Thursday, 6 June 2013

The place of fungi in Aboriginal economic practices

We were privileged at this year's Fungimap Conference to have so many informative and fascinating speakers. Among them was Dr Gary Presland, an authority on Aboriginal history and natural history in Melbourne, Australia and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria. Dr Presland has kindly permitted us to republish his talk here. [Eds.]

The place of fungi in Aboriginal economic practices
 by Dr Gary Presland
 Talk given at Fungimap 7 Conference
 Rawson, 24 May 2013.

Aboriginal economic practices were regular and considered, they were, in fact, an integral part of the human role of maintaining the world as it was given. The movements of Aboriginal people within their estates were time-honoured and measured to take advantage of seasonal occurrence and abundance. But Aborigines were pragmatic and would opportunistically exploit food resources wherever and whenever they were encountered.

It is within these contexts in mind that we should look at the place of fungi in Aboriginal life and economy.

I should say at the beginning, that in Victoria and Tasmania—indeed, in most parts of Australia—there is a dearth of evidence regarding use of fungi by Aboriginal people; looking at Victoria in particular, there are a number of reasons for this:
(1) the rate and extent of disruption to Aboriginal society in  Victoria was such that there was no opportunity to carry out detailed studies on the day-to-day practices of Aboriginal groups in this part of Australia .  There were no anthropologists or the like, that is observers who were trained make sense of a lifestyle that appeared to lack everything that held European society together.
(2) while there was much written during the 19th century about what Aborigines were eating, there is little detail about exactly how it was gathered, when, and where. And there is even less information, of course, relating to species. Moreover, the recorded observations were of a much-changed situation; one in which Indigenous people were fighting to maintain something of their traditional ways and at the same time find a place for themselves in a vastly changed world.
(3) This situation is often exacerbated in the case of Aboriginal use of fungi, and a number of other resources, because the process of gathering the food or material was mostly women’s work.  I say, that not to diminish the economic role of women (which in fact, one can easily show to be paramount), but rather as a comment about the observers. Even those white people who took an interest in Aboriginal matters, paid far less
       attention to what women were doing and more to the activities of men. This was partly because all the observers were themselves men and partly because what the men were doing was more obvious – for eg. hunting, fishing, or cutting bark from trees.

We have, thus, only a partial picture of what Aboriginal people were doing.

What can be said, however, is that within Aboriginal economic practices there were a couple of elements of relevance to any study of Aboriginal use of fungi (Presland 2010). Firstly, seasonal movement was a central feature of the yearly round. Thus bands of perhaps 12 to 20 individuals would work their estates in a way that took them to particular locations at specific times of the year. In Autumn—the time when most fungi were collected—people were moving upwards along river valley, heading toward the higher parts of their territories, where they could shelter from the winter wind and rain.

The second relevant feature of Aboriginal society was that, as hunters and collectors, they applied a sexual division of labour. A part of each day’s economic activity was spent in women gathering plant foods and men hunting game, generally in separate locations. Contrary to popular thought, it was the women who provided the bulk of the day’s foodstuffs, as a result of their gathering. However, almost all the food obtained by either group was brought back to camp for communal consumption.

Considering the size of groups and amount of fungi available suggests that fungi were eaten mostly where and when they were found; we might think of it as something in the way of a snack food. Fruiting bodies may have been taken back to the camp (perhaps if they were abundant) but more likely, they were consumed in the field.

It is probable that there were a number of species—perhaps even a large number—of fungi that were eaten by Aboriginal people. I say eaten because in this part of Australia that’s what observers saw them doing; people weren’t seen using fungi as a source of colour, or as a medication, as recorded in other areas.

Cyttaria gunnii. Photo by Paul George, CC-BY-SA.
Not surprisingly, getting at which species were being used is, in most cases, not an easy matter. As Kalotas (1996) says, in the most-often-referenced piece on the subject of Aboriginal use of fungi, ‘There are only a few fungi in Australia which have been well-documented as being considered edible by Aborigines.’ It is interesting that all of the examples he gives following this quote come from other parts of Australia. However, in this connection he mentions the Beech Orange Cyttaria gunnii.Now, I may be wrong but I think this species fruits in late spring and summer, in which case we have to ask if Aboriginal people were exploiting this source were they doing so in the lower-lying parts of their estates, where nothofagus occurred, or were they moving into high country for the purpose.

The most documented fungus exploited by Aborigines was, of course, Laccocephalum mylittae,often referred to in the past as Blackfella’s bread, or native bread.  There are many references in historical sources to this species in both Tasmania and Victoria. The most interesting references from Tasmania are to be found in the journal of George Augustus Robinson.

Laccocephalum mylittae. Photo by Richard Robinson, CC-BY-SA.

