Economic Botany

, Volume 46, Issue 2, pp 133–147 | Cite as

Aboriginal preparation ofCycas seeds in Australia1

  • Wendy Beck


The seeds of cycad plants are a toxic food used by many Aboriginal groups in northern Australia. Acute symptoms produced after consumption of untreated Cycas seeds are due to azoxyglycosides, especially cycasin, although the toxic dose depends on the animal species tested. There are three traditional methods used to treat these seeds: brief leaching in water; prolonged leaching in water; and aging. Aboriginal people living at Donydji outstation in northeast Arnhem Land, most regularly consume aged seeds ofCycas angulata R.Br. Analyses of fresh seeds and seeds prepared at Donydji and in the laboratory indicate that cycasin is effectively removed by all the traditional preparation techniques, although each technique has an end product with different storage and handling properties. The social implications of processing need further elaboration, but these techniques have a long history and archaeological remains of seeds in Australia may date back to the Pleistocene.

Key Words

Australian Aborigines Cycas 

La preparatión Aboriginál de las semillas deCycas en Australia


Las semillas de las plantas del genero Cycas, no obstante su toxicidad, se utilizan por los grupos Aboriginales de Australia del norte. El consumo de las semillas sin tratamiento produce sintomas agudos, debido a su contenido de azoxyglycosidas, especialmente cycasin, si bien la dosis toxica depende de la especie animal a la que se administra. Traditionalmente se usa tres métodos de preparación de las semillas de las cycadaceaes: colandolas en agua de breve duration; colandolas en agua de larga duratión; o añejandolas. La gente Aboriginal viviendo en la colonia del campo de Donydji, localizado en la parte noroeste de la Tierra de Arnhem, comen mas regularmente las semillas añejas deCycas angulata R.Br. Analizando las semillas reden salidos, junto con las preparadas a Donydji y las preparadas en el laboratorio se averigua que los métodos tradiciónales de preparación quitan el cycasin. Sin embargo los métodos diferentes de preparación producen unfruto final con atributos distintos para almacenamiento y manejo. Las implicaciones sociales de la preparación merecen un estudio mas detallado, mas que estos métodos se utilizan durante una larga historia, incluso la possibilidad de que se han encontrado los restos de estas semillas datadas al período Pleistoceno.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Literature Cited

