Preserving a culture in wild honey

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

What is her­it­age?” sounds like the kind of essay ques­tion a lec­turer might set when they run out of inspir­a­tion. It depends where you ask it. In some places it’s a ques­tion that car­ries a sting for the unwary. In the UK it’s almost always old build­ings. Sometimes it’s very old build­ings, but we build our her­it­age around the things we build. Sometimes a place can have a his­tor­ical potency, like a medi­eval bat­tle­field, but usu­ally we insist that some­thing leaves a mark before we acknow­ledge its his­tor­icity. It’s not sur­pris­ing. The UK is an indus­trial soci­ety. It’s a settled soci­ety. So is the rest of indus­tri­al­ised world. So how to you even start to exam­ine the her­it­age of a non-industrial soci­ety? Is the very concept of her­it­age loaded in a way that dis­em­powers some peoples? Mick Morrison, Darlene McNaughton and Justin Shiner have a paper ‘Mission-Based Indigenous Production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932–66)’ that tackles the prob­lems of power in 20th cen­tury Australia by look­ing at indi­gen­ous activ­ity around Weipa.

Weipa, North Queensland. Image © Google, used under edu­ca­tional terms.

Weipa is in the north­ern part of North Queensland on the west side of Cape York, the pointy bit at the top of Australia. It’s around here that the Dutch made first land­fall in Australia. The set­tle­ment was built due to the arrival of a Presbyterian Mission in last years of 19th cen­tury. The mis­sion was moved closer to the shore and it’s the later mis­sion that the art­icle is about. There’s a plan of the mis­sion and the first thing that struck me was the pos­i­tion of the Boy’s Dormitory and the Girls Dormitory. I wondered where the adults slept, then I wondered why the chil­dren were sleep­ing in dorm­it­or­ies any­way and not with their fam­il­ies. Finally, because I’m a bit slow of think­ing, I real­ised what the mis­sion was doing there.

The art­icle briefly cov­ers the his­tory for any­one not famil­iar with the story. The Native Mounted Police, an Aboriginal wing of the Queensland Police Force, dis­persed local abori­ginal peoples in the region, often bloodily. The nat­ives were not always seen as a prob­lem. Others saw them as an oppor­tun­ity. There was a demand for cheap labour, and the life of an abori­ginal worker was cheap. In the 1880s viol­ence became routine as people were press-ganged and kid­napped into work. The mis­sion arrived to bring order to the chaos. The mis­sion knew what good order was, and so part of their aim was to remove the chaos from the abori­ginal pop­u­la­tion. In the 20th cen­tury this became easier.

Changes in State Government legis­la­tion in the 1930s exten­ded the powers of the mis­sion super­in­tend­ent and left Aboriginal par­ents with no recourse to pre­vent their chil­dren being removed and held at the dorm­it­or­ies. Dormitory children’s lives were entirely gov­erned by the mis­sion staff: con­tact with vil­lage res­id­ents was extremely lim­ited and typ­ic­ally under the super­vi­sion of mis­sion staff while in the com­pound inter­ac­tion between boys and girls was also heav­ily con­trolled. Outside of school, chores and occa­sional recre­ational activ­it­ies, dorm­it­ory chil­dren seem to have spent much of their time within small fenced yards around their respect­ive dormitories.

Morrison, McNaughton & Shiner 2010:93

Australia is phys­ic­ally dis­tant, but the times­cale gives me a raw response. These pho­tos were taken in 1957. Reports make the aim of the mis­sion plain. The chil­dren would be suit­ably edu­cated for manual labour. Undesirable atti­tudes would be driven out of the younger gen­er­a­tion. How can you pre­serve your cul­ture when it is being attacked by power­ful oppon­ent intent on des­troy­ing it? How do you pass on your skills to your chil­dren under a per­sist­ent and hos­tile gaze? The abori­ginal people were an under­class, but they weren’t entirely power­less. Morrison, McNaughton & Shiner show that the mis­sion used trade with the abori­ginal pop­u­la­tion to gain food. As well as cal­or­ies and vit­am­ins, the food car­ried a cul­tural pay­load; to some extent you are what you eat. The mis­sion in Weipa ate many things, includ­ing sug­arbag.

Australian hon­ey­bees. Photo © Ben Walsh, used by kind permission.

Sugarbag is wild honey pro­duced by Australian bees, Austroplebeia spp. and Trigoma spp. This is Australian wild­life, so they’re going to be dif­fer­ent to bees found else­where. The art­icle describes them as ‘black, brown, or dark grey in color, less than 5–8 mm long and more closely resemble small flies than the European hon­ey­bee.’ They’re sting­less bees, which makes their hives excel­lent sources of food. Ben Walsh, who’s kindly allowed me to use his photo doesn’t know if his photo is of Austroplebeia, but they’re some kind of sting­less bee, so they’re close.

