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To Feed A Nation: A History of Australian Food Science and Technology

To Feed A Nation: A History of Australian Food Science and Technology

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To Feed A Nation: A History of Australian Food Science and Technology

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Lançado em:
Feb 24, 2005


To Feed a Nation takes the reader on a journey over the centuries, describing the slow and arduous development of Australian food technology and science from before European settlement to the latter half of the twentieth century.

The first part of the book gives a fascinating glimpse into Aboriginal food and culture, outlines the primitive state of European food technology at the time of the First Fleet, and shows how the colonists tried to transfer to Australia the village technologies they knew in England.

The second part describes how, for most of the nineteenth century, technology preceded science – the processing and storage of food relied on methods which, by trial and error, had been shown to work – and food science was slow to emerge.

The final part of the book highlights the twentieth century watershed — how a growing understanding of the nature of food, the principles of nutrition, and the role of micro-organisms, was able to propel food technology to where it is today.

The publication of To Feed a Nation has been sponsored by the Food Technology Association of Victoria.

Lançado em:
Feb 24, 2005

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To Feed A Nation - Keith K. Farrer



A history of Australian food science and technology

Keith Farrer

© 2005 Keith Thomas Henry Farrer

All rights reserved. Except under the conditions described in the Australian Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, duplicating or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. Contact CSIRO PUBLISHING for all permission requests.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Farrer, Keith Thomas Henry, 1916–.

To feed a nation: a history of Australian food science and technology.

Includes index.

ISBN 0 643 09154 8 (paperback). ISBN 0 643 09217 X (netLibrary eBook).

1. Food – History. 2. Aborigines, Australian – Food. 3.

Food – Preservation – History. 4. Food – Research -

Australia. I. CSIRO. II. Title.


Available from


150 Oxford Street (PO Box 1139)

Collingwood VIC 3066


Telephone:   +61 3 9662 7666

Local call:   1300 788 000 (Australia only)

Fax:           +61 3 9662 7555

Email:        publishing.sales@csiro.au

Web site:   www.publish.csiro.au

Front cover

Top, from left: The Government Cool Stores, Melbourne; Cream separator; The City Brewery,

Melbourne. Reproduced courtesy of the La Trobe Library, Melbourne.

Bottom, from left: Wine bottles perspective, istockphoto; Food Science Australia, CSIRO; Fruit,


Set in Minion 10/13pt

Cover and text design by James Kelly

Typeset by Paul Dickenson

Printed in Australia by BPA Print Group


Although elements of food technology are visible in ancient documents, the most significant developments in food science and technology have taken place in the second half of the 20th century – the evidence is on supermarket shelves. With constant press reports and scare stories about the food we eat, there is a rising interest in the general community in its food supply – what it is, where it comes from and so on. Simultaneously, there has been a growth in interest in the historical background to our Australian life.

This book is timely, therefore, on both counts. It gives us the technological background to our important food industry and outlines the ways in which technology is being applied to matters of safety and quality. Dr Farrer is well qualified to write it.

On graduating from the University of Melbourne in 1938, Keith Farrer joined the forerunner of Kraft Foods Limited as a Research Chemist and retired from the company in 1981 as Chief Scientist. Since then he has been a consultant to Australian Government instrumentalities and industry. He has served on numerous professional industry and government committees and played a significant role in the foundation of the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology, of which he is a Fellow. He is also a Fellow of the sister institute in the United Kingdom, an Honorary Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Food Science and Technology, of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology, and of similar Chemistry institutes.

In the 1970s Dr Farrer was the convener of the committee which led to the foundation of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and Vice-President (1975–82) to Sir Ian McLennan, the founding President. He is now one of only nine Honorary Fellows of the Academy.

A scientist with a lifetime’s experience in food science and technology, Dr Farrer has published more than 140 scientific, technical and historical papers in local and international journals, and several books. Remarkably he also has a Master of Arts for his pioneering studies on the history of food technology, especially in 19th century Australia. His writing skills are legendary, more recently seen as the author of the series of ‘Letters from London’ that appeared regularly in Food Technology in Australia (now Food Australia), the technical journal of AIFST. His passion for food science and technology, and especially its history, is a natural precursor for To Feed a Nation.

