Get well soon, the Noongar way

By Vivienne Hansen and John Horsfall | February 1, 2017

Traditional Aboriginal bush medicine from south-west Western Australia.

THE COUNTRY OF the Noongar people in south-western Western Australia stretches from Geraldton to Esperance, comprising an area of land of approximately 3 million hectares, with a coastline that covers 16,000km.

According to Noongar elders, the islands of Carnac, Garden and Rottnest were created when the oceans swept in and separated them from the mainland. Traditionally, Noongar people had their own language, laws and customs and gathered regularly for celebrations, trade, marriage arrangements and other purposes. They lived well in their country, with a varied diet depending on the season and location.

For over 50,000 years before colonisation, the Noongar people were much healthier than most Aboriginal Australians are today. Living in the open, in a land largely free from disease, they benefited from a better diet, more exercise, less stress and a supportive community.

snotty gobble

Vivienne Hanson, co-author of Noongar Bush Medicine (UWA Publishing) is a Balladong Wadjuk Yorka from the Bibbulmun, or Noongar People. She is shown here with snottygobble (Persoonia longifolioa) foliage and fruit. Decoctions of the snottygobble bark were used to relieve skin disorders and as eyewashes. Infusions of the leaves were taken to relieve colds and sore throats. (Image credit: John Horsfall)

With colonisation came many diseases, such as measles, mumps, diphtheria and whooping cough, and sexually transmitted infections, all of which reached epidemic proportions in some communities. Aboriginal Australians were very susceptible to respiratory diseases, and after colonisation, flu and tuberculosis caused many deaths and contributed immensely to the decline of the Aboriginal population, as there were no developed medicines to treat them. Traditional herbal medicine was of course ineffective against these introduced diseases.

Noongar traditional healing practices

However, for other ailments with which the Noongar people were familiar, they often had need of bush medicines.

Sleeping at night by fires meant they sometimes suffered from burns. Strong sunshine and certain foods caused headaches, and eye infections were common. Feasting on sour fruits or rancid meat brought on digestive upsets, and although tooth decay was not a big problem, coarse, gritty food may have worn teeth down. The Noongar people were also occasionally stung by jellyfish, insects and other creatures, and bitten by snakes. In the bush, there was always a chance of injury, and fighting sometimes may have ended in bruises, gashes and open wounds.

banksia

Firewood banksia flower (Banksia menziesii), found from Murchison River to Busselton – one of 60 species of banksia native only to south-west WA. Infusions of banksia floweres were drunk to relieve coughs and sore throats, or for a sweet, refreshing drink. (Image credit: Jean Hort)

The healing of trivial, non-spiritual complaints and minor illnesses using herbs and other remedies was practised by all Aboriginal Australians, although older women were usually the experts. To ensure success, plants were often prescribed side by side with magic.

One of the main features of traditional Noongar society was the role of the doctors, who had the power of healing through their hands, and the Noongar people believed they also had the power to drive away rain or wind, bring down lightning or cause harm to an individual. Traditional healers sometimes employed herbs in their rites.

To deal with ailments, Noongar people used a range of remedies, which included medicinal plants, steam baths, clay pits, charcoal and mud, massages and secret chants.

Many of the remedies did directly heal. Aromatic herbs, tannin-rich inner barks and resins, or gums (kinos) have well-documented therapeutic effects. Other plants undoubtedly harboured alkaloids or other compounds with pronounced healing effects. Unfortunately, very few native remedies have been tested systematically.

coastal pigface

Coastal pigface (Carpobrotus virescens) is a ground-hugging succulent found on sand dunes and coastal limestone cliffs. Infusions of the crushed leaves were used to treat diarrhoea, dysentery and stomach cramps, and as a gargle to relieve sore throats and mild bacterial or fungal infections of the mouth. The juice of the leaves were used externally, much like aloe vera, as a salve. The Noongar people also ate the fruit as a food. (Image credit: John Horsfall)

Here is a list of traditional Noongar remedies used for various complaints:

Aching joints were relieved with heated plant poultices, hot mud, or red ochre (wilgi or mirda) mixed with animal fat. Goanna fat was highly prized for the healing of painful joints.

Ailing health was treated by eating cooked bobtail (yoorn), goanna and echidna (nyingarn).

Backaches were relieved using gum poultices.

Broken limbs were set in a jacket of mud and clay then bound tightly between sheets of bark.

Burns were treated by smearing sap from certain plants, animal fat, saliva or mud on the affected parts.

Coughs and colds were relieved by inhaling the vapours from the crushed leaves of specific plants, especially eucalypts. Steam pits and steam beds were also used for the treatment of colds.

jam wattle

Jam wattle (Acacia acuminata) grows as a tall shrub to a height of 10m, seen mostly in the drier parts of south-west WA from Geraldton to Esperance. The gum was eaten to treat diarrhoea and ease congestion, while he flowers were crushed and the vapours inhaled to relax the mind for a good night’s sleep, or made into weak infusions as a wash to aid healing. (Image credit: John Horsfall)

Diarrhoea and constipation were relieved by consuming small amounts of gum from a eucalypt.

Earaches were relieved by pouring decoctions of certain plant parts into the ear canal.

Eye pain was treated with breast milk or with the crushed leaves of certain plants moistened with water or saliva. Fevers were relieved by bathing the sufferer with infusions of crushed leaves.

Headaches could be cured by inhaling vapours from the crushed leaves of some plants, by rubbing the crushed leaves on the head, by drinking decoctions of certain plants, by sleeping in the smoke from a fire, or by externally applying red ochre mixed with animal fat.

Heartburn was relieved by chewing and swallowing charcoal; this also aided digestion.

Muscle aches were treated with heated stones placed upon them. This remedy was also used for other sore parts of the body.

Poisons that had been ingested were countered by chewing and swallowing charcoal.

Rashes were relieved with heated plant poultices, hot mud, or the fat from the echidna and possum (koomoorl, goormoorl or goomal) rubbed on the skin.

bracken fern

Bracken Fern (Pteridium esculentum) is found in coastal and near-coastal areas throughout Australia except the Northern Territory. The Noongar people of south-west WA used infusions of crushed leaves as external washes to relieve sores and rheumatic pain. They were also taken internally to treat intestinal worms. Juice from the young stems and crushed leaves was rubbed into the skin to relieve insect bites. (Image credit: John Horsfall)

Rheumatic problems were alleviated by lying on a bed of green leaves. Steam pits and steam beds were also used for the treatment of rheumatism.

Skin problems were treated with external application of red ochre mixed with animal fat. Snake bites were countered with directly applied ash.

Stings and bites were treated by applying gum leaves that had been heated over fire.

Toothache was relieved by using a mouthwash or by chewing the leaves of certain plants. Charcoal was chewed to clean the teeth. Wounds in the forms of ordinary cuts and grazes were treated by poultices of crushed leaves, mud, clay or ash. Crushed gum from eucalypts would also be sprinkled on wounds to stem bleeding, and wounds were disinfected or cauterised with a burning stick. Specific types of soils were applied directly to open wounds or as poultices to retard infection.

Wounds were also sometimes dressed with ochre or clay. Crushed gum from eucalypts would also be sprinkled on wounds to stem bleeding, and wounds were disinfected or cauterised with a burning stick. Specific types of soils were applied directly to open wounds or as poultices to retard infection. Wounds were also sometimes dressed with ochre or clay.

Noongar Bush Medicine cover image

This is an edited extract from Noongar Bush Medicine: Medicinal Plants of the South-West of Western Australia, ed. Vivienne Hansen and John Horsfall, UWA Publishing.

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