levels. However this burning is directed only at fire prevention and does not produce the extensive mosaic of bushland in various stages of regrowth that was so attractive to the many animal species that provided food for the Mountain People.

So if we are to discover what sorts of animals would have formed part of the traditional diet before the impact of white settlement, we cannot rely only on the picture presented by modern faunal surveys and the limited data from archaeological sites. There are, as we have seen, some helpful references in the explorers journals, but there is also a fascinating historical record from the late 19th century and this is examined at the end this section

 It would be naive to discount the effects that traditional hunting and burning have had on wildlife and the environment. People exploited their environment to the extent that their technology permitted. Either directly or indirectly they may have contributed to the dwarfing of some species and the extinction of the giant marsupials collectively called megafauna. These animals became extinct around 30 000 years ago in southwestern Australia (Lourandos 1997, , they included the Diprotodon, a giant wombat-like animal up to three metres long. They were probably pushed into extinction by continent wide climate change but hunting and burning may have also contributed in part.

There is also evidence in many archaeological sites of dietary change during the last few thousand years. This is associated with new and more efficient tool technology that allowed more intensive exploitation of food resources and a higher population density with more leisure time for large inter-group gatherings (Lourandos 1997 pp.188-191). The occurrence of grindstones in surface sites in the central mountains and their apparent absence in excavated archaeological sites suggests a comparatively recent shift to the processing of plant foods, such as seeds and fibrous roots as well as possible cracking of animal bone, preparation of pigments and resin and sharpening of wooden artifacts.  In southwestern Victoria, intensive food production is illustrated by eels being farmed in excavated drains covering an area of fifteen acres (Lourandos 1997, p.65)

A Hunter’s Life

Following the opening of the western railway in the 1870s, the Blue Mountains began to be promoted as a destination for holidays from the city and among the list of attractions were shooting and fishing. Advertising in many of the early guide books recommended the area to sportsmen and offered the services of guides to arrange shooting parties. One of these early guides was Sid Bellingham who published his recollections of the sporting life in a booklet titled Ten Years with the Palette, Shotgun and Rifle on the Blue Mountains NSW which appeared about 1899. He gives detailed information about the abundance, distribution, habits and hunting methods of a range of native animals; and reveals a picture of local wildlife that is very different to the one we see today. Bellingham described the wildlife at Jenolan Caves in 1883 in the following terms:

The whole country was teaming with game especially] rock wallabies. Lyrebirds were heard all day long on the hillside and in the creeks and Wonga Pigeon and Satin birds came right down to the camp hut. The stillness of the night was broken by the cries of Opossums and Flying Squirrels with the occasional howl of dingos.

Of the abundance of game he remarks:

I have traveled over a lot of country both in New South Wales and Victoria, and have come to the conclusion that the Blue Mountains contain a greater variety of game, than is to be found about the plains up country.

Although he also remarks that ‘around 1890 the shot gun replaced the rifle as game got harder to approach from being constantly shot at’. ‘ He continues:

Some first class all round shooting was to be got in the valley below Hampton. I was shooting in this part once with a couple of Englishmen, who had never seen an opossum before, and they shot ninety six during one night...wallabies and wallaroos were also plentiful. 
In later chapters Bellingham lists the hunting methods for various species and warns also of those hazardous to the sportsman. Many of the native grazing animals were of course attracted to patches of cleared farming land in the valleys where domesticated plants replaced the wild grasses that had formerly been encouraged by burning. He describes the species as follows.

The opossums to be found about the more elevated parts of the Blue Mountains grow to a large size, the fur is thick and of good quality, the colour being silver-grey...Midwinter is the best season as the fur is then thickest...To “[noon’ an opossum you get the animal exactly in line with your eye and the moon with the light of the moon shining down the barrel of the gun.. To make a first class rug takes about sixty skins.