Finding a hive is dif­fi­cult. The bees nest in the hol­lows of liv­ing or dead trees. The lack of sting means they lack a defence that other bees have. That would add to their need to nest in secure loc­a­tions and the entrances to the hives are both small and hard to spot. Really you need to be there to spot the bees, called sug­arbag flies by the abori­gin­als, enter or leave the tree.

One elder explained the pro­cess of find­ing sug­arbag as fol­lows: “In the mis­sion time we would go out very early with our par­ents, when the sun was com­ing up, look into the sun and see where the flies were and fol­low them to the nest. A lot of flies com­ing in and out tells you it’s a big one.We took the young ones too, but mostly we took the big one.” Another elder added, “they [her par­ents] put their hands up like this, up in front of their eyes and look up into the sky, towards the sun, look­ing for sug­arbag flies.”

Morrison, McNaughton & Shiner 2010:98

Tree tapped for Sugarbag. Photo (cc) Mick Morrison.

After fol­low­ing the bees to find the tree there’s a couple of ways of get­ting the honey. The amount of honey a hive yields tends to be small, so one idea is to gauge the size of the hive and see it it’s worth tap­ping. You could do this by scram­bling up the branches of the tree near to the hive and tap­ping it with your hatchet. The sound tells you where the hive is, because it’ll be filling the hol­low interior of the tree. You’ll have remembered to bring a steel hatchet with you, because when you find a suit­able hive, you’ll want to get into the tree to get the honey. A small hole either at above or below the hive will allow you to push a stick in to extract honey and wax. A small hole can be eas­ily covered in mud, pro­tect­ing the hive when you’ve done and pre­serving it for future use. If you like the idea of liv­ing in har­mony with nature, this seems like a good idea.

Finding the hives is not easy, but it’s a lot easier if someone else has marked out the loc­a­tion of a nest by whack­ing a hole out of a tree and slap­ping a large earthen plug on it. Obviously poach­ing someone else’s work was seen as anti-social beha­viour. To help claim trees the find­ers would also hack into the trunk near the base to mark it as taken. So rather than see­ing a noble sav­age wan­der­ing through the land like some sort of eden, a gath­er­ing trip for honey would be jour­ney through a wood­land with a web of social claims on the trees. The bees were ambigu­ous, and you wouldn’t know if they were lead­ing you to honey until they arrived at their tree. A fur­ther blow to the ste­reo­type of the abori­ginal wan­derer is the second way of get­ting the honey. You take an axe, cut the tree down and chop open the hive.

A tree chooped down, bear­ing Sugarbag scars. Photo (cc) Mick Morrison.

The people who were chop­ping down trees were on horse­back and after the big or oth­er­wise inac­cess­ible nests. This seems to be a later devel­op­ment, and fol­lows the mission-educated chil­dren return­ing to the land­scape. In some­ways dam­age to the indi­gen­ous cul­ture is mirrored by the dam­age to the forest. It also par­al­lels an increase in eco­nomic activ­ity. The evid­ence presen­ted by Morrison, McNaughton and Shiner is that the area round Weipa was worked intensely. The mis­sion stored the gathered honey in the “sug­arbag tank” which is quoted as being 1.5m high and sev­eral metres in dia­meter. Even a 2 metre dia­meter tank would have a capa­city for 4.7 cubic metres. It’s not often you meas­ure volumes of food­stuffs in cubic metres. It’s a tank large enough to hold over 14,000 cans of Coke. A 4m dia­meter tank would hold over 57,000 cans. Either way, it points to aston­ish­ing amounts of honey being gathered by abori­gin­als and stored at the mission.

The great advant­age of study­ing sug­arbag pro­cure­ment is that the pro­cess leaves phys­ical remains. But it would be odd if the sup­ply was massively biased in favour of gath­er­ing sug­arbag over everything else. Documentary evid­ence from the mis­sion shows there was also a sup­ply of fruit and meat to the mis­sion. If this happened on a sim­ilar scale then Weipa must have been the hub of bust­ling social and eco­nomic activ­ity that simply doesn’t appear in the his­tor­ical record, and leaves little in the way of con­crete remains. The activ­ity is all within the forest. Can it make sense to talk about abori­ginal her­it­age without recog­nising the cent­ral­ity of the eco­sys­tem? It’s an urgent ques­tion because the eco­sys­tem around Weipa is changing.

