Aboriginal Medical Lore

I was speaking with an elderly man today with a very painful back. We spoke of medicines and he said that the by product of the painkillers he took caused more problems. It led me to think about natural remedies and finding ways to cure without chemicals.

The aboriginal people were great healers. Here is some information about their knowledge and their healthy life.


Aborigines traditionally were much healthier than Australians are today. Living in the open in a land largely free from disease, they benefited from a better diet, more exercise, less stress, a more supportive society and a more harmonious world view.

Nonetheless, Aborigines often had need of bush medicines. Sleeping at night by fires meant they sometimes suffered from burns. Strong sunshine and certain foods caused headaches, and eye infections were common. Feasting on sour fruits or rancid meat brought on digestive upsets, and although tooth decay was not a problem, coarse gritty food sometimes wore teeth down to the nerves. Aborigines were also occasionally stung by jellyfish, and snakes. In the bush there was always a chance of injury, and fighting usually ended in great bruises and gashes.

To deal with such ailments, Aborigines used a range of remedies � wild herbs, animal products, steam baths, clay pits, charcoal and mud, massages, string amulets and secret chants. Some of these remedies had no empirical basis, but it is clear from the accounts of colonists that they worked.

Many of the remedies, of course, did directly heal. Aromatic herbs, tannin-rich inner barks and kinos have well documented therapeutic effects. Other plants undoubtedly harboured alkaloids or other compounds with pronounced healing effects. Unfortunately, very few native remedies have been tested systematically.

It is important to recognise that Aboriginal remedies varied between clans. There was no one Aboriginal pharmacopoeia, just as there was no one Aboriginal language.

In trying to understand the nature of Aboriginal medicine, we are faced with the dilemma that most of the knowledge has been lost. Very little is known of medical practice in southern and eastern Australia, where Aboriginal culture was ruthlessly crushed more than a century ago.

During the last twenty years, anthropologists have worked in central and north-western Australia to record what is left of Aboriginal medical lore. In Arnhem Land, the Kimberley, and in the deserts of western and central Australia, there are still Aborigines living who were reared without the influence of Western ways. Their testimony has produced a startling picture of a complex and sophisticated pharmacopoeia, embracing remedies for all manner of ailments. Whether Aborigines in southern Australia had the same range of plant remedies, it is impossible to say.

Compounding our problems of reconstructing the past are the changes that have place in the last 200 years. Early European settlers brought in a gamut of new diseases for which Aborigines had no natural resistance and no traditional remedies. Horrific smallpox plagues swept through Aboriginal Australia, carrying off as many as half the population. We do not know how Aborigines responded to these plagues for they preceded settlement by several decades. We do know that early explorers met Aborigines disfigured by smallpox scars who told stories of horrific deaths and mass graves. It is likely that in attempting to conquer these scourges, terrified Aborigines abandoned old remedies and experimented with new ones.

The later arrival of influenza, tuberculosis, syphilis and other horrors would have further disrupted Aboriginal medicine, as did the profound changes in diet and lifestyle imposed by white contact.

Queensland’s rainforests harbour dozens of medicinally valuable
plants. One of those is the well known rainforest tree, the Moreton
Bay chestnut or black bean (Castanospermum australe).
Compounds coming from the plant are now showing promise as a
treatment for AIDS. It is also an ornamental tree, often grown

The diseases afflicting Aboriginies today are very different from those they would have endured before white contact. Many early colonists, seeing Aborigines disfigured by disease they had introduced, thought Aboriginies lived short lives of abject misery, in ignorance of any medicinal lore.

A second, more benign change was the introduction last century of the billycan. Almost everywhere in Aboriginal Australia, herbs that once were soaked in water are now boiled over fire. Aboriginies today rarely distinguish this from a traditional practice, although they know the billycan is a white man’s innovation. Boiling is much quicker than overnight soaking but it may destroy some active ingredients and increase the potency in solution of others.

A third change is an apparent decline in the use of non-herbal remedies. Aboriginies today rarely, if ever, engage in bloodletting, blood drinking, chants and the tying of healing amulets, though these were important remedies in the past. Aboriginies were probably discouraged in these practices by early missionaries and after absorbing Western ideas about medicine, Sorcery, however, remains a potent belief and the casting and removing of spells is still practiced.

