The original Aboriginal diet is based on a variety of foods that were traditionally available in the different regions of Australia. What in modern times is referred to as ‘bush tucker’ includes a range of wild animals native to Australia, such as kangaroo, emu, wallaby, crocodile, and fish. Bush tucker also includes fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables gathered from the bush.
Aboriginal people arrived in what we now call Australia a long time ago after crossing a land bridge with New Guinea. It’s debated exactly when and how this happened, but it was most likely around 65,000 years ago, shortly after the great migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa.
There was no reason to expect the first Aboriginal peoples to farm as the practice of cultivation only emerged about 12,000 years ago. The first farmers were in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East and later in China and the Americas. However, even as this practice spread to all parts and evolved to include the domestication of livestock and the cultivation of a wide range of crops, Aboriginal people didn’t take it up.
Aboriginal peoples became consummate hunters and fishers, even constructing elaborate fish traps and could survive on dozens of different foods, some that took a day to prepare. They were skilled at finding water and surviving droughts. They had control of fire, used tools, and formed coherent groups. They ate well, foraged widely, used fire to manipulate game animals and vegetation, knew how to find water and understood the weather, even in the driest times.
When European settlers reached eastern Australia in 1788, the complex aboriginal communities had existed for 65,000 years at least, had an elaborate clan structure, and spoke 250 languages with 800 dialects.
Before the Europeans arrived, there was no evidence of Aboriginal peoples eating grains and legumes such as wheat, barley, and peas. Nor did they consume any dairy products, as no domesticated animals in Australia could provide milk.
Aboriginal people did not eat refined sugar either, only natural sugars from fruits and honey, and they didn’t drink alcohol before the arrival of Europeans.
There will always be debate over the Aboriginal diet, for the evidence must be pieced together from incomplete archaeology, DNA, pollen and vegetation analysis, but there is one consensus—bush tucker was the food.
The ideal Aboriginal diet
After this explanation of bush tucker, human ingenuity and food ecology, what follows borders on the absurd.
I came across this image of what the Australian Government suggests is the ideal Aboriginal diet for Australia’s indigenous population.
The Australian government thinks that healthy eating for an Aboriginal diet is the same as the recommended diet for other Australians—even though that one is not so great—with the addition of some Kangaroo and Goanna.
Such a recommendation is bonkers.
Europeans have been in Australia permanently for 230 years or so, bringing with them the foods from cropping and livestock production, whilst Aboriginal people have 65,000 years at least. The foods on this ‘Eat for Health’ infographic have been available for just 0.46% of the Aboriginal history on the continent.
- Why would a healthy Aboriginal diet require Western foods when our first peoples survived without all this ‘healthy’ food?
- Who was providing this sage dietary advice before European settlement?
Evolutionary biology tells us that organisms that do not thrive in the environment they find themselves in do not survive. So those hundreds of generations of the first Australians must have been doing OK on whatever they were eating—because they did indeed thrive and survive.
Looking at the image again, it’s likely that only the Kangaroo, the Goanna, the eggs, and the fish, plus a few (quite fibrous) tubers and (not very sweet) fruits (in season) would have been available in pre-colonial Australia.
Missing from the diagram is a host of other bush tucker edibles, all the animals and birds of the Australian bush, including snakes and lizards, and, yes, koala, platypus, emu, turtle, and dugong, and all the fish and seafood available on the coasts. All as garnished with an array of plant species too long to list.
There would be none of those packaged foods, none of those fruits, none of those vegetables, and none of that dairy.
Before Europeans arrived, rice, wheat, and oats did not exist in Australia.
No vegetable oils were available either; the only fat eaten was from animals.
So the vast majority of the foods recommended for healthy eating as an Aboriginal diet would not have been eaten by these indigenous people who, by all reports, were healthier than they are today.
Not-so-healthy Aboriginal diet
It is interesting to note here that type 2 diabetes, the fastest-growing disease in Australia is 3 to 4 times more prevalent in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities than the rest of the population.
There is no evidence to show that Aboriginal people suffered from diabetes or other ‘lifestyle’ diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure before colonisation on the orginal Aboriginal diet.
There is also this research on metabolic health of Australian Aborigines who reverted to traditional lifestyle and diet, from way back in 1984, that concluded:
…the major metabolic abnormalities of type II diabetes were either greatly improved or completely normalized in this group of Aborigines by relatively short reversal of the urbanization processO’dea, K. (1984). Marked improvement in carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in diabetic Australian Aborigines after temporary reversion to traditional lifestyle. Diabetes, 33(6), 596-603.
What sustainably FED suggests…
The first agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago was a massive disruption to the human diet. It set up a shift from fat and protein to carbohydrates as the primary energy source and, initially, a reduction in animal protein in the diet.
People increasingly ate grains, dairy, eggs and later, sugar. When industrial production arrived, so did processed foods, especially vegetable oils that replaced animal fats.
For much of the world, these changes culminated in what is referred to as the ‘Western diet’ that mainly contains high amounts of processed foods, red meat, high-fat dairy products, high-sugar foods, and pre-packaged foods that increase the risk of chronic illness.
There is considerable evidence that this modern diet differs drastically from the diet that humans ate for hundreds of thousands of years before the agricultural revolution.
Whatever the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Guide to Healthy Eating is based upon, it seem to be ignoring what we know about the history and the ecology of humans.
The correlation between Aboriginal health decline over the last few hundred years after tens of thousands of years of evolutionary success coinciding with their introduction to a ‘Western’ diet strongly indicates a mismatch of these dietary recommendations and human ecology.
The dietary recommendations are nonsensical, not just for aboriginal peoples, but for humans, period.
Think about it.