Wandrupayne, a lake near Weipa. Photo (cc) Mick Morrison

In the past patches of Cape York was cleared and exploited for farm­ing and small scale min­ing. These days the oppor­tun­it­ies for exploit­a­tion are dif­fer­ent. Weipa sits on the world’s largest deposit of Bauxite. This is alu­minium ore that is usu­ally found around the trop­ics, and because of the way it’s formed, it’s usu­ally near the earth’s sur­face. That makes it cheap to extract through strip-mining. People were driven from their land before. Now veget­a­tion and top­soil is over­bur­den, and being removed. The land­scape changes dra­mat­ic­ally when you scour it to the bedrock.

Andy’s Trip to Weipa, includ­ing a trip round the mine.

A report from The Age in 1976 opens “If men ever estab­lish a base on the bar­ren sur­face of Mars it will look like Weipa.” There are stud­ies of how soil rehab­ili­ation will work after min­ing, but the res­ults sug­gest that the soil will be poorer than the nat­ural soil for at least a gen­er­a­tion and pos­sibly on the scale of 90 to 160 years. Whether or not this is a reas­on­able price to pay prob­ably depends on how long term your views are, and on how much money you make from the alu­minium. I’m will­ing to bet if I had a fam­ily to sup­port with a job at the mine I’d be pretty clear about the wealth that’s being extrac­ted from the land and pumped into the eco­nomy. In the longer term a cen­tury isn’t so long when you look at the indus­trial land­scapes of Europe.

While it would be easy to paint Rio Tinto Alcan, the mine own­ers, as black­hearted vil­lains, it wouldn’t be fair. It’s not 1976 any­more and Rio Tinto Alcan is not Comalco, the mine com­pany of that era. Like a lot of extrac­tion com­pan­ies, they’re tak­ing an interest in what they’re des­troy­ing and fun­ded the tree sur­veys in this study. Yet ulti­mately the min­ing is still destruct­ive. However quickly the soil might recover, the her­it­age that is lost will not grow back. What is the her­it­age that’s gone? There are the phys­ical remains in the trees, but also the import­ant oral his­tor­ies which only make sense tied to a land­scape. Activities that don’t leave the traces that honey gath­er­ing does, live only by word of mouth. When the land they are embed­ded in is gone, all that remains is silence.

There’s plenty of reas­ons to like this paper. One is that it shows the dif­fer­ences between archae­ology and his­tory. At their worst his­tor­i­ans see archae­ology as ‘the bit that fills in the gaps.’ That’s not what hap­pens in this paper. The abori­ginal exper­i­ence is not a gap. It’s an entirely dif­fer­ent way of see­ing life on the cape. The evid­ence means that you can, indeed must, ask dif­fer­ent ques­tions to the his­tor­i­ans. The pic­ture this paper paints is of human action in a land­scape, rather than imposed on it but still separate.

Another factor is the con­stant prob­lem that what you find is never everything that was there. What you have are the ruins and remains of activ­ity. Some remains last bet­ter than oth­ers. The Stone Age would prob­ably be bet­ter named the Wood Age, but wood rots quickly and little sur­vives bey­ond a mil­len­nium. The hunt­ing and gath­er­ing prac­tices of the abori­gin­als around Weipa would have left even more eph­em­eral traces. The eco­nomy of the area was not purely sug­arbag, but by examin­ing the scale of honey gath­er­ing, it’s pos­sible to make sens­ible estim­ates of what other activ­ity was hap­pen­ing in the area. That’s a res­ult. Given the diversity of the sources of inform­a­tion that can’t be eas­ily cross-referenced with each other, pulling out a coher­ent paper is an achieve­ment. But des­pite the very worthy reas­ons for admir­ing the work, that not actu­ally why I like the paper. It’s a lot sim­pler than that.

Stripmine pre­par­a­tion near Weipa. Photo (cc) Mick Morrison

This is about a people who live in the trop­ics with a way of life entirely dif­fer­ent to mine. Weipa is a remote place. I doubt it gets many vis­it­ors from people who live in Queensland, let alone the rest of the world. Even read­ing the art­icle is a mini-adventure. Gathering the data for the paper meant trekking inland along the rivers look­ing for right mark­ings among all the trees. It even meant look­ing through the under­growth to find where the trees were miss­ing, leav­ing just a stump — and then for the rot­ten remains of a log, because not every tree cut down was for sug­arbag. It’s a mat­ter of look­ing for the details that every­one else has missed. As import­ant as the detail is, when the strip mines are fed with fresh land, they leave noth­ing behind. The sites on mined land can­not be resur­veyed. The tale Mick Morrison and his col­leagues are telling is of a band of people who res­isted the oppres­sion of a dis­tant gov­ern­ment. A people who wouldn’t give up, and found ways to out­wit an unjust author­ity. Now, if you were writ­ing the ulti­mate 21st cen­tury archae­olo­gical adven­ture, wouldn’t it look some­thing like that?