In 1979 Dr Farrer was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to science and industry. He is an outstanding Australian, and there is no more qualified person to write of the role of food science and technology in the development of this country.

Alan Mortimer


International Union of Food Science and Technology (2003–2006)






1 Before the First Fleet came

2 What the First Fleet brought

3 The village technologies


4 Meat processing

5 Refrigeration

6 Sugar: a major ingredient

7 Fruit and vegetable products

8 Milling and flour-based products

9 Fermentation: brewing and winemaking

10 Dairy products

11 The emergence of food science

12 Into the 20th century


13 The 1940–60 watershed

14 Consolidating the science base

15 Challenge and change

16 Nutrition: a branch of food science

17 Response to anxiety

18 Epilogue






This book was suggested to me by my friend, the late Dr FH Reuter, founding head of the Department of Food Technology (now Food Science and Technology) in the University of New South Wales, who urged me to write a more general account of the development of food technology in Australia using the references to my earlier surveys of the subject, A settlement amply supplied, and the chapter, Food Technology, in Technology in Australia: 1788–1988. Many years later, I have done so. However, it was not nearly so simple as Dr Reuter suggested, and the result is a synthesis of primary sources from the latter half of the 20th century and my own and other acknowledged secondary sources all of which are based on fully referenced primary sources.

This book is intended to be of value to secondary and tertiary students and the general reader. It follows the development of the Australian food industry from its early struggles for survival to the present-day sophisticated instrument for feeding our own people and exporting the now enormous excess of production over local consumption. It also relates the first hesitant, then rapid emergence of food science and technology as the scientific discipline underpinning this industry that, from farm to table, employs more Australians than any other. The account ends at the year 2000, when processed foods represented about 75% of world trade in agricultural products; trade, not production, for vast quantities of unprocessed foods are consumed daily in the developing world.

In writing a book of this nature, I had to be selective. Postharvest technologies for the conservation of food between farm and plate or processor are mentioned but only in relation to the beginning of Australian trade in, mainly, fruits. Fish and cereals, other than wheat, are barely mentioned, and confectionery, which poses some challenging scientific questions, is totally neglected. Edible fats and oils, that increasingly important segment of food technology, are barely acknowledged, and only passing references are made to food habits and food selection. Other gaps will be evident to the cognoscenti. Of products, processes and research, examples selected are inevitably coloured by my personal experience. I have no doubt that some readers will identify serious omissions; however, in view of the impossibility of completeness, especially post-1950, the principal purpose of this book is to illuminate the broad sweep of the development of Australian food science and technology.

I have avoided disturbing what I hope is the flow of the text by scattering it with references. Rather, I have included for each chapter a list of sources with which, by reference to titles and sometimes to authors, specific portions of the text may usually be identified.

Although the final editing was completed in Australia, the book was written in England. While I was fortunate in having a mass of material with me, I called upon these friends in Australia for help which was willingly given: Messrs JF Kefford, KC Richardson, L Higginbotham, Miss Margaret Dick, Mrs Beverley George, Mrs EP Jones, Doctors Beverley Wood, FHC Kelly and BC Rankine, Professor AL Halmos and my daughter, Jennifer Farrer. My thanks to them all and especially to Dr Barbara Munce, editor of Food Australia, for permission to quote long parts of one of my papers published therein; to Mr John Bignell of Bothwell, Tasmania, for permission to reproduce his diagram of the Thorpe water mill; and to Professor KA Buckle, University of New South Wales, for help and advice. In Britain I am grateful to Dr Neil Chambers of the Banks Archive Project and Mr Peter McDonald of the Queensland Government Office, London, who were especially helpful, the latter with a wealth of information on the Centre for Food Technology, and to my wife, Marilyn, who suffered long hours of my absent-mindedness.

It is one thing to write a book and quite another to have it published. I am therefore especially grateful to my friend, Mr Alan Mortimer, President of the International Union of Food Science and Technology, who, with the willing support of the Food Technology Association of Victoria, enlisted the financial help of the Australian Blending Company Pty Ltd, Halcyon Proteins Pty Ltd, Kraft Foods Limited, the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology, CSIRO and the Food Technology Association of Victoria in bringing this work to fruition. To all those, therefore, who were thus involved in this publication, I offer my sincere thanks.