  1. Beaton, J. 1977. Dangerous harvest. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Dept. of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National Univ., Canberra.Google Scholar
  2. —. 1982. Fire and water: aspects of Australian Aboriginal management of cycads. Arch, in Oceania 17(l):51–58.Google Scholar
  3. Beck, W., R. Fullagar, andN. G. White. 1988. Archaeology from ethnography: the Aboriginal use of cycad as an example. Pages 137–147in B. Meehan and R. Jones, eds., Archaeology with ethnography: an Australian perspective. Dept. of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National Univ., Canberra.Google Scholar
  4. Brock, J. 1988. Native plants of the top end. J. Brock, Darwin, Australia.Google Scholar
  5. Brockman, F. S. 1902. Report to Surveyor General on exploration, 1902, in western Australian Parliamentary Papers. Parliamentary Papers 1902,2: Appendix C.Google Scholar
  6. Campbell, M. E., O. Mickelsen, M. G. Yang, G. L. Laquer, andJ. C. Keresztesy. 1966. Effects of strain, age and diet on the response of rats to the ingestion of Cycas circinalis. J. of Nutrition 88:115–125.Google Scholar
  7. Everist, S. L. 1981. Poisonous plants of Australia. 2nd ed. Angus and Robertson, Melbourne.Google Scholar
  8. Fysh, C. F., K. J. Hodges, and L. Y. Siggins. 1960. Analysis of naturally occurring foodstuffs of Arnhem Land. Pages 136–143in C. P. Mountford, ed., Records of the American-Australian scientific expendition to Arnhem Land, vol. 2, Anthropology and nutrition. Melbourne Univ. Press, Melbourne.Google Scholar
  9. Harris, D. R. 1975. Traditional patterns of plant food procurement in the Cape York Peninsula and Torres Strait Island. Unpubl. manuscript, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.Google Scholar
  10. Hart, C. W., and A. R. Pilling. 1960. The Tiwi of North Australia. Rinehart, Holt and Winston, New York.Google Scholar
  11. Harvey, A. 1945. Food preservation in Australian tribes. Mankind 3:191–192.Google Scholar
  12. Hirono, I., H. Kachi, andT. Kato. 1970. A survey of acute toxicity of cycads and mortality rates from cancer in the Miyaka Islands, Okinawa. Acta. Path. Jap. 20:327–337.Google Scholar
  13. Hooper, P. T. 1978. Cycas poisoning in Australia-etiology and pathology. Pages 337–347in R. F. Keeler et al., eds., Effects of poisonous plants on livestock. Academic Press, Orlando, FL.Google Scholar
  14. Isaacs, J. 1987. Bush food, aboriginal food and herbal medicine. Weldon, Sydney.Google Scholar
  15. James, K. 1985. Nutrients in native plant seeds—2. Pages 46–58in G. P. Jones, ed., The food potential of seeds from Australian native plants. Deakin Univ. Press, Geelong.Google Scholar
  16. Johnson, L. A. S. 1959. The families of cycads and the Zamiaceae of Australia. Proc. Linn. Soc. New South Wales 84:64–117.Google Scholar
  17. Levitt, D. 1981. Plants and people, aboriginal uses of plants on Groote Eylandt. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.Google Scholar
  18. Love, J. R. B. 1936. Stone-age Bushmen of today. Blackie and Son, London.Google Scholar
  19. Lumholtz, M. A. 1889. Among cannibals. An account of four years in Australia… John Murray, London.Google Scholar
  20. McArthur, M. 1960. Food consumption and dietary levels of groups of Aborigines living on naturally occurring foods. Pages 90–135in C. P. Mountford, ed., Records of the American Australian expedition to Arnhem Lands. 2. Anthropology and nutrition. Melbourne Univ. Press, Melbourne.Google Scholar
  21. Maconocnie, J. R. 1978. Two new species ofCycas from northern Australia. J. Adelaide Bot. Gard. 1(3):175–178.Google Scholar
  22. Matsushima, T., H. Matsumoto, A. Shirai, M. Sawamura, and T. Sugimura. 1979. Mutagenicity of the naturally occurring carcinogen cycasin and synthetic methylazoxymethanol conjugates inSalmonella typhimurium. Cancer Res. 39:3780–3782.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Meehan, B., and R. Jones. 1977. Preliminary comments on the preparation ofCycas media by the Gidjingali of coastal Arnhem Land. Appendix IVin J. Beaton, Dangerous harvest, Unpub. Ph.D. thesis, Dept. of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National Univ., Canberra.Google Scholar
  24. Moretti, A., S. Sabato, and G. C. Siniscalco. 1981. Distribution of macrozamin in Australian cycads. Phytochemistry 20(6):1415–1416.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Morgan, R. W., and G. R. Hoffman. 1983. Cycasin and its mutagenic metabolites. Mut. Res. 114:19–58.Google Scholar
  26. Nunn, P. B., and P. O’Brien. 1989. The interaction of /3-JV-methylamino-L-alanine with bicarbonate: an ’H-NMR study. FEBS Letters 251:31–35.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Palmer, E. 1883. On plants used by the natives of North Queensland, Flinders Ranges and Mitchell Rivers, for food, medicine etc. J. and Proc. Roy. Soc. New South Wales 17:93–113.Google Scholar
  28. Parsons, P. A., and N. G. White. 1976. Variability in anthropogenic traits in Australian Aborigines and adjacent populations. Pages 227–243in R. L. Kirk and A. G. Thorne, eds., The origins of the Australians. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.Google Scholar
  29. Roth, W. E. 1901. Food, its search, capture and preparation. North Queensland Ethnography Bull. No. 3.Google Scholar
  30. Scarlett, N., and N. G. White. 1981. List of names and uses of Aboriginal food plants, Human Ecology project, north east Arnhem Land: Note Books 1979-, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Manuscript A3 236, No. 86-1.Google Scholar
  31. Smith, M. 1982. Late Pleistocene Zamia exploitation in southern Australia. Arch, in Oceania 17(3): 117–121.Google Scholar
  32. Specht, R. L. 1958. An introduction to the ethnobotany of Arnhem Land. Pages 479–504in R. L. Specht and C. P. Mountford, eds., Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, vol. 3, Botany and plant ecology. Melbourne Univ. Press, Melbourne.Google Scholar
  33. Specht, R. L. 1981. Major vegetation formations in Australia. Pages 163–298in A. Keast, ed., Ecological biogeography of Australia. Junk, The Hague.Google Scholar
  34. Spencer, P. S., P. B. Nunn, J. Hugon, A. C. Ludolph, S. M. Ross, D. Roy, and R. C. Robertson. 1987. Guam Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis-Parkinsonism-Dementia linked to a plant excitant neurotoxin. Science 237:517–522.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Thieret, J. W. 1958. Economic botany of the cycads. Econ. Bot. 12:3–41.Google Scholar
  36. Thomson, D. F. 1949. Economic structure and the ceremonial exchange cycle in Arnhem Land. Melbourne Univ. Press, Melbourne.Google Scholar
  37. Tindale, N. 1925. Natives of Groote Eylandt and the west coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Part 1. Rec. South Australian Museum 3:61–102.Google Scholar
  38. Wells, W. W., M. G. Yang, W. Bolzer, and O. Mickelsen. 1968. Gas-liquid Chromatographie analysis of cycasin in cycad flour. Ann. Biochem. 25:325–329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. White, N. G. 1976. A preliminary account of the correspondence among genetic, linguistic, social and topographic divisions in Arnhem Land, Australia. Mankind 10:240–247.Google Scholar
  40. —. 1978. A human ecology research project in the Arnhem Land region: an outline. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Newsletter 9:39–52.Google Scholar
  41. —. 1979. Tribes, genes and habitats: genetic diversity among Aboriginal populations in the Northern Territory. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Genetics and Human Variation, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.Google Scholar
  42. —. 1984. Sex differences in Australian Aboriginal subsistence: possible implications for the biology of hunter-gatherers. Pages 323–361in F. Newcombe, J. Ghesquirre and R. Martin, eds., Sexual dimorphism. Symposium of the Society for the study of Human Biology, vol. 24. Taylor and Francis, London.Google Scholar
  43. Whiting, M.G. 1963. Toxicity of cycads. Econ. Bot. 17:271–302.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The New York Botanical Garden 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wendy Beck
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Archaeology and PalaeoanthropologyUniversity of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia

Personalised recommendations