On 30 May 1829, in commenting on the acuteness of the Aborigines’ sight, Robinson wrote:
                I observed them knock off the fungus from the gum tree, which they eat. It has the appearance of wood and has a sweet flavour not unlike mushroom.   There is another sort of fungus belonging to the same tree but which they do not eat.  There is also another sort of fungus which belongs to the she-oak, resembling sponge, of which they also eat.

Referring to native bread which some of his Aboriginal companions had brought him, Robinson wrote on 2 July 1831:

            The natives procure this fungus from under dead or fallen timber, to which it adheres, and  growing in the ground. In size it is as large as a big turnip and in taste it resembles boiled rice.’  He also mentions ‘another fungus from the peppermint tree …; also a white fungus, quite transparent and resembling jelly.

Three months later, Robinson recorded in his diary (on 25 Oct 1831):

            … the natives showed me a dead tree where there was native bread growing: I saw no signs          myself; they smelt the wood and said the plant was a long way in the ground.

In Victoria, similarly there are a number of references to Aboriginal fungi use in 19th century publications. Brough Smyth (1878) wrote that ‘the native truffle (Mylitta Australis) a subterranean fungus, was much sought after by the natives’.  In a passage about  the feeding of children, he wrote:
                 And while very small—but yet able to move about only on hands and knees—it [a child] has a   little stick put into it s hands and, following the example of elder children, it digs for roots, for the   larvae of ants … and sometimes for the native bread (Mylitta Australis) where it is plentiful, and when the elder children are willing to help the little one.

James Dawson (1881) a western district squatter wrote:
                Mushrooms, and several kinds of fungi, are eaten raw; and a large underground fungus, about the   size of an ordinary turnip, called native bread by white people, is eaten uncooked and is very good.

 One of the tree fungus species which Dawson says was eaten by Aborigines has been identified by Beth Gott (1985) as probably a yellow jelly-fungus species, such as Tremella mesenterica.

Tremella mesenterica. Photo by Paul George, CC-BY-SA.
 Henry Tisdal, sometime president of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria wrote (1886) that Native Bread (at that time called Mylitta Australis):
                are very common in Gippsland, but they are difficult to be obtained, as they only grow underground, and leave, as far as I know, no distinguishing mark to show their whereabouts. I    say as far as I know, but as Mr. Howitt assures me that they are eaten in large quantities by  Aboriginals, they may have some way of finding them.

Well, it can be taken as read that they did. No doubt, in addition to other strategies, Aborigines would have noticed the relationship between fire and the fruiting of this fungus, and made a point of looking out for it.

The fact that this fungus fruits after fire has led (or more correctly mis-led) some people to suggest that Aboriginal firing was aimed at this result. For example, one contributor to the website Australian bushfoods and native medicine forum saw the connection as ‘yet another reason/symbiotic dynamic involved in Aboriginal burning of country.’

On a page of the website Tall trees and mushrooms we can read the statement ‘One can easily imagine that the Aboriginal people would have swept through areas they had burned a couple of days earlier to harvest the scelorotia, which can be quite numerous.’

It is outside of the scope of this paper to explain how wrong these suggestions are. Suffice to say that the burning practices of Aboriginal people at maximizing the yield of a particular range of herbaceous species.  If people saw the occurrence of Native Bread as a result there should be no doubt that they would take advantage of it, but that was not their main intent.

In conclusion, I cannot pass by an example of a web of interconnections involving a number of species, including a fungus.  Gott (1982) notes that one particularly important food orchid for Aboriginal people on the western plains was Gastrodia sesamoides R.Br., called 'native potato'. This plant is completely saprophytic, depending on a fungus for its nutrition. Its position is marked only by the early summer flowering stalk, but when not in flower it was located by Victorian Aborigines by observing where bandicoots had dug for it. Dawson (1881) noted this and was told by local Aborigines that the plant was called 'puewan'.

Australian bushfoods and native medicine forum
Dawson, J (1881) Australian Aborigines (Melbourne: Walter May & Co.)
Gott B (1982) The ecology of root use by Aborigines of southern Australia. Archaeology in Oceania 17: 59-67
Gott B (1985) Plants mentioned in Dawson’s Australian Aborigines. The Artefact 10: 3-14
Kalatos, A C (1996) Aboriginal knowledge and use of fungi Fungi of Australia vol. 1B Introduction — fungi in the environment  (Canberra: Australian Bureau )
Presland, G (2010) First people: the Eastern Kulin of Melbourne, Port Phillip and central Victoria (Melbourne: Melbourne Museum Publishing)
Tisdall, H T (1886) Fungi of north Gippsland. Part II.  The Victorian Naturalist 3: 106–109

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