Wallabies and wallaroos:
Scrub wallabies ale common throughout the mountains... They camp in the daytime among the low bush and undergrowth, feeding in the evening about the more open glades. They were numerous up to about 1880 and did great damage to the farmers and graziers...On this account for some years, the government gave sixpence for every wallaby scalp...Wallaby drives were a common occurrence and hundreds of wallabies would be shot during the day in this manner...About 1890 large scrub wallaby skins fetched 2s 6d each wholesale at the markets... I consider stalking wallaroo the best sport on the mountains, the flesh is much better eating than either a kangaroo or a wallaby, a piece of steak off the hind quarters being a very good substitute for beefsteak. The skins make a good warm rug. 56

Native bears are very hard to skin and have a disagreeable smell. The flesh is no good to eat, neither will dogs eat it, although dingoes kill them. Native bears are dying our very fast in some districts. I have seen them lying about the bush day after day in some places.

They are very numerous about the mountains and the bush is full of their warrens, the barns of the wombat are excellent eating, and in flavour, resemble the ham of a pig, but are not fat...Dingoes destroy a great many wombats, and! have frequently found the skin of a wombat, turned inside out by the dingoes and the carcass completely eaten. 

Platypus maybe found on all the rives throughout the mountains. When a platypus is shot at, it will generally dive and when dead floats on the water. I have shot them on the rivers by moonlight, at this time water rats are busy, a variety of these with a red belly has a fine fur. 

The real dingo can soon scent the vicinity of man, and slinks off into the bush. The howl of the dingo is often heard at dawn, and towards night, and sometimes in the wilder parts of the Mountains, several of them will come howling round the camp, making a most doleful noise. 60

Snakes are numerous throughout the Mountains especially in the enclosed valleys. The commonest snake is the Black snake red beneath. The next most frequently seen is the Tiger Snake. The Diamond Snake and the Carpet Snake grow to a great size, and I saw a Diamond Snake in Jenolan in 1895, which measured 13ft. The other snakes met with in the Mountains are the Brown Snake, the Black Snake Yellow underneath, and the Copperheaded Snake...I have no snake yarns to tell but once had a fishing and shooting trip on the River Cox spoilt by the presence of Death Adders.61

A few years ago plenty of black duck and wood duck were to be found along the entire length of the River Cox and the numerous streams flowing into it. Stubble quail are to be shot about the many farms...Lyrebirds are common throughout the Mountains and are called by the bushmen Pheasants...One of the interesting birds on the Mountains is the Wonga Pigeon which is generally to be found where the Forest Oak and Wild Cherry grow...Grey Cranes are common in certain seasons... Black Swan come down from up country to the River Cox...and are often seen on the swampy ground.

obtained along the entire length of the River Cox and its numerous tributaries are Perch, Black Fish, Black Bream, Freshwater Herring and Eels. The principal fishing places on the Mountains are Kedumba Creek and the Wollondilly River.” 

Other animals are mentioned, including the “porcupine, Kangaroo Rat, Native Cat, Tiger Cat, Flying Squirrels, Flying Foxes, large Black flying Squirrel and a large Grey variety’ Bellingham also describes a “large Iguana which frequents the warm parts of the River Cox...they kill a good many Opossums and are like young alligators and will bite a dog very severely. The Aboriginals eat them.” 
Sid Bellingham’s observations leave us with a powerful reminder that the area of the Blue Mountains was not an empty landscape, but his attitudes to nature were those of his time. He was a romantic as well as a hunter and easily reconciled the two. He loved the beauty and the solitude of the Mountains and wrote in a final chapter on The Pleasures of a Hunters Life: 
Although sport is the first object, he is, if of open heart, imbibing unconsciously the beauties of nature of which to dream when far away. Keen sportsman though he is, he will at times plunge in to some wild gorge, beguiled by nature’s witchery, till even sport is forgotten.

