Article by Jennifer Maez
When we think of Australia, what comes to mind? The “Outback”, a wild and rough territory in the central part of the continent. Koalas, kookaburras, and kangaroos surviving in tough climates. Painted indigenous tribes who live off the land. Smiling faces of welcoming people who have great pride in their country. But do we consider the health of those people? Do we think of the history that has shaped the country?
Australia, the world’s smallest, driest, and flattest continent, was first populated approximately 42,000 to 48,000 years ago, possibly with the migration of people from South-East Asia. These people became the first indigenous Australians, or aborigines. The term Indigenous Australian is more politically correct, and refers to both aborigine and Torres Strait Islanders.
Natural medicine was the only form of medicine known to the indigenous people, involving both native plants and a system of medicine founded on spirituality. For centuries, people lived in harmony with the energy of nature, and used their knowledge of the spiritual world in combination with their understanding of the nature of the plants available to them to maintain a high standard of health. The variety of languages and cultures of indigenous Australians were matched only by the diversity of the plants the continent provided them. The aborigines’ health was traditionally managed primarily through their diet, and was the basis for their ability to maintain health.
Colonization of Australia by Britain began in 1770 by James Cook, who had been sent by the Crown to locate a place for Britain to send prisoners. The continent subsequently became a penal colony for Great Britain. With the “white” settlers came diseases that had been unknown to the continent, and terrible smallpox plagues were estimated to have taken half the indigenous population. These new diseases were unknown to the aborigines, who had no idea how to fight them.
Much of the traditions and information about the indigenous Australians has been lost through the years. Their culture was traditionally passed down through singing and dancing ceremonies, called “Dreamtime”. These ceremonies are becoming increasingly rare, due to the challenges that indigenous tribes face because of modern society. The rates of substance abuse, alcoholism, and poverty have skyrocketed, much like the indigenous tribes of North America. In some ways, many parallels can be drawn between those two cultures, with widespread destruction of their land and lifestyle being attributed to colonization by non-native people.
One of the natural medicines of Australia that has been not only preserved, but studied extensively is the Tea Tree, which is native to Australia. Its leaves have been shown to be a powerful antiseptic. It was commonly used by aborigines as a poultice or a tea to heal infections. Another is eucalyptus, the favorite food of koalas. These leaves were often smoked by natives or made into tea to relieve respiratory ailments, body pain, fevers, and chills. The extract is a common ingredient in modern-day cough medicines. Bri.net.au/medicine states “Queensland’s rainforests harbour dozens of medicinally valuable plants. One of those is the well-known rainforest tree, the Moreton Bay chestnut or black bean (Castanospermum australe). Compounds coming from the plant are now showing promise as a treatment for AIDS. It is also an ornamental tree, often grown indoors.” Yet another less-well-known plant commonly used by natives is the Kangaroo Apple, which was traditionally made into a poultice for swollen joints. It is now known to contain a steroid that is used in the body’s production of Cortisone, a powerful anti-inflammatory.
Australia’s history has seen its share of devastation of native culture, although natural medicine has not altogether been lost. Australia is becoming one of the world’s foremost centers for the study of natural medicine, with the establishment of many schools such as Southern Cross University, which offers a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Therapies, and Victoria University, offering a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Medicine. The Endeavour College of Natural Health offers six Bachelor of Health Science degrees in Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Nutrition, Acupuncture, Western Herbal Medicine and Musculoskeletal Therapy. They offer advanced diplomas in several natural healing modalities. The Australian College of Natural Therapies offers over 80 different natural therapy courses, including naturopathy, herbal medicine, aromatherapy, massage, and more. Access to education about natural medicine is the key to promotion of naturopathy, and will in time help replace some of the natural healing knowledge that has been lost in native culture.
Although the past cannot be changed, we can learn from it. The future is being shaped for natural medicine in wonderful ways in Australia. An attack on naturopathy by the newly-formed “Friends of Science in Medicine”, a group of about 400 M.D.’s, scientists, and researchers in Australia, whose opinion that natural medicine should have no place in modern medical care, demonstrates that naturopathy has power. If not, why would the modern pharmaceutical industry be threatened?
We can look to the past for clues and wisdom, and apply them to the present in order to affect change for the better in the future. Could the cure for AIDS come from a beautiful ornamental plant that has lived in Australia for thousands of years? Much like proving the power of the Tea Tree millennia after its use in herbal medicine, only time will tell.
Jennifer Maez is a freelance writer who, after living in 12 different states, currently resides in Colorado. She has a B.A. in Psychology. Jennifer enjoys hiking, plant identification, and meditation, and is a self-taught student of natural and holistic medicine. She enjoys cooking paleo dishes for her family, and is currently working on a paleo sauces cookbook.