Finally, in spite of the help I have received both now and in the writing of the earlier works, it is always possible to misinterpret or inadvertently distort what one is told. Accordingly, all the inevitable errors of commission and omission are mine and mine alone.

Keith Farrer,

Melbourne, May 2004


The word ‘technology’ means different things to different people. It derives from the Greek, tekhne = skill or art, through tekhnologia = systematic treatment. It is used in two ways. The first meaning is the application of science in the development of useful products and processes and the methods used to achieve these ends. The second, more diffuse, meaning is the body of knowledge available to a group or civilisation for achieving certain aims, for example the technology of the Iron Age. In this book the word is used in the first way.

‘Science’, it has been said, ‘is about knowing, technology about doing’, but much technology in the first sense was developed long before the background science was known. ‘Doing’ preceded ‘knowing’, but there is no doubt that the procedures used amounted, in the main, to a ‘systematic treatment’.

Certainly, this was the case with food technology, which is taken to mean ‘the reduction of the art of preserving food to a set of principles the application of which will ensure that the processes used are reliable and repeatable, and that the products are safe, will keep, and are acceptable to the consumer’. Food technology is concerned for the most part with making raw foods edible, and with the transfer of food from a time of plenty to a time of want and from a place of plenty to a place of want. This involves methods of preparation, processing (apart from cooking), storage, and transport, and is based on the control of micro-organisms and the prevention or minimisation of chemical and physical changes. Both of these are intimately concerned with food quality— flavour, texture, and nutritive value—and the control of micro-organisms, particularly, is related to safety. It is still sufficient for the food technologist to achieve desired results without necessarily being able to explain in scientific terms all that happens in the process.

Food science, on the other hand, seeks the full explanation of what happens in food raw materials and the processes to which they are subjected, in the confident expectation that such understanding will bring greater control of, and important improvements in, quality and safety. While some production methods, such as cheese processing, are still not fully understood in scientific terms, few advances are now made other than by the application of scientific results. Interdisciplinary collaboration, for the solving of problems, introduction of new products, processes, and packaging, and overall improvement of the food supply, dates from the middle of the 20th century, and the integrated body of knowledge thus produced is now referred to as food science and technology.

Food technology takes a raw material and turns it into a finished product attractive enough to make people buy it according to their culture and food habits and the product’s perceived value to them in quality and price. The science behind food technology includes elements of chemistry and biochemistry, biology and microbiology, physics, engineering and materials science, psychology and sociology. Above all, food technology must come to terms with nutrition, itself a branch of food science. Food science and technology, then, constitutes a spectrum with science in all its diversity at one end and technology at the other. Each is clearly identifiable, yet merges into the other so that it is impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. It is best, therefore, to follow the term, ‘food science and technology’, with a singular verb.

No discussion of this discipline can be divorced from food per se. Food production is a major part of agriculture—which, indeed, began with the growing of food—and both scientist and technologist are vitally concerned with the conditions under which any given food is grown, for these conditions influence its composition and properties. Nor is food science and technology divorced from the diet of the people, whoever and wherever they are. Apart from questions of nutrition and safety, the food of the people at any particular time and place throughout history is an important indicator of local agricultural production, of contemporary food technology (or techniques), and in some cases, such as the availability of spices and tea in Britain, of imports. Anderson, writing of China, provides an example. At the end of the Ming period—that is, in the mid-17th century—China’s food was virtually as it is now. Rice (70% of the total) and wheat were the grains; sugar, oil, and tea were as important as they are today; and diversified and specialised production of fruits, vegetables, and so on, were widespread. This tells us that the Chinese had developed technologies for boiling sugar, expressing oil, and curing tea, though green tea is not fermented, and also that the consumption of fruit and vegetables was general. It implies that the Chinese had mastered the art of dehulling rice, as indeed they had, producing a semi-polished product, and that they were milling wheat, as they were, with the familiar stone mills followed by sieving to produce a not more than 80% extraction flour. (The ‘extraction rate’ is explained on p. 80). They knew nothing of the phase changes in sugar boiling, the mechanisms of oxidative rancidity, nor the enzymes inactivated by the preliminary steaming of green tea leaves. They were totally unaware of the thiamin in their semi-polished rice, or of the anticarcinogenic properties of some of their fruits and vegetables. They had no food science, but they had developed some food technology.