Fatal Impact and Intensification

It would be naive to discount the effects that traditional hunting and burning have had on wildlife and the environment. People exploited their environment to the extent that their technology permitted. Either directly or indirectly they may have contributed to the dwarfing of some species and the extinction of the giant marsupials collectively called megafauna. These animals became extinct around 30 000 years ago in southwestern Australia, they included giant three metre kangaroos such as Procoptodon and the Diprotodon, a giant wombat-like animal up to three metres long. They were probably pushed into extinction by continent wide climate change but hunting and burning may have also contributed in part.

There is also evidence in many archaeological sites of dietary change during the last few thousand years. This is associated with new and more efficient tool technology that allowed more intensive exploitation of food resources and a higher population density with more leisure time for ceremonies and large inter-group gatherings. (ii) The occurrence of grindstones in surface sites in the central mountains and their apparent absence in excavated archaeological sites suggests a comparatively recent shift to the processing of plant foods such as seeds and  fibrous roots as well as possible cracking of animal bone, preparation of pigments and resin and sharpening of wooden artifacts.  In southwestern Victoria, intensive food production is illustrated by eels being farmed in excavated drains covering an area of fifteen acres. (iii)

The archaeological evidence gives us a date of more than 20,000 years before present for the beginnings of small scale seasonal human occupation in the Blue Mountains and shows a more permanent population since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago and again about 3,000-4,000 years ago when people adopted smaller, specialised stone tools and brought the dingo with them; clearly there has been considerable climatic and environmental change and changes in the available food resources during that period with consequent changes in human visitation and resource utilisation. That is a large complex picture which does not concern us here except to say that hunting of larger animal species probably played a larger part in the earlier period.

What is important to note is that the more pronounced seasonality of the Blue Mountains climate may have made it a region where more clumping of resources in time and space occurred producing  a more productive environment with a greater degree of sedentism, more intensive use of resources and a higher population than some would expect. (iv) This may be strengthened by recent research showing that the onset of the modern El Nino southern oscillation phenomenon around 5,000 years ago produced a climate with less summer rain that dried out wetter forest areas which could then be managed by fire allowing human occupation. (v) Clearly there is much of the past yet to be discovered and the Blue Mountains story continues.

(i) Lourandos pp.98-111
(ii) Lourandos pp.188-191
(iii) Lourandos p.65
(iv) Lourandos p.16
(v) Turney and Hobbs, 2006

Final Word 

This chapter is about survival, about the ways the ancestors of all of us learned to survive from the time they became fully modern people around 200,000 year ago until some of them, only in the last few thousand years, began to sow and to harvest plants and domesticate animals and live in permanent settlements. The hunting and gathering way of life however is the way all people lived for 99% of the human past and a pretty successful way it has been. We are fortunate to have people in our time who still have some of the knowledge of their ancestors and can remind us what it was like not to work, to roam the earth as the seasons take us and to live in a deeply spiritual natural world.

Table 1

Summary of Staple Foods

 But for this simple process, the Australian woods had probably contained as thick a jungle as those of New Zealand or America instead of open forests...but so little has this been understood by the Imperial Government that an order against the burning of the grass was once set out, on the representation of a traveler in the south. 

·         Tree ferns
·         Ground orchids
·         Nectar -  grevillea, waratah, bottle-bush etc.
·         Fruit -  geebung, lilly-pilly, native currant, native cherry etc.
·         Ground ferns - blechnum
·         Other plants - lilies, wattle, kurrajong, tree orchids, burrawang (Macrozamia sp.)
·         Fungi - truffle
·         Exudates - gum, lerp, manna 

·         Reptiles & their eggs - snakes, goannas, lizards, tortoises
 ·         Small mammals - bush rats, mice, bandicoots, small possums and gliders, echidna, platypus, bats and flying foxes, rat kangaroos
·         Medium sized mammals - wombats, dingoes, koalas, smaller wallabies, larger possums and gliders
·         Large mammals - kangaroos, wallaroos, wallabies
·         Birds & their eggs - ibis, emus ducks, lyre birds, bower birds, quail, pigeons, parrots, black swan, brush turkey
·         Insects and their larvae - ants, cicadas, termites, moths, beetles, wasps, native bees, honey
·         Fish - eels, herrings, perch, bass, mullet
·         Molluscs - mussels
·         Amphibians - frogs, tadpoles

