The Australian Palaeodiet: 40,000 years in the making

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1. Please give a brief summary of your work.

We are constantly told that we need to eat more organic, locally grown, unprocessed food. A good way to achieve this is to include native animals in our diet, but which animals should we incorporate? One way is to consider the endemic fauna that Indigenous Australian’s ate prior to European colonisation by studying the remains of past meals, such as animal bones and shellfish, that are now part of the archaeological record. However animal remains are uncommon, especially across Australia’s open and dry landscape. This project aims to help address this question via an innovative combination of modern butchery (how much meat and fat a particular species provides) coupled with a nutritional analysis (how good they are for you to eat). From these results we can gain a better understanding of what people ate in the past and what we should consider eating as part of our ‘modern Australian palaeodiet’.

2. Describe your approach and broader findings.

The Australian archaeological and ethnographic record indicates that Aboriginal people had a varied diet that included animals such as macropods (kangaroos and wallabies), emus, wombats, possums, reptiles, small birds and shellfish. However detailed analyses indicates strong prey selection and butchery patterns of particular animals in certain parts of the country. For example, in Ice Age southwest Tasmania people predominately hunted the medium-sized Bennett’s wallaby (focusing on the ‘meaty’ hindlimbs where the longbones were always split open to access the marrow) and the wombat (focusing on its head, pectoral girdle and forelimbs which were not always split open and ignored the meatier pelvic region). To understand why this pattern occurred modern butchery or economic utility and nutritional analyses of the meat, marrow and fat of the wombat was conducted. It was found that wombats contained a large amount of readily obtainable flesh and fat along their backs and across their pectoral girdle or shoulders. Nutritional analyses of both wombat fat and bone marrow indicated that neither was particularly high in nutritious unsaturated fats which are not only healthy for us, but taste good and keep us satiated for longer. Overall, it was found that 25% to 40% (7kg to 9.5kg) of a wombat consists of flesh, however its meat and fat are not as healthy as other native animals.


This approach is now being extended to a range of other Australian prey animals that have been recorded from Australian archaeological assemblages, under the umbrella of the 'Native Bush Tucker' project. These include the Eastern grey kangaroo, brushtail and ringtail possum's, bandicoot's, Tasmanian potoroo, Tasmanian pademelon, echidna, platypus, Australian fur seal, and common freshwater and marine shellfish species. This is enabling the development of a comprehensive database of the potential dietary benefits of specific prey animals and their nutritional quality. When complete it will be biggest database of its type anywhere in the world.


Some of the research findings of the 'Native Bush Tucker' project so far:

1.      While the common wombat provides a lot of readily obtainable fat it is not particularly healthy (high in saturated fats).

2.      The Eastern grey kangaroo has a large amount of meat around its pelvis, but it is very lean. However its bone marrow is highly nutritious.

3.      The smaller macropods (pademelon and potoroo) might not provide as much meat as a large kangaroo, but their marrow is much healthier for you.

4.      The ringtail and brushtail possum's and the bandicoot's meat is very lean and do not contain much fat.

5.      Despite being thought of as ‘fatty’ the platypus is actually very lean.

6.      The echidna has a thick layer of fat between its quills and skin which is highly nutritious (high in unsaturated fats).

7.      The seal has a large amount of fat or blubber, while its meat is also fatty.


This database will continue to be expanded as animals become available (the majority are collected as roadkill). Eventually it will available online so that anyone interested in Australian fauna can access it.


3. What is the wider contribution, or impact, to your scientific field(s)?

This is the first time that economic utility and nutritional analyses have been established for Australia’s native, predominately marsupial, fauna. Previously, such studies were restricted to the ungulates (hooved) animals of North America, Europe and Africa. This sophisticated zooarchaeological approach is ensuring that Australia's native fauna are now some of the most researched and published worldwide. The ongoing results from this project have wider implications for Australian archaeology and modern nutritional science including: 


1.      Broaden our understanding of the past dietary role of native Australian animals for Indigenous Australians.

2.      Establish fundamental baseline data of several key target prey species which will have significant implications for the interpretation of Australian faunal assemblages.

