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Aboriginal land use

This material addresses aspects of the following syllabus outcome:

H1.1 explains the influence of the physical, biological, social, historical and economic factors on sustainable agricultural production

The work presented in the following section contributes towards achieving the following syllabus content areas:

Students learn about:

Factors contributing to the degradation of soil and water

Extract from Stage 6 Agriculture Syllabus NSW Board of Studies Amended 2013


Aboriginal people have successfully managed their land for at least 40,000 years. This land provides the primary resources for clothes, food, building materials and all the other items needed for a healthy sustainable life. Traditional Aboriginal land use practices in Australia use resources in such a way that they are renewed and not exhausted.

Aboriginal land use practices rely on an excellent knowledge of the area including the complex diversity of plants and animals found there as well as the physical environment and ecology in which they live. There is a deep understanding of season changes which effect all land use activities including food collection, mobility and ceremonial practices.

Aboriginal people have a deep and spiritual attachment to the land that is difficult for non-Aboriginal people to appreciate.

Find out the name of the Aboriginal nation or language group of your area. Ask local Aboriginal people and community groups eg. local Aboriginal Land Council or use the library. The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia may be useful.

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The types of traditional bush foods eaten, the way they are obtained and how they are prepared, varies both with locality and with the changing seasons.

It is often thought that only the men hunt animals and that the women gather plant foods. This is not strictly true, as women also capture snakes, fish, goannas and tortoises and men may collect fruit, plant tubers and shellfish.

Visit the Web site Aboriginal Trail (external website) to learn more about some of the plants they used.

Animal foods include kangaroos, possums, ducks, snakes, goannas, lobsters, shellfish, witchetty grubs, crabs, tortoises and seals.

Find out what types of animals and plants are common in your local area and the food supplies that have been used by local Aboriginal people before and after the British invasion.

Looking after country

By eating a large variety of foods in a systematic and sustainable manner Aboriginal food gathering techniques can ensure that no one food source can be over-exploited. Plant foods eaten include wild fruit, nuts, berries, edible leaves and plant roots.

Enough seeds are left so that there will always be new growth. The young of any animal species, or any female if it is still caring for its offspring are rarely killed . When collecting eggs from a bird's nest some are always left to hatch thus ensuring the survival of the species.

Certain food taboos associated with specific clan totems also prohibited food being eaten by certain individuals. This complex system of food taboos adds to the overall sustainability of food sources.

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Agriculture, farming and technology

Agriculture and farming, from an Aboriginal world view, includes hunting and all forms of food collecting. Also included is intensive farming such as eel trapping, fish traps and yam growing.

Indigenous peoples of the Torres Strait Islands have cultivated a number of plants such as bananas, taros, coconuts and yams. Existing vegetation was cleared and burnt and, after the crop was harvested, the soil was left fallow to restore its fertility.

Techniques used by Aboriginal people to capture the animals include using nets to catch fish and birds, placing sticky sap on branches so birds could not fly away, using seeds to attract birds, using snares, swimming underwater and grabbing swimming water birds by the legs.

Traditionally fish were caught by shell hook and bark-string line or speared, poisonous plants were soaked in waterholes to kill fish so they could be collected. In some places such as the Darling River at Brewarrina permanent stone walls were built in the river to form fish traps.

Growing up the country

Aboriginal peoples have had a lasting impact on the environment through their use of fire. Fire has been used for cleaning up the vegetation, making it easier to walk through the land and safer as snakes could be avoided. Fire was commonly used to promote the growth of valued plants. This regrowth of grasses attracts grazing animals, such as kangaroos, back to the area for easier hunting. Fire has also been used to drive out animals which can then be then killed for food.

Traditionally smoke from fires was used to flush possums from their hiding places in hollow trees. In some instances a form of animal husbandry was used with Aboriginal men cutting holes in trees to provide homes for possums which could be raided at a later time.

This controlled use of fire has been used for tens of thousands of years. This burning pattern has changed the appearance of the Australian bush with large areas of forest being replaced by open grasslands. Plant species which did not regrow well after fire declined in numbers, whilst more fire resistant species, such as grass trees, eucalypts and acacias, dominated.

Plant propagation

Very little plant propagation took place, though some groups did collect and scatter the seed of useful plant whilst others replanted edible yams.

The women of the Torres Strait Islands cultivated a number of plants such as bananas, taros, coconuts and yams. They cleared and burnt existing vegetation and after the crop was harvested, the soil was left fallow to restore its fertility.

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