I started my schooling in 1949 at Bronte public school. During the 1950s, our social studies lessons taught us about brave explorers who had sailed across the world and discovered a ‘new’ country. We learnt about Dutch explorers who found Western Australia and Abel Tasman, whose name went to the Island to the south of the main continent. But most praise was reserved for James Cook sailing into Botany Bay and taking ‘possession’ of the country for England. Arthur Phillip’s First Fleet landing in Camp Cove, Sydney in 1788 cemented the task.

We were told that a few ‘natives’ opposed these incursions, but the overwhelming message was that the black ‘savages’ gave little opposition. The land was assumed to belong to no one, and the original inhabitants should be grateful that they could stop their wandering ways and would now have better food than witchetty grubs and wild animals.

The ignorance was astounding. No one discussed the original inhabitants’ right to the land, their superb ability to look after it, their hunting skills and the diet that kept them fit and healthy. We ignored all this, largely because most of us rarely went far beyond the local beach and had never met an Aboriginal person, or any person with dark skin.

Fortunately, our children now get a somewhat better picture about some aspects of this distorted view of Australia’s history than that dished out in the 1950s. But there are still huge gaps and it’s hardly surprising that Indigenous people are now calling for truth telling.

In my own area of nutrition, the ignorance was particularly appalling. Over 40 years ago, I began my first textbook for school students by describing the varied and nutritious diet Aboriginal people enjoyed before their lives were dramatically changed. Contrary to the ideas of the invaders from northern climes, their diet was not sparse or barely adequate. As this topic wasn’t part of the school curriculum, I was told I should omit it. I left it in and, in my next book for tertiary students, I expanded the topic to describe more details of the rich collection of tastes and the excellent nutritional value of the diet that had so sadly been displaced.

The original diet of Indigenous Australians had been extremely healthy with its variety of seafood and freshwater fish and crustaceans, fruits and berries, roots, shoots and leaves of plants, and a variety of large and small animals. The diet was high in protein, had plenty of minerals and vitamins and was a major factor in why the people were strong, healthy and fit.

Hunting and gathering introduce many social structures to human groups, including job specialisation. Rather than each person finding and eating his or her own food, some catch and kill the food while others gather. This leads to definite resting places so that hunters have somewhere to take their catch which can then be shared. Social structures that involve food also become a socialiser.

That has been an important ingredient for us all as people from many countries have come to live in Australia. Sharing food and becoming familiar with what people eat and how they prepare different foods brings people together. I often think that our relationship with Aboriginal people might have been very different if our early explorers had sat down and shared meals and learned more about the foods that are unique to this country. The health of our original inhabitants would also have been greatly improved if they had not been deprived of their habitat and given so many foods with poor nutritional quality.

Since my original chapters on this topic, I have found much more to discover about the life and food of Indigenous people. They had many well-developed systems for ensuring a continuing food supply. The fish traps which can still be seen at Brewarrina are thought to be the oldest human construction in the world. They had farming methods including careful prescribed burns that would be followed by fresh grasses appearing to encourage kangaroos and other animals to the area.

My article in the Kangaroo Valley Voice July 2022 described the sustainability and nutritional content of native grasses. Researchers from Sydney University, working with Aboriginal people, are discovering the environmental and nutritional value of grass seeds that were part of their traditional Indigenous diet. At least 15 species of indigenous grasses provide significant quantities of nutrients, with the edible seeds of some having twice the protein content of wheat. These perennial plants grow with minimal water and now lend themselves to sustainable eco-system farming in Australia. (The booklet Native Grains – from Paddock to Plate can be downloaded from https://apo.org.au/node/309281).

In the 1970s, I was in Darwin giving some lectures. While waiting for a colleague in the Health Department, I glanced through a book of complaints. Some came from managers of Missions who reported Aboriginal people who were going out and collecting bush foods and then rejecting foods from the Mission’s kitchen. The Mission dinner was appalling from a nutritional and culinary viewpoint: extremely fatty boiled lamb served with lots of congealed white fat, plus boiled potatoes, white bread and very sweet tea.

These days, many Indigenous people develop type 2 diabetes. In the early 1980s, a colleague, Dr Kerin O-Dea, decided to take a group out into the Kimberly region. She went with them and together they lived a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle, with their diet containing only whatever food they collected or caught and cooked. Within seven weeks, their diabetes was in remission. Indeed this was the first study to show that changing to a healthier diet, low in saturated fat and without highly processed foods, plus the physical activity involved in securing it, was protective against type 2 diabetes, as well as high blood pressure and other aspects of heart disease.

The health aspects of the diet of First Nations people have been well established. It would have been a good idea if we’d listened to them rather than feeding them the worst of white people‘s food. Sadly, some soft drink companies have refused to supply fridges to remote stores unless they are filled with sugary soft drinks. And when margarine manufacturers agreed to change their processing to eliminate harmful trans fatty acids, my colleagues found catering packs of high trans fat spread in remote stores. Working with local Indigenous experts, nutritionists are striving to provide healthier choices in remote stores.

The Lancet – one of the world’s most highly regarded medical journals, has just published an editorial pointing out “the Voice is key for Indigenous Australian’s health”. It quotes Dr Simone Raye, President of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association who sees the preventable diseases her people are lumbered with. Dr Raye is also aware that despite government initiatives, the health problems she lived with as an Aboriginal child remain. She says “we need to ensure there is a voice from the community about what their needs are and what sort of services should be delivered within the community. We need a fresh approach and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament proposed in the referendum should do that”.

We cannot carry on as we have been and expect different results. We need to listen to those whose lives have been so adversely affected by the way they have been treated. 

Dr Rosemary Stanton OAM


The opinions of contributors don’t necessarily represent the opinions of the Voice committee.