I am thankful for my little rainforest experience in Queensland, where I got to learn a bit about Aboriginal culture. Thus, I would like to share a bit of their history and cultural development.

In Australia there are about 500 different Aboriginal peoples/tribes, each with their own language and territory and usually made up of a large number of separate clans. In north-eastern Queensland, between Cardwell and Cooktown, lies the largest area of natural rainforest in Australia.  The southern part of this region with the neighbouring tract of open forest is the traditional territory of the Aboriginal people who speak the following six languages: Girramay, Jirrbal, Mamu, Djiru, Gulngay and Ngajan.  The speakers of these languages consider themselves to belong to separate tribes, although linguistically they can be considered dialects of one language group.  To simply the diversity here all these tribal groups will be referred to as Jirrbal people.  Today many people who speak Jirrbal and Girramay live at Jambun Community at Murray Upper. (source and map via Ingan Tours)


Jirrbal Culture

Bild5The only Australian Aboriginal culture which could be described as a true rainforest culture, was located in the region roughly extending from Cooktown to Cardwell and the Jirrbal people are representative survivors.  They retain knowledge passed down through the generations, often in unbroken tradition.

Before European contact the rainforest Aborigines enjoyed a lifestyle based on hunting, gathering and fishing to satisfy day to day needs.  They gathered a wide variety of plants, using nuts, seeds, fruits, leaves and stems, roots and tubers, some of which were eaten raw and others cooked or processed in various ways.  One of the distinctive cultural traits of the rainforest people was the regular and frequent use of poisonous plants as food resources.  In other societies such foods were only occasionally utilised, but the Jirrbal people used sophisticated methods of detoxification for a number of different plant foods on a regular basis.

They also gathered the eggs of the scrub-hens, scrub-turkeys and other birds in season.  The scrub-hen lays a number of eggs and each one can be three times as heavy as the egg of a domestic hen.  Since these megapods share their nesting mounds, many eggs may be found in each.  Cayley notes a case where 48 scrub-turkey eggs were taken from one mound.

(CAYLEY, N.W., 1973, What bird is that?, Angus & Robertson, Sydney).

Their gathering activities also extended to invertebrates.  At the appropriate time witchetty grubs were cut out from rotting fallen trees (one witchetty grub contains as much protein as a pork chop) and honey gathered from native bees provided a much relished sweet delicacy.

While the women, accompanied by the children, usually gathered nuts and fruits, dug the yams and processed the toxic fruits, the men frequently pursued hunting activities.  This included catching most of the animals available, often in specialised ways:  wallabies were speared and trees were climbed to seek out possums, and to find carpet snakes sleeping in lofty ferns.  Nooses made from lawyer cane were devised for catching goannas and nets made from fibre obtained from the inner bark of particular fig trees were used to trap scrub-turkeys.

Both women and men engaged in various methods of fishing depending on the season.  Simple methods included the catching of freshwater prawns by throwing up handfuls of leaves from the river onto the bank and grabbing the prawns as they scurried out.

More sophisticated techniques included the stupefication of fish in quiet pools.  Particular plant such as a gilbajin (Jagera psuedorhus) were  known to stun fish if the leaves or other parts were crushed and placed in a dilly-bag in water which was not flowing.  The stunned fish then floated up to the surface and were gathered up.  Long traps for eel were woven from the split lawyer canes.  These were set in the waterways with a fence of sticks each side of the mouth of the baskets.  The eels had to enter and were promptly trapped.

These hunting and gathering activities ensured that, like Aborigines adapted to the varied environments which prevailed over the rest of Australia, the Jirrbal people were “masters of stoneage economics…having a healthier, more nutritious diet than have many Europeans today’

(FLOOD, J., 1989, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, Collins, Brisbane).

 Jirrbal Society

Bild6Economic activities were interwoven with social activities.  The Jirrbal people lived together in extended family groups which moved around their own areas, but which came together for larger gatherings at certain times of the year.  At these corroborees or brun, people from all six dialect groups might meet for social interaction which included dances, fights and the settling of disputes and differences.

They had a kinship system whereby each person was to marry someone not from their own generation, but from a generation above or below.  This marriage rule worked with a fourfold section system.  Everyone belonged to one of the four sections and could only marry someone from a different section; their children were automatically members of a third.

The social system was rich and complex.  The oral tradition encouraged the passing on, through the generations, of knowledge about the local area.  This included knowledge essential to survival, such as when to gather particular foods and how to prepare them for eating.  Knowledge significant for spiritual life included many stories which surrounded every part of the landscape, explaining the locations and formations of every rock, valley, mountain and waterfall.

Society was egalitarian, the elderly people being respected for their wisdom and experience.  A man with extensive knowledge of the environment and customs of the tribe could be a gubi (wise man or doctor).  He also attempted to heal illnesses in particular ways.

(H Pedley – Aboriginal life in the rainforest)


photo credentials: V’s World