This could only be a 21st cen­tury adven­ture, because now is the only time such a study could hap­pen. For some people the mis­sion at Weipa is an incon­veni­ence in that past that should be lost, and that’s what’s hap­pen­ing. Even now last traces of the mis­sion are disappearing.

The remains of the mis­sion fence. Photo (cc) Mick Morrison.

ResearchBlogging.orgMorrison, M., McNaughton, D., & Shiner, J. (2010). Mission-Based Indigenous Production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932–66) International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 14 (1), 86–111 DOI: 10.1007/s10761-009‑0096-8


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

7 Responses

  1. We had sim­ilar “res­id­en­tial schools” in Canada, for sim­ilar reas­ons, untill a few dec­ades ago.

    • Alun says:

      It’s a dif­fer­ent set of cir­cum­stances, and obvi­ously a very dif­fer­ent loc­a­tion, but the art­icle reminded me of Brody’s Maps and Dreams, a book about the people of NE British Columbia. I think it’s dif­fi­cult to write about this kind of thing well. If the explan­a­tion is too alien then it’s hard to con­nect with it. On the other hand if the cul­ture is famil­iar and under­stand­able, then you’re left won­der­ing what is being lost.

      I should have added a link to Mick’s post on Mapping cul­tural land­scapes. It’s another good post by him, and it makes the point you can’t eas­ily divorce hunter-gatherers from the land­scape and a land­scape it more that a few her­it­age hot­spots with neut­ral space between them.

  2. Great post Alun, thanks for tak­ing the time to review our art­icle. I think you’ve high­lighted some inter­est­ing angles that we haven’t neces­sar­ily dealt with/thought of ourselves. In par­tic­u­lar, the ‘eco’ angle which is some­thing worth explor­ing fur­ther. There has been quite a bit writ­ten on Indigenous approaches to man­aging resources (ideas about domi­cul­ture and such) how­ever we haven’t linked into that as yet. This was actu­ally a fairly pre­lim­in­ary paper, so we have quite a bit to do with the data ana­lysis before some of these ideas get legs.

    I should add that Rio Tinto-Alcan do a decent job of her­it­age man­age­ment. There are some issues but they do invest quite a lot of $$ into ensur­ing that mine areas are prop­erly assessed for all sorts of her­it­age val­ues. But as you say, min­ing is destruct­ive and will always have a social impact, par­tic­u­larly in cases such as this where vast land­scapes are sig­ni­fic­ant to Traditional Owners. Fortunately, most of the places of highest sig­ni­fic­ance are at the mar­gins of the baux­ite depos­its, where no min­ing occurs i.e. around creeks and river. It’s the bits in between that are being des­troyed, and the bits in between con­nect the places at the mar­gins of the mine oper­a­tion (eco­lo­gic­ally and culturally).

    The sig­ni­fic­ant thing for us was the extent to which Indigenous foods seem to used in the mis­sion and just how rarely this is evid­ent in the his­tor­ical sources. Government reports, diar­ies and so on rarely men­tion the role or import­ance of foods pro­duced by Indigenous people (ie. obtained via hunting/gathering/fishing). Not only did this activ­ity go some way to keep­ing the mis­sion viable, but as you say it car­ried a ‘cul­tural pay­load’ and the food seems to have been val­ued by dorm­it­ory inmates in a vari­ety of ways. The inter­est­ing thing is, that des­pite the dif­fi­cult situ­ation many former inmates were in (being sep­ar­ated from fam­ily, pun­ish­ments, etc), they still look back on the mis­sion times with some fond­ness. I think food is an import­ant part of this and is one area we want to do fur­ther work (par­tic­u­larly Darlene McNaughton, the anthro­po­lo­gist who is doing some of this work)

    Thanks again, your interest and com­ments have encour­aged me to think about other link­ages and to write more about this kind of thing in future!

  1. March 29, 2010

    […] Preserving a cul­ture in wild honey. Finally, Alun at AlunSalt provides a thought­ful look at the dis­ap­pear­ance of an Aboriginal tribes’ honey-gathering heritage. […]

  2. March 30, 2010

    […] (26 Mar 2010): Alun Salt has writ­ten a great blog post about our paper, which you can read here. Posted by Mick My research, Recent pub­lic­a­tions, his­tor­ical archae­ology Subscribe to RSS […]

  3. April 2, 2010

    […] Alun Salt reports on archae­olo­gists’ invest­ig­a­tion in Australia of a case of 20th-century abori­ginal cul­ture and res­ist­ance in Preserving a cul­ture in wild honey. […]

  4. January 30, 2012

    […] EDIT (26 Mar 2010): Alun Salt has writ­ten a great blog post about our paper, which you can read here. […]