Traditional Australian Aboriginal Drug Therapy

Drug Histories
Drug Histories
Traditional Australian Aboriginal Drug Therapy

In our last episode we looked at Drug Use in the Renaissance, which brought us to the cusp of the modern age of medicine. So far, in our podcasts, we have looked at the Far East, the Middle East and Europe. In the next few episodes, we plan to cover Australia and the South Pacific Islands of Samoa, the indigenous peoples of North and South America, and traditional African Medicine. In this episode we look at traditional Australian Aboriginal drug therapy. We give special mention to Marina Kamenev, Dayman Steptoe and Jessie Pasananti of the Australian Geographic for their insightful articles on Aboriginal bush medicines[1],[2].

In traditional Aboriginal culture, the concept of healing an individual through the natural environment – using bush medicine – was ultimately entwined with the spiritual world and not just the physical. Most traditional health care practices believe that the mind and body are inseparable and that to prevent ill health there is a need to maintain a balance between the physical and spiritual selves[3]. A healer was not just a ‘bush clinician’, but also an expert medium operating between the sick and the spiritual world. The medical healing process often involved a two-pronged approach whereby both the spiritual and physical components would be treated in harmony.

In Aboriginal culture, nothing was written down; instead, it was passed on through singing and dancing ceremonies, which are becoming increasingly rare. Most Aboriginal medical treatments were derived from food. A big part of maintaining their health was just eating right. 

When Aboriginal people did fall sick, they used plants in a variety of ways to quell their ills. Some plants, like goat’s foot, were crushed, heated and applied to the skin. Others were boiled and inhaled, and occasionally drunk. There were also saps which were directly smeared on the skin, and barks that were smoked or burned.

Healing required two types of ‘doctors’: the spiritual doctor and what we might call the ‘medicine man’. Spiritual doctors were considered a supreme authority and oversaw curing the ill partly through correcting spiritual disharmony. Carrying full responsibility of both diagnosis and treatment, the spiritual doctor was the only person who had the ability to determine a cause of death, for example.

close up photo of grey koala bear
Photo by Flip Side on




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