Table 2:

Traditional Food Sources of the Blue Mountains 

The following lists of plant and animal food species are not exhaustive but indicate the variety and extent of possible food sources that were available in the Blue Mountains. All of the plants listed have a record of Aboriginal use in Australia and they occur in the Blue Mountains but in only a few cases can their actual local use be confirmed. Many native animals are now much reduced in numbers and their distribution severely restricted by loss of habitat and the effects of feral animals.
Caution: Some plants are toxic and experimental consumption by the uninitiated may be dangerous, all native flora and fauna within national park boundaries is protected.

Blue Mountains plant foods, some with medicinal uses

Scientific name                       Common name            Edible part
Acrotriche serrulata                ground berry               fruit
Acacia sp.                               wattles                         seeds, bark, medicine, gum, grubs

A. melanoxylon                       wattle                          fish poison
Acianthus reniformis               mosquito orchid          tuber
Acmena smithii                        lilly-pilly                      fruit
Arthropodium milleflorum      vanilla lilly                   tuber
Amyema sp.                             mistletoes                    fruit
Banksia sp.                              banksias                       nectar, grub
Billardiera scandens               apple berry                  fruit
Blechnum sp.                           ground ferns                rhizome, sap medicinal
Brachychiton populeum          kurrajong                     seed, gum; fibre for twine
Bulbine bulbosa                      native leek                   bulb
Caladenia sp.                          ground orchids            tuber
Callistemon sp.                        bottle brushes nectar
Cryptostylis sp.                        ground orchids            tuber
Casurina stricta                       mountain the-oak        leaves & young cones, contraceptive
Cissus sp.                                native grapes               fruit; root medicinal
Cyathea australis                    tree fern                       starchy pith, young fronds; medicinal tonic
Dendrobium sp.                      rock orchids                bulb
Dichopogon strictus                chocolate lilly tuber
Dicksonia antarctica               soft tree fern               pith, fronds; tonic
Dioscorea transversa              long yam                     tuber, leach to detoxify; anti skin cancer
Dipodium punctatum              hyacinth orchid           tuber
Doryphora sassafras               sassafras                      tonic infusion from bark
Drosera peltata                       pale sundew                medicinal-asthma, whooping cough
Duboisia myoporoides            corkwood                    narcotic
Eleocharis sphacelata             water chestnut             tuber
Eucalyptus sp.                         gum trees                     gum
E. gummifera                          red bloodwood           nectar
Eustrephus latifolius                wombat berry tuber
Exocarpus cupressiformis       wild cherry                  fruit; medicinal
 Ficus coronata                        sandpaper fig              fruit; leaves used for wood working
Gahnia sp.                               sedges                                     leaf buds; seeds antiseptic
Gastrodia sesamoides             potato orchid               tuber
Glossodia australis                  wax lip orchid             tuber
Grevillea sp.                            spider flowers             nectar
Haemodorum corymbosum    blood root                   rhizome; anti-venom
 sp.                                hakea                           nectar, ash for cuts and sores
Isotoma sp.                              bluebells                      narcotic
Lambertia formosa                  mountain devil            nectar
Leptomeria acida                    sour current bush         fruit
Lomandra Iongifolia               mat rush                      leaf base; fibre for dilly bags
Lomatia ilicifolia                     lomatia                        nectar
Lycopodium sp.                       club mosses                 coughs, gout, diarrhoea
Macrozamia communis           cycad, burrawang        seed kernels edible after leaching
Marsdenia flavescens              native potato               tuber, leaf stem
Marsilea mutica                      nardoo                         starchy spore cases ground and baked
Microtis sp.                              onion orchids              bulb
Persoonia sp.                         geebungs                     fruit; antibiotic
