Bush medicine comprises traditional medicines used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia.
Traditional medicine has been defined as the sum of the total knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health, as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness. Bush medicine is also connected to the holistic worldview in such a way that the interplay between the physical, emotional, social and spiritual aspects is crucial in attaining wellbeing.
Generally, bush medicine in Australia is made from plant materials, such as bark, leaves and seeds, although animal products were used as well. A major component of traditional medicine is herbal medicine, which is the use of natural plant substances to treat or prevent illness. Aboriginal remedies vary between clans in different parts of the country. There is no single set of Aboriginal medicines and remedies, just as there is no one Aboriginal language.
The modern world and indigenous culture have differing approaches for health. Whilst conventional medicine deals with direct causes of illness and science-based views of health, the aboriginal view on health as defined by the National Aboriginal Health Strategy considers "not just the physical well being of the individual, but the social, emotional and cultural well-being of the whole community. This is the whole-of-life view and it also includes the cyclical concept of life-death-life".
In general, there are two types of accepted causes of illness in aboriginal tribes - natural, and supernatural. Natural causes would be treated with natural remedies, and supernatural illnesses could only be treated with a spiritual cure. It was believed that evil spirits caused any illness without an obvious explanation and these would be treated by the tribe's medicine man who would specialise in spiritual cures. They mainly use bush animal dung or plants in their medicine.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) tincure 20ml – for anti inflammatory activity and to improve local circulation at affected joints. Another example is emu bush leaves, which were used by Northern Territory Aboriginal tribes to sterilise sores and cuts. The leaves are now being considered by Australian scientists as a viable steriliser for implants.
Mitchell Park, now within Cattai National Park and situated near Sydney Basin in NSW, had many plants that were used as remedies for Aboriginal people. Nine species of eucalyptus present in the park could act as remedies. The red gum kino is known to be rich in astringent tannins. Additionally, this park also contained native pants that were actually used by early European settlers. The nectar-laden liquid from banksia flowers was used as a cough syrup, and from the native grapes (Cissus hypoglauca) a throat gargle was made.
Aboriginal people believe that their healers, their 'medicine men', have special powers which are bestowed upon them by their spiritual ancestors to heal. They have the roles of both a general practitioner and a psychiatrist, healing both the body and mind.
A practitioner of bush medicine is called a "ngangkari". They cure illnesses through healing rituals that may involve sorcery. An example of such ritual would be singing, massaging and sucking to remove a foreign object that has entered the body, and invoking the power of the war god Ancestor Ngurunderi to heal the wounds of soldiers caused by spears and clubs. Aside from physical healing, ngangkaris also act as mental health practitioners, as they try to resolve conflicts within the community and offer advice as well. With every sickness, in addition to giving a diagnosis and advice on suitable remedies, the duty of the ngangkari is also to assess the impact of the sickness to the community.
Many Aboriginal people choose to be treated by bush medicine instead of, or as well as, Western treatments for a number of reasons. These include: some Aboriginal people feel uncomfortable and out of place in a sterilised, Western clinic; Aboriginal bush medicine incorporates physical, spiritual and emotional healing, whereas Western medicine does not; and they believe that by using these treatments they are being drawn closer to their ancestors.
A 1969 study reported that variety of bush medicine techniques were still being used. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory, eucalypt kino (gum) was drunk for influenza, colds and coughs.
A 1994 survey reported that 22% of the 15,000 Aboriginal people from all over Australia in the sample had practised bush medicine in the previous six months.
21st century use
Traditions in southern and eastern Australia have largely been lost, but efforts are being made by anthropologists to record traditions from Aborigines in central and north-western Australia. In the Northern territory, however, it is still relatively well-preserved. Ngangkeres are said to be present in health clinics to perform rituals and give medical advice when necessary.
The use of bush medicine and natural remedies in Australia has declined, partly due to the loss of information. In Aboriginal culture they do not pass on information through writing, but through singing and dancing ceremonies, which are becoming far rarer. Without these ceremonies, the tens of thousands of years of knowledge that the Aboriginal elders hold can be lost.
In 2019, the The Northern Adelaide Local Health Network (NALHN) developed the first formalised, clinically endorsed mechanism to support ngangkaris working in accessed in acute, rehab, and palliative care inhospitals including Lyell McEwin and Modbury hospitals, as well as other units, including mental health facilities. Traditional healing methods used include Pampuni (healing touch), Mapampa (blowing), and Marali (spiritual healing and bush medicines) to complement mainstream treatment.
- Puckowe, a spirit who comes to the aid of medicine men
- Prehistoric medicine
- Medicinal plants of Australia
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