Macrozamia – a little local knowledge makes a lot of difference

Peter Macinnis, in his 2012 book ‘Curious Minds: The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists’ mentions the unfortunate experience of some of the shore party from Willem de Valmingh’s 1697 visit to what we now call Western Australia:

“Some of the men tried the seeds from a zamia palm, Macrozamia riedlei, which can be harmful or even lethal if they are not prepared correctly. Upper surgeon Mandrop Torst recorded a description in the Nijptangh’s log:

I ate five or six of them, and drank of the water from a small pool, but after an interval of about three hours, I and five others who had eaten of these fruits began to vomit so violently that we were as if dead men, so that it was with the greatest difficulty that I and the crew regained the shore, and thence in company with the skipper were put on board the galliot, leaving the rest on shore.” (Macinnis 2012:17-18 – Macinnis cites Stephen Hooper – reference at end)

It is not clear to me if the Dutch explorers had seen evidence of local First Peoples – Noongar/Nyungar – harvesting the fruit/seeds of the zamia palm. They did not meet with any local people during their short stay. But it is highly likely that some evidence of people eating these seeds at their camps. Local people knew how to treat the fruit before consuming.

Philip Clarke, in his 2007/2011 book ‘Aboriginal People and Their Plants’ notes, of zamia palms/cycads:

“Archaeologists believe that the Aboriginal use of this food source, through leaching technology, started becoming more important to the diet during the late Pleistocene, about 13,000 years ago.” (2011:91)

“Aboriginal techniques for judging whether the poison has successfully been removed for the cycad nuts include crumbling , smelling and visually inspecting them.’ (ibid)

Clearly, a little local knowledge, learnt from experience, can make a lot of difference (and, yes, metaphors abound in regard to the colonisation methods used by British in this country).


Macrozamia – from Greek, I understand, for large date palm (in appearance).

Reidlei – see

Macrozamia riedlei, commonly known as zamia or zamia palm, is a species of plant in the Zamiaceae family. The Noongar names for the plant are baiandjirijikoondagoor and quinning.[2]

Footnote 2 leads to “Noongar names for plants” to

(Note the attribution there by Bob Howard of the work of Dr Ian Abbott ” Aboriginal Names for Plant Species in South-Western Australia” by Dr Ian Abbott (Forest Department of Western Australia Technical Paper No 5, 1983). I could not track down an online version of Dr Abbott’s paper.


  1. There is an excellent article about these fruit/seeds – and how they were treated and which part was probably eaten – by Ken Macintyre and Barb Dodson. Well worth taking the time to read.

‘The ancient practice of Macrozamia pit processing in southwestern Australia.’

2. ‘Aboriginal vernacular names of Australian cycads of Macrozamia, Bowenia and Lepidozamia spp.: A response to ‘Cycads in the vernacular: A compendium of local names.’ Asmussen, Brit, Australian Aboriginal Studies, Nov 01, 2012; Vol. 2012, No. 2, p. 54-71 (and see her two other papers on the disputed role of Macrozamia for seasonal feastings). [I found my free copy via the database on my local Council library service.]

3. See the comprehensive work of Dr David Nash mentioned below.


Asmussen makes the point:

“Non-Western taxonomies.

Despite the early involvement of Aboriginal peoples in describing Australian plants (Clarke 2008:42), no Aboriginal names are reflected in the Linnaean system of classification for Bowenia, Lepidozamia or Macrozamia. Instead, Linnaean names for these plants honour Europeans or reference physical features, growth habits of plants or their geographic locations … In fact, very few Australian plants have an Aboriginal name including a species name.” (2012:65)

It strikes me that this European practice of naming plants – re-naming plants – has made use of a process which brings to mind what Claude Levi-Strauss called a ‘totemic operator (The Savage Mind 1966:152-153). See image below.

However, where the totemic operator makes use of species (and parts thereof) to introduce distinctions into social life (Bear Clan, Eagle Clan – or to make other conceptual distinctions, including the group-defined identity of an individual) the Linnaean (etc) process is inverted.

