Alcohol Fermentation in Australian Aboriginals

  • Maggie BradyEmail author
Living reference work entry


Indigenous People Aboriginal People Torres Strait Islander Coconut Palm Palm Wine 
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Australia, it has been said, was the world’s only “dry” continent, and its Indigenous peoples were one of the few societies in the world that had no traditional alcoholic beverages (Cleland, 1957, p. 159; Dingle, 1980, p. 228; Spencer, 1988). Australians commonly believe that prior to contact with outsiders in the eighteenth century, neither Aboriginal people nor Torres Strait Islanders (the two Indigenous peoples of the country) knew of the process of fermentation and thus how to make drinks containing alcohol. This is taken by some commentators to be the explanation for widespread alcohol abuse in later years. If people had no alcoholic drinks, it is argued, they lacked the traditions and rituals associated with alcohol consumption and had no need to develop the internal social controls that would contain any unwanted effects of intoxication.

These interpretations are only partly true for there are documented accounts suggesting that Aboriginal people in some regions did, in fact, know about fermentation and produced mild, low-alcohol drinks from the natural flora. The Torres Strait Islands (between Australia and Papua New Guinea) are a little different, with the residents of some islands learning how to ferment and distill an intoxicating drink (tuba), as a result of contact with outsiders from the East Indies or the Philippines. In this case, as a result of cultural diffusion, Islanders adopted and made indigenous a drink that originated from elsewhere.

Before European settlement, Aboriginal hunters and gatherers also harvested, prepared, and used a number of plant-based narcotics and stimulants. These were primarily chewed, nicotine-containing drugs, including the highly prized narcotic pituri (from the plant Duboisia hopwoodii), and numerous wild tobaccos of the genus Nicotiana. All these plants required detailed knowledge of the landscape (the strongest pituri grew in a particular region of southwest Queensland and was traded from there), preparation techniques (drying and fragmenting the leaves), and methods of enhancing the drugs’ effects by the addition of alkaline wood ash from particular trees. This increased the absorption of nicotine through the skin once the mixed quid was chewed or stored behind the ear (Clarke, 2007, pp. 105–109; Watson, 1983). Smoking was not practiced prior to contact with outsiders.

Way-a-linah: A Drink from the Tasmanian Cider Gum

In numerous regions of Australia, Aboriginal people made sweet, watery drinks by steeping nectar-bearing blossoms in water; these nonalcoholic drinks were consumed immediately rather than being left for natural fermentation to occur (Moore, 1978, p. 213; Petrie, 1904). But the sap of the Tasmanian “cider gum” is a well-documented example of a locally made drink that was allowed to ferment. In 2005, Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Mick Quilliam painted a canvas depicting this tree, around the base of which were grooves made by innumerable pairs of feet (Fig. 1). His painting commemorates the tree and its value to Aboriginal Tasmanians. The symbolic footprints were those of the many Aboriginal people who came from all directions to harvest way-a-linah, the Aboriginal name for a fermented drink made from the copious sweet sap of this high-altitude gum tree, Eucalyptus gunnii (Maiden, 1924, p. 119).
Fig. 1

Tasmanian artist Mick Quilliam’s painting of the cider gum (2005) depicts the tree as a meeting place, with a trench worn around its base by the feet of the many Aboriginal people who came to harvest its sap (Natural ochers and pigment on canvas, reproduced with permission of the artist)

An early account of its use by Aboriginal people comes from George Augustus Robinson, a free settler in Tasmania who made several expeditions into the interior and who became known as the man who tried unsuccessfully to help the Tasmanians to survive the disastrous impact of European settlement that had commenced in 1803. His was the only detailed post-settlement record of Aboriginal life and languages there. In 1831 Robinson was traveling in the high country of Tasmania’s north with several Aborigines, looking for any remaining Mairremmener people. His journal entry for 28 November 1831 shows that he was in the Lake Echo region when he first saw the cider tree:

The natives caught seven kangaroo this evening, but what interested me most were the numerous cider trees which skirted this extensive plain and which were the first I had seen. Most of those trees had been tapped by the natives. This they had effected by perforating a hole in the tree a short distance above the ground by means of sharp stones and then making a hole at the bottom of the tree into which the liquid is conveyed and from which they extract it, sometimes if the hole is small by sucking it through a reed or twisted bark. In some of these holes I observed upwards of a quart [one litre] of this juice and which my people greedily partook of. It is exceeding sweet and well flavoured and in this respect resembles the flavour of cider. Some that had been dried by the sun had an apple taste. …The natives are very fond of the juice and I am told it frequently makes them drunk. (Plomley, 1966, p. 534)