3.      Provide a comprehensive overview of the ethnographic information concerning the historical and modern practices of hunting, butchering and cooking practices of prey animals from different regions. 

4.      Assess the economic anatomy/or utility of these animals (by quantifying the meat, fur, fat, marrow and bone available), thus providing estimates of the relative food values represented by different skeletal elements and predicting the likelihood of their selection and transport by people.

5.      Determine the dietary nutritional quality of these animals by collecting flesh and marrow samples for analysis of the fatty acid content. Little is known concerning the dietary benefits of animal prey targeted by Aboriginal Australians. The fatty acid analysis of the animal products determines how ‘good’ these are for you to eat and determines how this quality varies according to the region and season.

6.      Undertake butchering experiments using stone tools to determine if and where cut marks occur on bones that are butchered using traditional methods. Bone breakage patterns will be compared to the archaeological record.

7.      The potential role of native animals in the modern Australian diet.

4. Are there any potential ideas you would like to explore to take this research further?

This project will be broadened to incorporate cooking experiments based on the archaeological record, ethnographic accounts, and modern cooking techniques used by Indigenous people today to test the palatability, as well as nutritional quality of different animals across variable cooking temperatures. It is also anticipated that it will be extended to include a wider range of native species, particularly those from the semi-arid and arid parts of Australia such as reptiles and birds. The potential role of secondary products (i.e. bone points, fur, quills and feathers) that may have influenced prey selection will also be considered to see if that helps explains some of the patterns in the archaeological record.

Ultimately, it hoped that this research will help inform on the ‘modern Australian palaeodiet’ and what kind of endemic fauna we should consider incorporating into our everyday lives for a much more healthy, environmentally friendly and sustainable future.  

To learn more this long-term study please watch: 'The Australian Palaeodiet: 40,000 years in the making'.

5. Please share a link for researchers to access a relevant publication, data-set, or thesis.

This is an ongoing project. The following papers were published in 2016:

Garvey, J., Roberts, G. and Cosgrove, R. 2016. Economic utility and nutritional value of the Common wombat: evaluating Australian Aboriginal hunting and butchery patterns. Journal of Archaeological Science Reports pp. 51-57.

Allen, J., Cosgrove, R. and Garvey, J. 2016. Optimality Models and the Food Quest in Pleistocene Tasmania. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 44 (Part B):206-215.

Cosgrove, R. and Garvey, J. 2017. Behavioural inferences from late Pleistocene Australia: seasonality, butchery and nutrition in southwest Tasmania. Umberto Albarella, Hannah Russ, Kim Vickers, and Sarah Viner-Daniels (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Zooarchaeology. 33p.

(please refer to the uploaded attachment):

Video: The Australian Palaeodiet: 40,000 years in the making:


Alice Clement
12 months ago

Best of luck, Jillian!

Sean Ulm
12 months ago

What a fantastic project! Best of luck Jillian!

Belinda Abbott
12 months ago

Amazing work, so important to Australia.

Sue Turner
12 months ago

Go, gal!

Richard (Lee) Lyman
12 months ago

Exceptionally important project in Anthropology and Archaeology. Also has implications for indigenous peoples. Best of luck!

Sanja Van Huet
12 months ago

Good Luck Jillian

Steve Salisbury
12 months ago

A better understanding of how Australian native animals can be (and have been) utilised as a sustainable food source is really important, and this project provides the ideal springboard to do some the science that is needed to make it happen (i.e., put some 'meat on the bone'). A great idea. Go Jillian!

Matthew Meredith-Williams
12 months ago

Great idea, well done! And best of luck in the competition!

Joanne Wilkinson
11 months ago

Great work Gillian. Nice presentation. We love eating kangaroo. Jo and mel.

Annie Ross
11 months ago

This looks like a fabulous project Gillian. Good luck! Annie

Jo McDonald
11 months ago

Fingers crossed :) Jo

Jacqueline Pitt
11 months ago

Interesting project. Good luck!

Sofia Samper Carro
11 months ago

Done. Good luck!


Dr Jillian Garvey is an ARC DECRA Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and History at La Trobe University investigating human occupation and subsistence in late Quaternary Australia. Sh...

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