In the case of Naturalists, features of the social landscape (significant to European intellectuals) have been called upon to generate – and thereby ‘immortalise’ – species (and genera) names for plants from the names (surnames?) of people whose significance is often restricted to the very narrow world of a European Naturalist society. See the further reading (below) on ‘Linnaeus’s trivial names’.

It is beyond my ability to fully explore this rich area as explored by Levi- Strauss. What the naming process does achieve, in the name of science, is a recasting of the entire botanical world in terms which systematically privilege European understanding.

“All is new” arises because European high society – these are aristocratic pursuits, the names are also coded in Latin and Greek – did not feel any necessity to establish diplomatic relations with First Peoples; learn their languages and systems of classification. The world of First Peoples is to be passed-over to make epistemological space for the Eurocentric New World.

This book looks worth reading (but at £75 doubt I ever will):


Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

Vol. No.: 2018:01

Through focusing on the circulation of Linnaean knowledge and placing it within the context of eighteenth-century globalization, authors provide innovative and important contributions to our understanding of the early modern history of science.


My point is that modern science, which seeks to privilege itself as being ‘beyond everyday social life’ is itself a socially constructed activity/practice. Naturalism rests on a myth of ‘nature’ and an imaginary ability of a few to directly access reality – while the Ways of others may be cast aside as being based on distorted perceptions, mental shortcomings etc.

In this way a cultural code was created which enabled communication between those who had access to it, while excluding others. Non-aristocratic aspirants to the new order could apply for associate membership, taking their cues from their cultural masters. I will follow this up went I get to Sir Joseph Banks.


The false certainties of ‘modern’ are losing their hold over us and, in the space provided by genuine doubts, new forms of representation are emerging. Times are changing.

Asmussen notes:

“In recognition of a lack of Indigenous names, efforts are being made to identify and publicise preferred Aboriginal names and spellings for certain species and plant components.” (ibid)

Asmussen cites, as one example of attempts to recognise indigenous names, a visually rich and informative document by the City of Joondalup. ‘Plants and People in Mooro Country. Nyungar Plant Use in Yellagonga Regional Park’

Well worth a look. See pages 71-73. Download from:


There is a fine examination of Linnaean names incorporating First Peoples terms by Dr David Nash in his article ‘Reviving unique words: The niche of scientific names.’

He also proposes that the use of words from endangered languages (such as those of some First Peoples in this country) in the scientific naming of species may provide a safe haven for them. He concludes his article:

“Biologists show that there is an immense increase in the number of identified biological species, and that most species are yet to be identified:

Assessment of this pattern for all kingdoms of life on Earth predicts _8.7 million (±1.3 million SE) species globally, of which _2.2 million (±0.18 million SE) are marine. Our results suggest that some 86% of the species on Earth, and 91% in the ocean, still await description (Mora, Tittensor, Adl, Simpson, & Worm 2011)

Thus there is a corresponding demand for unique names appropriate for these species. Endangered languages are clearly an excellent source for these names, and the adoption of endangered words into scientific nomenclature will in a small way assist the survival of words that otherwise would have been lost.” ( )

And see also his Addenda


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Black Swan Song v ‘Modern’ Certainty


Willem de Vlamingh, the Dutch commander of the three ships searching for survivors of a Dutch East Indies ship the Ridderschap van Holland, is the name associated with the European ‘discovery’ of the black swan.

In January 1697, having already been a few days on the Island they named “Rottnest” (Ratnest – after the quokkas, small marsupials Setonix brachyurus they saw there – P. Macinnis, ‘Curious Minds’ 2012:16), de Vlamingh and some of his men crossed over to the mainland. They soon came to the river they subsequently named Zwaanenriver – Swan River.

(Another source says “The de Vlamingh expedition resulted in the name ‘Swarte Swaene-Revier’(Black Swan River), named after the black swans they saw there.” Plants and People in Mooro Country:  Nyungar Plant Use in Yellagonga Regional Park )

It was here that one form of European certainty came to an end – for here they encountered a large water bird that looked like a swan but it was black.

In the European tradition not only were swans white, but it was considered a tautology (self-evident truth) to say “Swans are white”.

