Did Indigenous Australians Have An Affluent Lifestyle?

First People Then And Now


Did Indigenous Australians Have An

Affluent Lifestyle?


For a long time, there was the common misconception that Indigenous Australians  were “nomadic”, that they wandered aimlessly, desperately searching for food and water  – a constant struggle for survival.

However, prior to 1788 Indigenous Australians lived in comparative affluence. Those who lived by the sea, on the edges of lakes, in riverine valleys, or in rainforests had ready access to rich varieties of food.

Rock pool

Food was plentiful, nutritious and there was a lot of protein and vegetable.

The task of hunting, fishing and gathering food took no more than two or three hours a day.


Eel farming


In Victoria at Lake Condah, the Gunditjmara people established an extensive farming system to trap eels. Traps were placed across the channels to catch the eels as they were carried down in the flowing water.

The channels were blocked at their mouths to stop the flow of water once the traps held as many eels as were needed. This farming method even included smoking techniques to preserve the eels.

It was easy for the Gunditjimara to obtain their regular food supply which included not only eel but possum and kangaroo.

Life could be described as sedentary. A growing body of evidence points to the fact that the Gunditjmara even built stone villages.


Hunting for food


In other parts of Australia men traditionally fished and hunted for larger game like kangaroos or dugong while women gathered plants and small animals.

Men made the tools: knives, scrapers, axe-heads, spears, boomerangs, clubs – tools that were designed for hunting. Men would hunt the animals, spear the fish, catch a turtle or dugong, a goanna or emu.


They recognised the marks left on the ground by the different animals. They could tell the recency of the marks and what direction was the prey. Usually, hunters worked as a team and shared the game they caught.

The men used spears to catch large animals or to catch large sea creatures. There were several kinds of spears with different designs.

A multi-pronged spear would be used for fishing. To help a spear travel at a greater speed and with greater force, Indigenous Australian men invented a wooden spear throwing device called a woomera.

Fire, traps and ambush were other methods for hunting. Today men might use guns.


Food gathering


Women went out in groups. They gathered the food and hunted for small animals all of which provided the staple diet.

They would dig up root plants, gather bulbs, collect seed, pick fruit and catch any small animals or reptiles like bandicoots or lizards, or gather shellfish, if living by the sea.

Women had their own tool sets which they used to collect food. Their main tool was the digging stick which they used to dig out of the ground small animals and roots.

When they found food, they held it in a wooden dish. They carried dilly bags to hold small implements and they used grinding stones to prepare vegetable food.

Depending on the climate and the environment there was usually a wide choice of food.

Traps for catching ducks were identified on the Darling River at Brewarrina in New South Wales. The bird nets were 90 metres long and several metres deep. They stretched across the river enabling up to 100 ducks to be netted at once.

Indigenous Australians of the Gold Coast in southeast Queensland, the Kombumerri people, used dolphins to force fish close into the shore where large quantities of fish could be speared or scooped up in butterfly-shaped nets.

In contrast to people living in the desert the Kombumerri families in southeast Queensland had plenty of food available to them. In the space of an hour, they could collect enough food to last each family for a day.

The Kombumerri trapped possums, wallabies, kangaroos and other animals that grazed in the open forests.


Preparing foods


Cycad plant

Not all plant foods were readily available for eating. Because some plants were poisonous they had to be treated.  Others foods had to be mashed and leached in water before they could be cooked or eaten.

Cycad nuts, a good source of energy, had to be prepared before eating because they contained a poisonous substance. The nuts had to be ground and placed in a bag in water for a time.

The pulp was squeezed, made into cakes and then baked in the ashes of a fire.

This lifestyle provided for a balanced diet and demanded less labour than the European style of agriculture. It assured the continued availability of food.

In other places in more arid regions Indigenous Australians had to move around to take advantage of the seasonal foods and to vary the diet.

Not only was there time for hunting and gathering, there was plenty of time available for Indigenous Australians to pursue religious and creative activities. Apart from the economic lifestyle they had to carry out ritual and visit those special places that had special religious meaning to them.

Contrary to earlier perceptions of traditional lifestyles, Indigenous Australians they did not wander aimlessly in constant search for food and water – a daily struggle for survival. This was a misconception.


Marji Hill

Author: First People Then And Now: Introducing Indigenous Australians