Podocarpus sp..                      plum pine                    kernel, stalk
Polygonum hydropipa             water pepper               root; stem crushed for fish poison
Prasophylum fimbriatum        Fringed midge orchid             tuber
Pteridium esculentum              bracken fern                rhizome, frond
Pterostylus sp.                         green hood orchids     tuber
Rubus sp.                                 native raspberries        fruit; contraceptive
Sambucas australasica            native elderberry         fruit
Scaevola sp.                            fan flowers                  root decoction for stomach pains, steam bath for        respiratory complaints
Scirpus litoraIis                       club-rush                     tuber
Smilax glyciphila                     sarsaparilla                   tonic
Solanum aviculare                                                      fruit
S. laciniatum                           kangaroo apple            fruit
Sphagnum                               peat moss                    wound dressing
Styphelia trifolia                      pink five corners         fruit
S. tubiflora                              heath                           fruit
Syzygium paniculatum            magenta lilly-pilly       fruit
Thelymitra sp.                         sun orchids                  tuber
Tasmania insipida                   pepper tree                  fruit, leaf
T. lanceolata                           mountain pepper         fruit, leaf
Triglochin procera                  water ribbon                tuber
Typha sp.                                 bulrush                        rhizome; for dysentery
Xanthorrea australis                                                   young shoots, edible grubs
Xyris ustulata                                                              antiseptic
Blue Mountains animal foods 
Mammals (45 species recorded) 
Scientific name                                   Common name                        Notes
Acrobates pygmaeus               feather-tail glider
Aepyprymnus rufescens           rufous bettong
Antechinus flavipes                  yellow footed marsupial mouse
A. stuartii                                 brown antechinus
A. swainsonii                           dusky marsupial mouse
Bettongia gaimardi                 eastern bettong
B. penicillata                           brush-railed bettong
Canis familiaris dingo             dingo                                       cooked in earth oven
Cercartetus nanus                   eastern pygmy possum
Dasyurus maculatis                 tiger quoll
D. viverrinus                           eastern quoll
Eptesicus pumilus                    little bat
Hydromys chrysogaster          water rat
Isoodon macrourus                 northern brown bandicoot
Macropus giganteus                eastern grey kangaroo
M. rufogriseus                         red-necked wallaby
Miniopterus schreibersii          common bent-wing bat
Nyctophilus geoffroyi             lesser long-eared bat
N. gouldi                                 Gould’s long-eared bat
Ornithorynchus anatinus         platypus
Perameles nasuta                    long-nosed bandicoot
Petauroides volans                  greater glider
Petaurus australis                   yellow-bellied glider
P. breviceps                             sugar glider
P. norfoIcensis                        squirrel glider
Petrogale pencillata                brush-tailed rock-wallaby
Phascolarctos cinereus           koala
Pseudocheirus peregrinus       ringtail possum
Potorous tridactyus                 long-nosed potoroo
Pteropus poliocephalus           grey-headed flying-fox
P. scapulatus                           little red flying-fox
Ratus fuscipes                          bush rat
Rattus lutreolus                       eastern swamp rat
Sarcophilus harrisii                  Tasmanian devil, now extinct on mainland
Sminthopsis murina                 common dunnart
Tachyglossus aculeatus           echidna
Thylacine cynocephalus          Tasmanian tiger, now extinct on mainland
Trichosurus caninus                mountain brushtail possum
Vombatus ursinus                    common wombat
Wallabia bicolor                      swamp wallaby

Birds (235 native species recorded)

Although this partial listing concentrates on the larger species that would yield more meat, all birds including their eggs and young were fair game.  
Scientific name                                   Common name
Accipiter fasciatus                               brown goshawk 
Alectura lathami                                  brush turkey
Alisterus scapularis                             king parrot
Anas superciliosa
                                black duck
Ardea novaehollandiae 
                      white faced heron