At the end of the 18th century, Nicolas Appert, a French chef, successfully pioneered the heat processing of food commercially. He was a food technologist—indeed, modern food processing is dated from his work—but his methods were empirical, not scientific. Much later, from emerging science, came knowledge and understanding, prediction, control, and regulation. So, also, ancient fermentations for beer, wine, cheese, sauerkraut, and so on were accomplished by art rather than science, but all these, and the soy sauce and other fermented foods of the Orient, have now yielded to scientific study. The various micro-organisms responsible for the end results have been identified, the optimum conditions for their activity established, and consistent products thus obtained by careful attention to the conditions which science prescribes. The reason jams, conserves, and salted meat and fish—high-sugar and high-salt products—can be stored is now understood in scientific terms, and sugar, salt, and acidity (expressed as pH*) are used intelligently in establishing biological stability in a whole range of what are now referred to as intermediate-moisture foods (IMF). Food science is now well established.

Part One of this book begins with a look at Aboriginal techniques and considers the food technology, such as it was, available to the men and women who founded the colony of New South Wales. The familiar ancient and emerging technologies that the colonists brought with them settled more or less comfortably into the new land. However, changes were afoot. Initially, these technological changes came in response to specific opportunities and needs, slowly at first, but with a rush in the last quarter of the 19th century. For the most part they were not peculiarly Australian, but they established the face of Australian food technology up to the Second World War and in some cases beyond. They were commodity driven and have been so treated in Part Two.

Although Appert began heat processing with fruits and vegetables, and the Americans introduced canning with these same raw materials, Australian canning began in the mid-19th century with the drive to preserve meat for shipment to Britain. Within 20 years jam was being canned in Hobart, and fruit canning followed. The same imperative led to the development of refrigeration, which was soon applied to dairy products and fruit as well as meat. Sugar, originally from India, had been exported from Brazil in the 16th century. When the French pushed the American rebellion into the background, George III was concerned for his ‘sugar islands’ in the Caribbean. It was inevitable that a sugar industry should begin in Australia’s tropics and semi-tropics; this, too, began in the mid-19th century.

From 1870 fundamental changes occurred in milling, brewing and dairying, but these changes were not so much in understanding as in doing. They were largely, especially in milling, dairying and sugar boiling, clever engineering responses to the needs of a specific segment of the food industry, but technological advances were then applied to different commodities. Australia was innovative in refrigeration, which had arisen in response to the need to preserve meat: TS Mort immediately saw its value for milk distribution; then it was applied, first in Tasmania from 1885, to the cool storage of fruit for export, and to butter a year or two later. Dehydration arrived in two unconnected forms: the production of ‘evaporated’ apples, which led the world in the introduction of mechanical dehydration, and the sun drying of ‘dried fruits’. Late in the 19th century and in the first years of the 20th, through engineering of can design and production and through understanding of microbiological constraints and imperatives, canning developed as a technology of general application.

Nineteenth century food science was at best very sketchy. In Australia it consisted of the demonstration of the value of chemical analyses in winemaking, the control of the sugar industry and food adulteration, work on brewers’ yeasts, and, spectacularly, the emergence of cereal science. Slowly, the scientific background to food processing and nutrition began to unfold, but, for most of this period up to the Second World War, Australian food technology was just that, technology, and, as already stated, it was commodity driven.

The last quarter of the 19th century, especially the 1880s, was a watershed in food science and technology, especially technology. The years 1940–60, especially the decade 1945–55, constituted another period of great change when food science and technology matured rapidly and set the pattern of today. Part Three of the book discusses how Australian food science and technology discovered itself. Stimulated by the war, driven by opportunities and consumer expectations deriving from new packaging and processes, and faced with demographic change, government regulatory initiatives and new concerns about nutrition and food safety, the Australian food industry discovered that it needed to be based on science. Australian food science and technology have since continued to surge forward through industry and professional organisation, educational advancement, industrial innovation and government encouragement.

* pH is a numerical scale expressing from 1 (very acid) to 14 (very alkaline) the acidity and alkalinity of a solution, pH 7 being exactly neutral. In chemical terms, pH is approximately equal to the reciprocal of the logarithm of the hydrogen ion concentration of the solution.