Aboriginal medicine has also changed in more subtle ways. Several communities now make use of exotic plants, usually claiming there to be traditional remedies. In the Northern Territory, medicines are made from the exotic weed called asthma plant (Euphorbia hirta); from the African tamarind tree fruit (Tamarindus indica), introduced from Indonesia up to three hundred years ago; the latin American shrub, Jerusalem thorn (Parkinsonia aculeata); the South American billygoat weed (Ageratum). Central Australian Pitjantjatjara chew South American tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca), and use the introduced rabbit in medicine.

The adoption of so many introduced plants into bush medicine suggests the possibility that many of the native remedies would also have changed through time. White Australians like to think that Aboriginal culture was static but it has always been changing and adapting to new circumstances.

Throughout Australia, Aboriginies believed that serious illness and death were caused by spirits or persons practicing sorcery. Even trivial ailments, or accidents such as falling from a tree, were often attributed to malevolence. Aboriginal culture was too rich in meaning to allow the possibility of accidental injury and death, and when someone succumbed to misfortune, a man versed in magic was called in to identify the culprit.

These spiritual doctors were men (rarely women) of great wisdom and stature with immense power. Trained from an early age by their elders and initiated into the deepest of tribal secrets, they were the supreme authorities on matters spiritual. They could visit the skies, witness events from afar, and parry with serpents. Only they could pronounce the cause of serious illness or death, and only they, by performing sacred rites, could effect a cure.

Medicine men sometimes employed herbs in their rites, but they did not usually practice secular medicine. The healing of trivial non-spiritual complaints, using herbs and other remedies, was practiced by all Aboriginies, although older women were usually the experts. To ensure success, plants and magic were often prescribed side-by-side.

Plants were prepared as remedies in a number of ways. Leafy branches were often placed over a fire while the patient squatted on top and inhaled the steam. Sprigs of aromatic leaves might be crushed and inhaled, inserted into the nasal septum, or prepared into a pillow on which the patient slept. To make an infusion, leaves or bark were crushed and soaked in water (sometimes for a very long time), which was then drunk, or washed over the body. Ointment was prepared by mixing crushed leaves with animal fat. Other external treatment included rubbing down the patient with crushed seed paste, fruit pulp or animal oil, or dripping milky say or a gummy solution over them. Most plant medicines were externally applied.

Medicine plants were always common plants. Aboriginies carried no medicine kits and had to have remedies that grew at hand when needed. If a preferred herb was unavailable, there was usually a local substitute. In the deserts, the strongest medicines are extraordinarily widespread plants. Fuchsia bushes (Eremophila) and bloodwood trees (Eucalyptus terminalis) grow everywhere. Lemon grasses (Cymbopogon) sprout on every ridge top and jirrpirinypa (Stemodia viscosa) around every water hole. In the To End, many different kinds of large leaves are considered useful for staunching wounds, presumably because cases of profuse bleeding allow little time for searching.

Except for ointments, which were made by mixing crushed leaves with animal fat, medicines were rarely mixed. Very occasionally two plants were used together.

Aboriginal medicines were never quantified. There were no measured doses or specific times of treatment. Since most remedies were applied externally there was little risk of overdosing.

Some medicines were known to vary in strength with the seasons. Aromatic lemon grasses had to be picked while green, and toothed ragwort leaves (Pterocaulon serrulatum) were strongest after rain. A wet season growth of green plum leaves (Buchanania obovata), used as a toothache remedy, was considered much stronger than that available during dry.

One area of
Aboriginal medicine
with no obvious
Western parallel
was baby medicine.

Newborn babies were steamed or rubbed with oils to renter them stronger. Often, mothers were also steamed.

A notable feature of Aboriginal medicine was the importance placed upon oil as a healing agent. an importance that passed to white colonists, and is reflected today in the continuing popularity of goanna oil.

Earth, mud, sand, and termite dirt were also taken as medicines. In the Channel Country, healing mud for packing wounds was taken from the cold beds of water holes. In many parts of Australia, wounds were dressed with dirt or ash. Arnhem Land Aboriginies still eat small balls of white clay and pieces of termite mound to cure diarrhea and stomach upsets. Clay and termite earth probably share the properties of kaolin, which is the white clay used in western medicine. They may also provide essential nutrients: some termite mounts are extraordinarily rich in iron -as high as two percent. But whether this can be absorbed through the stomach has yet to be determined.

Mohandas Gandhi

“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”