This month in Archaeology: The oldest archaeological evidence of insect foods on stone artefacts in the world
New evidence for the oldest insect foods on stone artefacts in the world found in Cloggs Cave in the lands of the Krauatungalung clan of the GunaiKurnai people, in the southern foothills of the Australian Alps.
This month in Archaeology we discuss two papers just published in the journal Scientific Reports and Australian Archaeology by researchers from Monash University and the GunaiKurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) (Stephenson et al. 2021; David et al. 2020).
The GunaiKurnai have long had oral histories about feasting on the migratory Bogong moth which have remained scientifically invisible, as organic remains are rarely preserved in the archaeological record.
This all changed recently with the discovery of an ancient grindstone at Cloggs Cave, in the foothills of the Alps. The team recovered a grindstone which retained 2000-year-old microscopic remains of ground and cooked Bogong moths. This is now the oldest archaeological evidence of insect foods on stone artefacts in the world.
Researchers say the find indicates Bogong moths would have been harvested, prepared and cooked by up to 65 generations of Aboriginal families and provides an insight into how the GunaiKurnai travelled and interacted with different landscapes and Country for over 2000 years.
This research is being conducted under a research partnership between GLaWAC, Monash University and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH).
Where is Cloggs Cave?
Cloggs Cave is a small limestone cave located in the lands of the Krauatungalung clan of the GunaiKurnai people, in the southern foothills of the Australian Alps near Bairnsdale, Victoria.
The limestone makes the sediment alkaline, which is good for the preservation of organic materials.
Cloggs Cave was first excavated in the early 1970s by Josephine Flood (1980). The new excavation began in 2019. It was initiated by the GunaiKurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation and directed by Professor Bruno David. The new excavation was aimed at better understanding the antiquity of Aboriginal occupation and included an extensive dating program using techniques not available in the 1970s.
What did they find?
During the 2019 excavation, the excavation team found a small, flat grindstone near a buried standing stone and ancient fireplaces dating to between 1724±16 BP and 2091±16 BP, which equates to 1600-2100 years ago. As stated in the publication, "The grindstone is a tabular fragment of sandstone with two flat and parallel ground surfaces (Surfaces A and B in Figure 3), in the form of a flat dish. It measures 10.5 cm long × 8.3 cm wide × 2.2 cm thick and weighs 304 g". The outer margins are either in-tact or worn from use, indicating the grindstone was last used in the recovered form.
Use-wear and residue analyses
The surface of the grindstone was not smooth, unlike grindstones used for processing seeds, which tend to be highly smoothed and polished from processing siliceous plants. Instead, the surface of this grindstone contained fine unidirectional striations (see Figure 4, A and B).
Archaeologist and pharmacologist Birgitta Stephenson was asked to join the research team, to study the microscopic residues preserved on the tool’s grinding surfaces. Those residues would indicate what the grindstone was used for. Birgitta analysed nine residue samples using a new biochemical staining technique that enables identification on a cellular level. This indicated that insects or immature vertebrate(s) had been prepared using the grindstone. In addition, microscopic analyses identified carbonised insect wings on the surfaces. These were compared with modern reference samples and a match was made with the Bogong moth.
How were the Bogong moths cooked and eaten?
Ethnohistoric accounts and oral traditions from Aboriginal communities record Aboriginal people across the region cooking and eating Bogong moths, either by cooking them directly on heated earth or by grinding the moths into a paste which was then formed into cakes which were smoked and preserved for weeks.
The Bogong moth migrates from southern Queensland to Victoria’s alpine country to keep cool each summer. GunaiKurnai people would travel to the high country to feast on the moths, taking advantage of their large numbers and high fat content to provide a rich food source.
The Cloggs Cave grindstone is very small, and the only one ever found in the cave, despite large-scale archaeological excavations. As recounted in interviews undertaken in the late 19th and early 20th century across GunaiKurnai Country, caves were used for special purposes by mulla mulling - doctors and magical practitioners. This appears to have been the case at Cloggs Cave at the time the grindstone was dropped or placed in the cave some 2000 years ago.
The grindstone also has traces of powdered crystals and there are stone arrangements in the cave. Stalactites broken by people thousands of years ago are also present. There is no other evidence of food remains in the cave – it was not used for everyday camping.
The researchers think that the Bogong moth remains don’t relate to activities that took place in the cave, but rather to the activities of the portable grindstone’s owner as he or she travelled towards the high country during late spring or summer.
The discovery reflects the severed cultural history faced by the GunaiKurnai. People no longer travel to the mountains for Bogong moth festivals and the oral histories aren’t shared anymore, so it’s a lost tradition. "The world has become a different place, but for 2000 years this grindstone has been sitting idle with a story to tell," says Russell Mullett, a key GunaiKurnai Elder who has coordinated the research for GLaWAC from the onset. A single artefact has sparked the rebirth of knowledge that helps to tell the story of the Gunaikurnai people.
Dr Amy Mosig Way, Scientific Officer, Archaeology, Australian Museum Research Institute; and Conjoint Lecturer, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney.
I would like to thank the GunaiKurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) for assisting with the cultural permissions for this blog.
- David, B., et al. (2020) "50 years and worlds apart: Rethinking the Holocene occupation of Cloggs Cave (East Gippsland, SE Australia) five decades after its initial archaeological excavation and in light of GunaiKurnai world views." Australian Archaeology 2020: 1-20
- Flood, J. (1980) The Moth Hunters: Aboriginal Prehistory of the Australian Alps. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies; Canberra, Australia
- Stephenson, B., David, B., Fresløv, J. et al. (2021) 2000 Year-old Bogong moth (Agrotis infusa) Aboriginal food remains, Australia. Scientific Reports 10, 22151. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-79307-w