According to historian N. J. B. Plomley who edited Robinson’s journals, Robinson made a point of recording plants used as foods by the Aborigines and provided useful information about the distribution of plant communities. Robinson was clearly intrigued by what he called the “melliferous” cider gum, noting abundant stands of the tree whenever he encountered them and observing that the syrupy sap was attractive to ants, cockatoos, and animals as well as to the “natives.” Some trees were huge, 12 ft in circumference, and produced what he described as “tolerable quantities” of the oozing liquid, which he thought was triggered by the warmth of the sun. A tree can yield half a liter of sap daily during the summer months. As it happened, Robinson’s journey on this occasion in 1831 coincided with the time of year when the Eucalyptus gunnii sap flows most prolifically. Extracting the sap required local knowledge; the trees were and are found only in a limited area of the high country. At the proper season, during December and January (the quantity of sap lessens in February), Aboriginal people bored or cut into the trunk to release the sap which collected in a larger hole, a kind of holding tank made at the foot of the tree. Robinson witnessed Aborigines dipping their tin pannikins [cups] into these tanks at the base of the trees. Robinson (Plomley, 1966, p. 557) wrote,

Holes at the bottom of those trees had been made to receive the juice and which answered the purpose of a tank. Some of the liquor had dried and was white and resembled in appearance and taste a bruised apple; some was brown. It was amusing to see the natives run from tree to tree to suck this juice, of which they are very fond.

Another nineteenth-century description from the naturalist Daniel Bunce provides further detail. He states that the Aborigines covered these collecting holes with a flat stone in order to stop birds and animals from drinking, which implies that the liquid rested there for some time. “When allowed to remain any length of time,” Bunce wrote, “it ferments and settles into a coarse sort of wine or cider, rather intoxicating if drank to excess” (Bunce, 1857, p. 47; Clarke, 2007, p. 105). Little is known about exactly how strong way-a-linah might have been: J. H. Maiden (the Government Botanist who wrote an 8-volume revision of the genus Eucalyptus) tested the fluid from a sample of sap and found that it contained sugar, acetic acid, water, and alcohol. Some non-Aboriginal people likened the juice to black beer or treacle, and Aboriginal people themselves used language terms which distinguished the unfermented “honey” (which was known as wen.ner) from the fermented “cider” (way-a-linah) (Plomley, 1976, p. 183). Early accounts by R. C. Gunn (after whom the eucalyptus species was named) mention that (European) shepherds and stockmen also cut the trees and harvested and consumed the sap. There were unsourced reports that at Christmastime 1826, the Aborigines of Lake Arthur indulged in a great eucalyptus cider orgy (MacPherson, 1921).

Sadly, in recent years large numbers of old Eucalyptus gunnii have been dying as a result of drought, and the trees are under threat from clearing, grazing, burning, and seed collection. The feet grooves can still be seen around the trunks of a few particular trees, along with old scars from the tapping process. Many present-day Aboriginal people have made and tasted the drink. Mick Quilliam, the painter, describes it as being sweet and tangy and about as alcoholic as a light beer.

Mangaitch: A Fermented Drink from Western Australia

In 1992 an Aboriginal alcohol service in Perth, Western Australia, produced a series of radio programs about alcohol and substance abuse. Aboriginal author Doris Pilkington was the narrator. The program began by questioning the argument that because alcohol was a recent introduction to Western Australia, Aboriginal people had not learned how to cope with it or develop tolerance. “Our people knew about fermentation and used alcohol on special occasions,” said the narrator,

We made it by soaking blossom of banksias and eucalyptus, and by dissolving the nectar and allowing it to stand. But the alcoholic content was slight and the use of these drinks was limited to special occasions and certain times of the year. In other words we exercised our own restraints. (Noongar Alcohol and Substance Abuse Service [NASAS], 1992)

Doris Pilkington was referring to a drink known to Aboriginal people in Western Australia as mangaitch. It was made from the flower-bearing cones of a species of banksia which produced a substance so sweet that it was known by Europeans as the honeysuckle tree (Moore, 1978, p. 136). The first detailed description of the drink was made by the physician and anthropologist W. E. Roth who described two species of banksia growing in the southwest of Western Australia. The banksia bore cones with pitcher-shaped flowers full of honey “especially visited by the black cockatoos.” Aboriginal people collected large numbers of cones and carried them alongside “swamps” where they dug troughs, lining them with boat-shaped containers or vats made of sheets of tea-tree bark.