Chapter 1

Before the First Fleet came

People are thought to have come to Australia 60 000 years ago and slowly spread over the continent and into Tasmania, evolving into a great diversity of cultural adaptation with hundreds of languages. What follows is a brief survey of traditional Aboriginal food and techniques for handling it. It must be understood that food supplies and their treatment were anything but uniform throughout the country, and that specific foods and their usage may have been, and probably often were, related to only part, and sometimes a very small part, of the Aboriginal world. Annual feasting on the Bogong moth and triennial enjoyment of bunya pine kernels are examples of diversity and the local availability of a specific food. No attempt is made here to place any particular practice in a specific time frame. Aboriginal people were themselves part of a total ecological system in which slow changes forced some adaptation, but within which most of their food culture was still of great antiquity.

It is perhaps convenient to think of the Aboriginal world in four main divisions: coastal, riverine/plains, desert, and Tasmanian. Common to all four was the nomadic culture of the hunter-gatherer. In general, men hunted large marsupials and emus with woomera and spear, boomerang and throwing stick, and women gathered natural vegetable products, the honey of the native bee, shellfish and crustaceans, but also caught reptiles and small mammals. The women thus contributed up to, say, 80% of the food consumed, including a significant proportion of the protein foods. Nowhere, not even on Cape York, were gardens cultivated (as they were in New Guinea and even on some Torres Strait islands), probably because such activity is time-consuming and there was no need for it: Australia was an affluent hunter-gatherer society with no stimulus for labour-intensive activities. Food was abundant, and when it became scarcer in any given area the nomads moved on. In the meantime they made the most of the local game and the seeds, fruits, and nuts of their immediate surroundings.

About 25 000 years ago the Tasmanians crossed the land bridge that now lies beneath Bass Strait. They ate fruits, roots, the pith of ferns, fungi, and seaweed but lacked the major vegetable foods available in Australia, and their diet was heavily dependent on flesh foods: marsupials, seals, birds, and shellfish, but for some reason not, for the last 4000 years, fish. They did, however, have ‘the nearest thing to an alcoholic drink in prehistoric Australia’, the sap of Eucalyptus gunnii.

In addition to the marsupials, the coastal Aboriginals had access to plentiful marine foods. They fished with hook and line and bone-tipped spears, taking dugong and turtle as well, and gathered turtle eggs and shellfish as evidenced by sometimes-enormous middens from Cape York to Tasmania. Yams and roots were dug by the women, and water lily roots collected from billabong and river, and fruit and seeds from the bush. Further inland the food supply was similar, the marine foods being replaced by river fish, often caught in nets made from the fibres of bullrushes, and freshwater shellfish and crustaceans. Ducks, too, were netted over rivers and lakes, and in Victoria very clever and elaborate fish and eel traps were developed, especially in the Lake Condah area where the people seem to have lived a semi-sedentary life in villages.

Seeds were collected and ground by hand in the Darling Basin at least 15 000 years ago, and the flour obtained was baked to yield a kind of bread as early as anywhere else in the world. As the lakes dried, the Aboriginals of what is now western New South Wales gradually changed their staple food from grass seeds to this flour, and, as the ‘dry heart’ of Australia was occupied some 12 000 years ago, the inhabitants, far from the foods of river, lake, and sea, developed techniques for hunting the large kangaroo and the use of the grindstone. They were also forced to include a greater variety of seeds in their diet, some 45 species as compared with nine in Arnhem Land where there was a greater variety of fruits and roots.

Grinding of seeds was accompanied by a rough winnowing, and tools for cutting, scraping, and pounding food included crude pestles and mortars used to crush bracken and other roots. As the Aboriginals carried fire with them as fire sticks, flesh foods were grilled and, with vegetables, cooked in ground ovens. Perhaps surprisingly, Aboriginals did not, as Torres Strait Islanders did, boil food; that technique does not appear to have reached Cape York.

