Aboriginal Food


Australian Aboriginal people in Central Australia gathered all their food needs from the land and generally used food only found within their traditional country.

The women were the principal food gatherers searching for seeds, vegetables, fruit and witchetty grubs. They used digging sticks and carried the food in Coolamon's (wooden bowls). Men hunted kangaroo, lizards, snakes, goanna and small birds with boomerangs, throwing sticks and spears.

The accumulated knowledge gathered over forty thousand years of the location of food and water were enshrined in the Dreaming stories and regularly re-enacted during ceremony in story, song, dance and art. The retelling of the stories ensures that this vital knowledge is passed on to the next generation.

Aboriginal Food features strongly in Australian Aboriginal paintings and Central Art has more than 200 paintings depicting stories associated with food from Utopian Aboriginal artists alone.

In the Bush Hen Dreaming, Abie Loy Kemarre is telling the story of the ancestral Bush Hen as she travels through the desert to find her favourite fruit, particularly solanum berries and desert raisins. By painting these food Dreaming stories, artists like Abie Loy Kemarre and others are teaching the next generation where to find this fruit.

The Yam (bush potato) is a significant food source and also features in the works of many Utopian artists including Evelyn Pultara, Dolly Mills Petyarre, Colleen Wallace Nungari and Greeny Purvis Petyarre. In their paintings, these artists are paying homage to this life sustaining vegetable by depicting the complex root system, bright green leaves and yellow flowers or branches spreading over the entire canvas.

Artists depict bush tucker food iconography in a variety of ways. At times it is very pictorial. The animal tracks are represented by the actual tracks animals make and honey ants and witchetty grubs are very figurative. Seed are depicted in circles and medicine leaves depicted in long strokes. Digging sticks are represented as straight lines.

In other works the iconography is more abstract. A line of dots may represent an underground waterway or a line of trees where seeds can be gathered. A row of U shapes will represent women sitting together gathering food. A group of parallel lines joining concentric circles can indicate the branches and root system of a tree where seeds or witchetty grubs can be found. The use of multi colours represent the food source at various stages of maturity from green to represent new berries through purple to black. Vibrant colours are used to reflect abundant vegetation after rain.

Although women are the principal food gatherers men also inherit and paint Dreaming stories associated with food.

Through the art we can begin to understand the different roles of men and women, the types of food found in the desert and the importance of transferring this knowledge through art and ceremony to ensure the survival of the group.

Aboriginal word glossary