The vat was next filled with these cones and water, in which they were left to soak. The cones were subsequently removed and replaced with others until such time as the liquid was strongly impregnated with honey, when it was allowed to ferment for several days. The effect of drinking this “mead” in quantity, was exhilarating, producing excessive volubility. The aboriginals called the cones and the fermented liquour produced therefrom both by the same name – the mangaitch. (Roth, 1904, p. 49)

Daisy Bates, an eccentric amateur anthropologist who worked in Western Australia, wrote that in the early 1900s there were annual feasts of mangaitch, with visitors from elsewhere hosted by the Aboriginal people of the South Perth district. She also described how the “mungaitch honey-groves” were being razed to make way for flocks of sheep and herds of cattle (Bates, 1985, p. 241).

Kambuda: A Drink Made from the Spiral Pandanus

Another Indigenous fermented drink has been documented from the Borroloola region, near the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory. It was made from the nuts of the spiral pandanus – a common pandanus in the Northern Territory from which Aboriginal people also harvest its leaves, which are stripped and rolled to make fiber for baskets. When ripe and red or orange in color, the nuts were roasted on the fire, then crushed. The crushed pulp was soaked in water for 2 days in a bark dish, making a mixture known as wuthuwuthu (in the Yanyuwa language). This made a fermented drink known as kambuda. It was said by Herbert Basedow that on ceremonial occasions the Aborigines drank more than usual and that the drink produced “merriment” (Basedow, 1918). One anthropologist recalled older Yanyuwa-speaking women were still making this drink in the 1980s (Brady, 2008).

All three drinks described here were undoubtedly low-alcohol drinks; however they did have mood-altering effects, and their existence indicates that Aboriginal people in these three widely separated regions of Australia knew of fermentation and how to achieve it. It was not until outsiders came to Australian shores that the Indigenous peoples tasted stronger alcohols for the first time: spirits such as rum and arrack and sweet and fortified wines. The English colonization of Australia began in 1788 in Sydney, New South Wales, but from the 1600s foreign ships had been making landfall on Australian coasts – either deliberately or unintentionally. The west coast of Australia in particular was peppered with shipwrecks, mostly of Dutch ships heading from the Cape of Good Hope to Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia); because of difficulties with the accurate measurement of longitude, they failed to turn north in time. All ships carried wines and spirits and some shipwrecks left hundreds of men stranded in remote regions; it is possible that Aboriginal people tasted alcoholic beverages on these occasions. Dutch sailors visiting the west coast of the Cape York Peninsula in 1756 gave arrack (a strong distilled spirit made in Southeast Asia) to some Aborigines in an attempt to kidnap them (Heeres, 1899). The same drink was carried to northern Australia by fishermen from Makassar in Sulawesi from around 1700, giving Aboriginal people along the coast of what is now Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory their first taste of a distilled spirit (Fig. 2). The Makassan fleets sailed annually to collect the delicacy bêche-de-mer from shallow coastal waters, and their praus brought many desirable goods to share with the Aboriginal owners of the land, including rice, cloth, dugout canoes, iron knives, tobacco, and arrack (Clark & May, 2013; Macknight, 1976). Aboriginal people borrowed and incorporated the language terms for many of these items from the Makassar language, and these loan words are now part of the Yolngu and other languages of northern Australia (Evans, 1992).
Fig. 2

Map to show the routes taken by Makassan bêche-de-mer fishermen to northern Australia c. 1700–1907

The Makassans were, by all accounts, enthusiastic consumers of arrack, which was produced locally around the town of Makassar as well as being imported from Batavia in Java. Arrack can be made by distilling “toddy” (eighteenth-century Europeans often referred to this as “palm wine”), the fermented sweet juices exuding from the flowering buds of a number of palm trees, such as nipa, fan, areca, and coconut palm (Burkill, 1966; Clarke, 2007; Wallace, 1989). There is some evidence that visiting Makassans deliberately planted both areca and coconut palms on Australian soil in an effort to produce toddy and arrack during their regular months-long visits (cf. Clarke, 2007, p. 129; Ganter, 2006, p. 46); whether they succeeded, however, is unknown.

