The First Australians were iconic hunters. An extreme theory makes them even responsible for exterminating giant prehistoric animals. Yet, they spent a good part of their time baking bread.

Sure, this was bush bread, resembling damper in method and pita or Egyptian bread in its form. Ethnographic and archaeological evidence show the baker’s tradition well entrenched in Aboriginal cultures, especially in the arid regions, which make up about three quarters of the country.

In Central Australia, for example, native millet (Panicum) and spinifex (Triodia) were commonly used, supplemented by wattle-seed. Elsewhere pigwig (Portulaca oleracea), prickly wattle (Acacia victoriae), mulga (Acacia aneura), dead finish seed (Acacia tetragonophylla) and bush bean (Rhyncharrhena linearis) were mixed into flour.

Grinding Stone
Grinding stone with top stone (muller) from Marra Station on the Darling River, NSW. E49213 Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

Reliance on the seeds became more pronounced in the Holocene – the recent, post-ice-age period - but some archaeological sites, such as Cuddie Springs contain grinding stones dated to about 30,000 years. These stones were used to grind wild seeds into flour which in turn was baked as bread. They were and continue to be found in large numbers on numerous Aboriginal sites across the country.

But the reliance on seeds required an ample investment of labour and forward planning that would challenge our superficial idea of the ‘nomadic’ way of life.

However, humans cannot digest most of the raw seeds. So, they need to be mechanically crushed to small particles (flour) and cooked, and only then can we absorb their nourishing matter.

Women and children would spend a large part of a day collecting seeds, often very small, to provide a meal for the family. Separating seeds from the husks and winnowing would take considerable skills and practice.

Grinding seeds into flour on the large stone slab (grindstone) was a hard physical task that would take about two hours to produce about a half kilogram of flour. Bread-cakes were baked in the ashes or on the hot charcoal of a campfire.

The use of seeds in this form required not only suitable equipment but advance planning and indeed constant provisioning of seed-grinding tools. For grinding hard seeds into flour the large oval slabs of sandstone were essential. It’s estimated they could last for up to 9 years, but grinding stones needed to be provided for each adult women on each major campsite, possibly four or five, used frequently in a cycle of coming and going by the local group in its homeland.

Bread was made, on average, 90 days a year in arid regions. The grindstone’s surface would get smooth and need to be roughed by gently dressing with a hammer. A combination of grinding and dressing would eventually make the slab too thin for further use.

Such slabs, often weighing nearly 30kg could not be found anywhere. They were carefully cut from the quarries and shaped nearby to reduce their bulk before the long journey home. The outcrops of suitable materials for grinding stones are relatively rare, so obtaining the slabs often involved long travels and complex negotiations or other arrangements with the group on whose land the quarry was located.

This was men’s major contribution to a benefit of ‘daily bread’ and the most compelling illustration that feeding family was not a lucky chance but systematic, well-planned labour, supplemented by technical knowledge, specialised equipment and complex maintenance of, what we would call, infrastructure.

Essentially the same technology of making flour was used in all civilisations, until the water and windmill constructed a little before the beginning of the Common Era made this job a lot easier. Yet, in many poor communities, the hand-milling of seeds persisted for many more centuries.

Additional Information:

A number of grinding-stone quarries are known from the north of South Australia and Central Australia, some only recently studied in a systematic manner.

M A Smith, I McBryde and J Ross. 2010. The economics of grindstone production at Narcoonowie quarry, Strzelecki Desert. Australian Aboriginal Studies 2010/1: 92-99.

Recently the starch grains were identified on 30,000 year old grinding stones from three Palaeolithic sites across Europe: Bilancino II in Italy, Kostenki 16 in Russia, and Pavlov VI in the Czech Republic. The starch includes Brachypodium grass and Typha, commonly known as bulrush.

A Revedin, B Aranguren, R Becattini, L Longo, E Marconi, M Mariotti Lippi, N Skakun, A Sinitsyn, E Spiridonova, and J Svoboda. 2010. Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2010 - 107(44): 18815–18819.

Term ‘companion’ - fellow, mate, friend, partner is derived from Late Latin (via Old French) meaning someone to share bread with or bread-fellow (com = with, panis = bread, companio).