Thesis abstract ‘The Raw and the Cooked: A Study of the Effects of Cooking on Three Aboriginal Plant Foods from Southeast Queensland’

14th November 2013

Jenna Lamb

BA(Hons), School of Social Science, University of Queensland, November 2003

Cooking is an essentially human activity, embodying the transformation from the natural to the cultural and increasing the palatability and availability of food resources. Plants probably formed the major part of the hunter-gatherer Aboriginal Australian diet and plant residues on stone tools used for processing have been identified by Australian archaeologists. Ethnohistories also record the cooking and processing of plants by Aboriginal people, but very little direct archaeological evidence of plant food cooking has been confirmed.

In this vein, replicative cooking and stone tool processing of three ethnohistorically recorded starchy plant foods from southeast Queensland (Alocasia macrorrhiza [native taro], Blechnum indicum [fern-root] and Castanospermum australe [Moreton Bay chestnut]) was undertaken. The resulting residues were compared using microscopy and a biological stain, in order to test the effects of cooking on starch grains, which demonstrate irrefutable changes after being affected by heat. Results revealed that the main morphological effects of cooking on starch are swelling, and disruption of the extinction-cross; and that Congo Red dye stains gelatinised, and otherwise damaged, starch such that raw grains are distinguishable from cooked grains. Application of the Congo Red stain to the residues of three bevel-edged artefacts (functionally associated with B. indicum processing) produced consistently reliable results, allowing identification and differentiation of cooked, damaged and raw starch. Several grains seen on these artefacts were similar to those in cooked B. indicum reference samples.

This thesis reports the first successful archaeological use of Congo Red, and the first detailed evidence of the effects of cooking on starchy plants known to have been cooked and processed by past Aboriginal people. The results of this study may be used by archaeologists to infer archaeological residues deriving from cooked starchy foods and thus identify cooking as a specific form of activity in past subsistence behaviour.

Lamb, J.
Thesis abstract 'The Raw and the Cooked: A Study of the Effects of Cooking on Three Aboriginal Plant Foods from Southeast Queensland'
Thesis Abstracts
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