, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 390-403

First online:

The Influence of Indigenous Food Procurement Techniques on Populations of Cyanobacteria in pre-European Australia: A Potential Small-scale Water Amelioration Tool

  • Nicholas John SadgroveAffiliated withCentre for Bioactive Discovery in Health and Ageing, University of New England Email author 

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During times of pre-European Australia, indigenous people utilized methods of food procurement that resulted in toxic phytochemicals from plants entering their waterholes. This paper focuses on three of these plants, namely the leaves of Acacia colei and Duboisia hopwoodii, which were used by hunters to poison water holes to stun fish or a drinking animal, and the seeds of Castanospermum australe, which were eaten following the leaching of toxins into a running stream. If consumed by humans, the main toxins from these plants—saponins/sesquiterpenes, nicotine/nornicotine, and australine/castanospermine—are fatal. However, it is undetermined whether populations of Cyanobacteria also can be affected. During this study, the previously mentioned plants were administered to populations of the species Anabaena circinalis, Microcystis aeruginosa, and Nodularia spumigena, while mimicking the traditional applications of these plants as closely as possible. Results varied with treatments and species; however, cell chlorosis manifested in nearly all treatments, concomitantly with thylakoid membrane disorganization. Cell dormancy typically manifested, along with destruction of populations at higher treatments. The results indicated that populations of Cyanobacteria could have been destroyed or inhibited by indigenous people during traditional applications of these plants. Findings presented herein indicate a more sophisticated and complex traditional Australian resource management scheme than is currently understood, contributing to the growing awareness of the plight of earlier indigenous Australians. The reintroduction of traditional water management techniques may have potential as a suitable small-scale water resource management strategy.


Duboisia Acacia colei Castanospermum australe Cyanobacteria Australian Aboriginal nicotine