Making Tuba

It was in the islands of the Torres Strait (TSI), following contact with outsiders, that local people learned and adopted the techniques of both fermentation and distillation in order to produce what was, in effect, an “indigenous” alcoholic beverage known as tuba (Brady & McGrath, 2010). It was indigenous to the extent that the ingredients for making it were sourced and harvested locally from palm trees, its manufacture was incorporated into local knowledge systems, and its consumption became embedded in local Indigenous economic and social practice. It is difficult to say exactly when and by what means the technical knowledge of palm toddy fermentation and distillation arrived in the Torres Strait which, by the nineteenth century, was a busy international maritime hub, part of the “polyethnic north” attracting pearl and trochus divers and lugger crews and laborers (Ganter, 2006, p. 198). Knowledge of tuba making could have arrived from several directions: from the Malay Archipelago to the west (including the Makassan and Bugis traders from Sulawesi), from the islands in the Pacific to the east, or from Singapore or the Philippines to the northwest. Peoples from all these regions at various times manufactured these drinks, but oral histories collected from Torres Strait Islanders, together with a Filipino origin for the term tuba, point to the Philippines and the “Manila men” (as they are known locally) as being the most likely source for this diffusion of technical knowledge.

Tuba is a Tagalog term from the Philippines, meaning “fermented coconut milk” (Schnukal, 2004), and in the Torres Strait, it describes the pale juice that seeps from a cut to the unopened fructifying bud of a coconut palm. Both written records and oral histories describe the production techniques for the drink – a process that remained remarkably unchanged over centuries. The toddy collector climbed the tree and hung a container under the cut bud to catch the juice: “You cut the point off and tie a rope down and bend it and chop it off, until the juice run out. We used a Sunshine milk tin,” a man from Murray Island said in 2004 (Fig. 3). This procedure was repeated every day, as Joseph Banks had pointed out in his journal of the Endeavour voyage of 1770, while visiting the island of Savu (now in Indonesia), “people … climb the trees for that purpose every morning and evening” (Beaglehole, 1963, p. 162). Tuba was made on the islands of the central and eastern groups in the Strait that could support coconut palms – indeed some residents planted large groves of trees for this purpose.
Fig. 3

Extraction of toddy (“palm wine”) on the Indian subcontinent (Lithograph, Louis van Houtte 1868–1888)

The juice could be drunk straight from the tree but the Islanders learned to leave their tuba to ferment in large bottles or clay-stoppered pots. In this form the drink was said to taste like vinegar or beer with an alcohol content around 4 %; some Islanders used this fermented mix as a raising agent for bread: “I got taste for that bread! I prefer my mother’s tuba bread to any in a bakery! The yeast is homemade” (Brady & McGrath, 2010, p. 318). The remaining tuba was distilled, using bamboo tubes and a metal drum to boil and steam the mixture, hence the local name “steamed tuba” for the resultant distilled drink. “He makes a big bamboo, at the end there’s a long thing for the drips and a big drum and he boils it up. Another bamboo goes up and steam goes through the bamboo and catches it. It’s very clear, like gin” (Brady & McGrath, p. 318; Fig. 4).
Fig. 4

Distillery for tuba (Guam, Mariana Is.). The stills on the Torres Strait Islands were similar to this (Lithograph, A. Pellion 1819)

The distilled version was a strong “rough and ready job” as one Islander described it and virtually identical to the arrack that had been introduced to mainland Aboriginal groups by the Makassan bêche-de-mer fishers. Perhaps because it was so strong, it seems to have been drunk sparingly. With the advent of easily available commercial alcohols, licensed outlets and the end of race-based prohibitions on alcohol in the mid-twentieth century, tuba is now no longer consumed on the TSI, but in earlier years it had many uses. Tuba was explicitly made and consumed during the years of prohibition in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (supplies of liquor were banned to Aboriginal “natives and half-castes,” Aboriginal natives of the Pacific Islands or Polynesians born in Queensland), and thus it played a role in deliberately undermining the authority of the superintendent teachers who were responsible for local governance on the Islands. Offering tuba was a means for Islander families to show hospitality to their guests. It was sold to other Islanders for cash, and during World War II (when thousands of US and allied air force men passed through a northerly air base on Horn Island), several Island families “made a quid” by selling steamed tuba to the “Yanks.” It seems that relatively few health or social problems were associated with drinking tuba or steamed tuba, and in general Torres Strait Islanders have positive memories of the drink. This introduced but indigenized alcohol was harvested, manufactured, and distributed as part of an informal local economy and became embedded in the social and cultural life of the people of the islands on which it was made.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CanberraAustralia