Calyptorhyncus  funereus                    yellow-tailed black cockatoo
Callocephalon fimbriatum                  gang-gang cockatoo
Coturnix australis
                                brown quail
C. novaezealandiae
                             stubble quail
Chenonetta jubata
                               maned duck
Cygnus atratus
                                    black swan
Cacatua galerita
                                 sulphur-crested cockatoo
Cuculus pyrrophanus
                          fan-tailed cuckoo
Dacelo novaeguineae
Dromaius novaehollandiae 

Falco peregrinus                                 peregrine falcon
Leucosarcia melanoleuca
                   wonga pigeon
Menura novaehollandiae
                    superb lyrebird

Ninox novaeseelandiae                       boobook owl
Phaps eIegans
                                     brush bronzewing pigeon
Platycercus elegans
                             crimson rosella
P. eximius
                                            eastern rosella
Ptilonorhynchus violaceus
                  satin bowerbird
Strepera graculina
                              pied currawong
Scythrops novaehollandiae                 channel-billed cuckoo


Scientific name                                   Common name
Anguilla australis                                short-finned eel
A. reinhardtii                                       long-finned eel
Galaxias odilus                                   mountain galaxias
Macquaria australasica                      Macquarie perch
Myxus petardi                                      freshwater mullet
Pomatolosa richmondia                      freshwater herring

(there are 2 locally recorded species of tortoise, 37 lizard species and 19 species of snakes) 

Scientific name                                   Common name

Acanthophis antarticus                        death adder
A. muricatus                                        Jacky lizard
Australeps superbus                            copperhead
Boiga irregularis                                 brown tree snake
Chelodina longicollis                          long-necked tortoise
Demansia psammophis
                       yellow-faced whip snake
Hoplocephalus bungaroides               broad-headed snake
Morelia spilota                                    diamond python
Notechis scutatus                                 eastern tiger snake
Physignathus leseurii                          eastern water dragon
Pogona barbata                                  bearded dragon
Pseudechis porphyriacus                    red-bellied black snake
Pseudnaja textilis                                astern brown snake
Tiliqua scincoides                               eastern blue-tongue
Tymponocryptis diemensis                  mountain dragon
Varanus gouldii                                  Gould’s goanna

For an exhaustive list refer to Griffiths, 1987 and Smith, 1990. 
Scientific name                                   Common name
Velesinio spp.                                      freshwater mussel

29 species of frogs, including:
Scientific name                                   Common name
Helioporus australiacus                      giant burrowing frog
Litoria caerulea                                   green tree frog 
Scientific name                                   Common name
Cherax spp.                                         freshwater crayfish 
Scientific name                                   Common name
Order Coleopcera                                wood beetles
Order lsoptera                                     termites
Cyclochila sp.                                      cicadas - adults and nymphs
Polistes sp.                                          paper wasps
Spondyliaspis eucalypti                       sugar lerp, scaly exudate
Trigona sp.                                          native social bees eggs, larvae & honey, wax