Some Aboriginal practices have been termed ‘incipient agriculture’, and Australian vegetation and fauna have been described as artefacts of the Aboriginals with their fire sticks. They altered their food supply by firing forest and scrub deliberately and according to plan to promote the growth of lush green grass, thus increasing the supply of edible seeds and encouraging the grass-eating game on which in part they depended. They did not cultivate cereals; yet, when the seeds were full but the grass still green, they harvested the native millet, Panicum decompositum, by pulling it up or reaping with stone knives, then stacked it in heaps and left it to ripen and dry before it was threshed. In some parts this ‘in field storage’ was practised on a large scale. They did not plant gardens; yet, in some cases, yams were planted on offshore islands, and in others the top of the tuber was left attached to the plant so that it would grow again, and the vines marked to indicate ownership. Fruit trees were deliberately ‘sown’ by spitting seeds of fruit into the debris of fish and shells, and in other places water was diverted into channels to water existing trees. In arid areas plant foods abounded after good rains.

In the early 1980s, staff of the Armed Forces Food Science Establishment at Scottsdale in Tasmania carried out an extensive evaluation of Australian survival foods, in effect an assessment of Aboriginal foods. With a slightly different emphasis, a study of the nutritional composition of dozens of Australian Aboriginal bush foods was undertaken practically simultaneously in the Human Nutrition Unit, Department of Biochemistry, University of Sydney. Fruits, vegetables, animal foods, and seeds and nuts were analysed, and in general the compositions and nutritive values found were similar to those of comparable Western foods. Animal foods are good sources of protein, vegetables of carbohydrate. The witchetty grubs, larvae of Cossidae spp., were high in protein (15%) and fat (19%). There were some surprises. The green (or Kakadu) plum, Terminalia ferdinandia, was found to have the highest recorded vitamin C level, up to 5 per cent! High thiamin (vitamin B1) values were found in cooked candle nut (Aleurites moluccana) (4 mg/100 g) and in wild cucumber or bush banana (Leichhardtia australis) (3 mg/100 g), and many seeds are nutrient rich—high in fat, protein, and minerals (seeds of Grevillea leucopteris were reported to contain up to 1.5% of calcium). The Bogong moth (Agrotis infusa), gathered and eaten in the Australian Alps in springtime for at least 1000 years, is highly nutritious. The edible portion, the abdomen, contains about 22% protein and 39% fat and is thus a high-energy food. The bunya pine in the hinterland of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast provided kernels that were eaten raw or toasted and were rich and fattening. Overall, the traditional Aboriginal diet, low in fat and high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, is demonstrably more healthy than a poor Western diet. Such information not only confirms the favourable nutritional status of the original inhabitants of Australia, but also is of inestimable value in showing the men and women of the armed forces that they can, in an emergency, live well off the land. Also, one might say, it is a sad and belated postscript to the Burke and Wills expedition whose members died, essentially, of ignorance.

It is well known that the Tasmanians, in spite of plentiful supplies, did not eat fish, but the archaeological record suggests that up to about 4000 years ago they did. A possible explanation of why they stopped has been advanced by HR Allen, who suggests that as the climate grew colder the more highly calorific flesh of seabirds and seals came to be preferred, especially by those on the harsh west coast.

Had the Tasmanians had the service of a consultant nutritionist, they would probably have been advised to give up fishing and concentrate their energies on more profitable foods. There is evidence in the post-3000 BP archaeological record that this is just what they did.

There was a limited trade in foods, mainly yams and the like, between some of the islands of Torres Strait where canoe travel was relatively quick, but on the mainland where the speed of communication was walking pace, foods were virtually absent from the Aboriginal system of ceremonial exchange. This is not surprising. The transport and distribution of food presupposes that there is some method of storing it or making it keep, and the Aboriginals had no great incentive to store food any more than they had one to sow, because nature was bountiful and, when necessary, they simply moved on. Apart from that, the climate favoured the rapid deterioration of all foods, especially flesh foods, once gathered or killed, so perhaps they moved on because they could not store food. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that the extent of food storage has been underestimated. Yams were sometimes dug and stored in stacks for winter consumption. The storage of grass seeds under bark has been recorded. The stacks of native millet have already been referred to, and some seeds were stored, in skin bags or wrapped in grass and coated with mud, or even in wooden dishes. Fruits were allowed to desiccate, and some of this dried fruit was packed in large balls of ochre and stored in trees. Nuts of the bunya pine were buried for later use and cycad nuts sliced, wrapped in paper bark, and buried in grass-lined trenches. There was, therefore, some storing of present surplus for future use.