[1] S. Bowdler, Hunters the highlands’ Archaeology in Oceania vol. 16, no. 1, 1981 p.99
[2] G. Grey, Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in northwest and West Australia, pp. 259-262
[3] F. Barrallier, Journal of an Expedition to the Interior of NSW
[4] Brand, J.C., Cherikoff, V., Lee, A. & McDonnell, J. 1982 Nutrients in important bush foods, Proc. Nun. Soc. Aus., 7, pp. 50-54. 
[5] J. Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime pp. 246-247
[6] J.A. Richards (ed.), Blaxland, Lawson, Wentworth 1813, 1979
[7] Ibid.
[8] J. R. C. Quoy, C. Gaudichaud & A. Pellion, Excursion to the Town of Bathurst’, quoted in Mackaness, G. (ed.), Fourteen Journeys Over the Blue Mountains of New South Wales 1813-1841, 1965, p. 96. 
[9] W.R. Govett, Sketches of New South Wales 1836-1837, 1977
[10] H. Duff, interviewed by M. Quinn for Blue Mountains City Library, 16 July 1984
[11] Pers. Comm. Kate Cameron
[12] T. Low, Wild Food Plants of AustraliaAngus & Robertson, Sydney, 1988, p. 164
[13] L. Martinez, interviewed by S. Melvin for Blue Mountains City Library, 14 Nov. 1987
[14] Brand, Cherikoff, Lee, & McDonnell, p. 5l
[15] J. Flood, The Moth Hunters, A.l.A.S. Canberra, 1980
[16] Pers. com. Jim Kohen
[17] Jim Smith at, viewed 12/08/2005
[18] ABC online, science, scribbly gum, extreme eels, viewed 7/05/2004
[19] Low, p. 103
[20] D.L. Jones, Encyclopaedia of Ferns. Lothian, Melbourne, 1987 p. 320
[21] D. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales., Reed, Sydney, 1975 (1798), p. 463.
[22] D.S. Gillieson & J. Hall, Bevelling bungwall bashers: a use wear study from Southeast Queensland, Australian Archaeology, no. 14,1982, pp. 43-61
[23] Eugene Stockton pers. com
[24] D.L. Jones, Encyclopaedia of Ferns. pp. 12- 14
[25] B. Gott, Ecology of root use by the Aborigines of Southern Australia’, Archaeology in Oceania vol. 17, no.1,1982, p.63-65.
[26] Gott, ibid.
[27] R. Jones, Firestick farming’, Australian Natural History, Sept. 1969, pp. 224-228
[28] T.L. Mitchell, Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia. Greenwood Press, New York, 1969 (1848), pp.412 -413
[29] Jim Smith, 2003 Legends of the Blue Mountains Valleys. Den Fenella Press, Wentworth Falls

I would like to thank Eugene Stockton, Jim Smith, and Jim Kohen for helpful criticism and correcting some factual errors, those remaining are entirely mine;  Kate Cameron for helpful information; and to acknowledge the traditional owners of the Blue Mountains - past and present. 

John Merriman (c) 2016-18

About the author

John Merriman manages the Local Studies Service at Springwood Library where he collects, organises and makes available documentary materials on the Blue Mountains area, manages the library's online historical image collection and teaches digital literacy.

John has a double major in Archaeology and Paleoanthropology from the University of New England, and a Diploma of Librarianship. He was born in Bathurst and attended a one teacher country school before enrolling as a boarder at Hurlstone Agricultural High School later going on to  study Medicine at the University of NSW followed by study for a Linguistics and Philosophy major at Sydney University. In the late 1960s he took the hippy trail overland to London, combining travel with studies in eastern religions, Ayurvedic medicine and shamanism. Returning to Australia in the 1970s he lived in the historic Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo, before moving to the Blue Mountains, where he continues to be a student of local history, prehistory and archaeology.

While acknowledging the contribution of his inspiring archaeology teachers, including professors Graham Connah, Mike Morwood, Peter Brown and lain Davidson; John traces his deep interest in the human past and the natural world to his early appearance as a cave-man at a primary school fancy dress ball, wearing a rabbit pelt costume of his own design, made from animals he had trapped and skinned, and armed with a homemade spear and club. At about this time his burgeoning collections of bird nests, rocks and animal bones were also of concern to his parents.

Note to the reader: This is a longer working draft of my chapter in Blue Mountains Dreaming: The Aboriginal Heritage, 2nd ed. edited by Eugene Stockton and John Merriman, published 2009 by Blue Mountain Education and Research Trust, Lawson NSW 2783. It also draws in large part from the first edition of 1993 funded by a Bicentennial grant. Not all of the footnotes and formatting have transferred properly to the blog format. It is placed here for reference and information, please ensure any use is properly acknowledged to me the author. It continues to be a work in progress.