Salting was unknown, smoking virtually so, but there is some evidence of the crude smoking of eels on basalt hearths in Victoria’s Lake Condah region. In general, the Aboriginals did not try to store flesh foods, but there is at least one example of carefully stacked fresh water mussels being buried alive in wet sand as a food reserve. This was a ‘living larder’, as were pockets of game deliberately left, say, round a waterhole, for use in an emergency. Various taboos involving the forbidding of certain foods to certain groups of people also served to conserve game. There is evidence to support the view that, when the people were ready to leave the mountains following the annual feasting on Bogong moths, they carried with them a paste prepared by grinding de-winged moths. The composition of this paste, based on modern analyses of moths, was very close indeed to that of Cheddar cheese. In spring it would have had a life of a week or even longer, more than justifying the effort of preparation for taking this highly nutritious food with them.

In ancient times and in many countries, cycads (Cycas spp. and Macrozamia spp.) were a source of food, but the untreated nuts were known, no doubt by trial and error, to be poisonous. Macrozamia nuts have been identified among the foods of the prehistoric Aboriginals. The active principle, macrozamin or cycasin, has been identified as a [beta]-glycoside yielding on ingestion the toxin, methylazoxymethanol. Joseph Banks described the dramatic ill effects of the ingestion of the untreated nuts by members of the Endeavour expedition. Assured that the Aboriginals ate them, he thought it probable ‘that these people have some method of Preparing them by which their poisonous property is destroyd [sic], as the inhabitants of the East Indian Isles are said to do by boiling them and steeping them 24 hours in water, then drying them and using them to thicken broth’.

Banks concluded that the poison was ‘intirely in the Juices’ as ‘in the roots of the Mandihocca and Cassada of the West Indies’. He was right; the Aboriginals knew, too, using the leached toxin from cycads and other dangerous foods to stun animals and fish at waterholes. Later in his journal Banks described the method of treatment used by the ‘Batavian Indians’ as ‘first to cut the nuts in thin slices and dry them in the sun, then to steep them in fresh water for three months, afterwards pressing the water from them and drying them in the sun once more’. He also noted that they consumed them only in times of food scarcity, when they mixed them with their rice. The Aboriginals had no rice.

Empirical knowledge of the preparation of wholesome food by leaching, fermenting, drying, and roasting was, and is, widespread among unsophisticated peoples. Such methods for the removal of cyanogens (substances capable of producing cyanide) from cassava and of alkaloids (nitrogenous organic compounds, some of which are drugs) from bitter lupin seeds also are ancient, and cycads are prepared for food in similar ways in other places besides Australia. Here, as elsewhere, leaching, fermentation, and the roasting of leached or fermented product were practised. The suggestion that Australian Aboriginals ‘imported’ the methodology some 4000 years ago was based on its use in islands close to Australia’s north and its apparent sudden appearance. However, later evidence shows that macrozamia nuts were known and consumed in the south-west of the continent at least 13 000 years ago and the practice has endured. Pulverised or sliced nuts, with or without pre-drying, were leached for days or even weeks in running or stagnant water: thus, the toxin was either washed out, in a short time, or else hydrolysed (that is, it underwent a chemical reaction with the water) and washed out, in a longer time. Fermentation was accomplished by leaving the comminuted nuts in still water for several months, a form of storage. Here there would have been diffusion of the toxin outwards, plus hydrolysis of it. The product from both methods was dried and roasted, or baked like a damper leading to thermal decomposition or accelerated hydrolysis of residual toxin. Old nuts that had shrunk in the shell to the extent that they rattled were apparently eaten with impunity, lending point to the view that the toxin slowly hydrolysed as the nuts dried. However, variations in methods used in various places—time of leaching, pre- and post-drying, and roasting or not roasting—emphasise their empiricism. These were techniques, not a coherent technology.

Like cycads, yams are known in many countries, and wild ones especially are bitter and/or toxic and eaten only after special preparation. Of the three species indigenous to Australia, the ‘cheeky’ yam (Dioscorea bulbifera) is a bush food in the north. It is very bitter, but, as research has shown, not poisonous, the bitter principle being the terpene, biosbulbin D. The incident described by Lewis is a classical angioneurotic oedema which may or may not have been an allergic reaction and may or may not have been induced by the bitter principle. It has been suggested that the bitterness protects from predators yams stacked for the winter. These yams, whether from the storage stacks or freshly gathered, are prepared for consumption

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