The encounter with this new water-bird (in what they would come to call New Holland) presents a famous and well-known dilemma for European thinking. In relation to whiteness is a defining characteristic of swans then either:

  1. despite the new black bird being like a swan in all other respects, it cannot be a swan.
  2. whiteness is not a defining characteristic of swans, and the black bird is a swan.

Today we have no difficulty in accepting that that these birds are black swans. European certainly was proven to be wrong.


Cygnus cygnusCygnus atratus

One example of First Peoples names for Black Swan from the relevant area (

Swan gooljak, kooleeja, maalee

Described scientifically by English naturalist John Latham in 1790, the black swan was formerly placed into a monotypic genus, Chenopis.” (Wikipedia- Back Swan)


From the Australian Museum website we learn


















The expression “new to science” is often heard in relation to forms of life which have been known to First Peoples for tens of thousands of years. The European Age of Reason – perhaps dazzled by the opportunities of ‘new’ lands and ‘new’ resources – was particularly blind to the important place in life for indigenous people in the “New World”.

Rather than embracing First Peoples – and their systems of naming and classification – Naturalists fashioned a ‘fetish’ object which they inserted into their newly minted ‘natural’ conception of creation, rendering it ‘fit’ for intellectual consumption.

The idea of taste (le goût) was a social indicator: to truly be able to categorize nature, one had to have the proper taste, an ability of discretion shared by all members of polite society. In this way natural history spread many of the scientific developments of the time, but also provided a new source of legitimacy for the dominant class.[185] From this basis, naturalists could then develop their own social ideals based on their scientific works”


This movement from doubt and certainty to doubt and certainty as a process in refining knowledge. See, for example, the classic ‘Doubt and Certainty in Science’ by J Z Young (

The certainly provided by the ideas of creation as contained in the Bible, for example, were already giving way in 1697. The locus of European understanding was shifting from a geocentric world as created by God to a heliocentric system. Copernicus, died 1543, and Galileo (died 1642) are two names associated with this shift.

From a world view in which the stars were fixed overhead in relation to the earth, the earth itself was seen to be on the move. Soon, new ideas about time would also replace the Biblical account of creation. The European idea of the centre of Being was on the move.

New cosmologies were now being crafted. And it is into that historical context that the cultural code of Naturalism emerges. Views of life as part of a Great Chain of Being – with a top-down form of organisation – continued to be of influence with a stress or privileging of vertical metaphors. Metaphysical or sacred aspect is removed to produce a ‘secular’ form of representation.

These new cosmologies provide a vehicle for the aspirations of a rising wealthy elite vis-à-vis a declining elite. New forms of wealth were being tapped into by European countries. The trading operations of the Dutch East India Company brought the Dutch to the West Coast of this continent. (Interestingly, Dutch anthropology in now Indonesia explored and appreciated dual organisation to a greater degree (in my opinion) than British anthropology.)

The new social landscaped contains people like Banks, Humboldt and Darwin – all wealthy people who could undertake the conceptual work of Naturalism. And then, in their train, a whole class of minor conceptual craftspeople seeking to improve their social and economic position in life.

The culturally one-sided forms of reason are typified by a particular type of abstraction; hierarchy and notions of ‘genealogy’. More on this later.


The human brain has two complementary opposite hemispheres and this provides a useful model for First Peoples systems of interpreting and ordering experience. Think Yin – Yang – but highly elaborated. Eaglehawk and Crow are two well know complementary opposite systems.

It is like a double-entry system of book-keeping – for every entry on the left side there has to be a corresponding (counterbalancing?) entry on the right side.

Modern anthropology has increasingly come to appreciate the role of complementary opposition in Australia. This is not the place to document that all that. Ken Maddock was one anthropologist who appreciated its importance.

With ‘modern’ systems of abstraction part of a whole (A) is privileged and the remainder (non-A) is, as it were, discarded. First Peoples systems take a lot more care – every mental operation (of note?) takes as much care with the positioning of the (non-A) as it does with the placement of(A). (I don’t know how to talk about A and non-A in terms which provide equal weighting to both sides.)

Added to this, the concern for balance acts to keep abstraction more closely tied to the sensory level – rather than taking off into a one-sided (unbalanced/unstable) conceptual stratosphere. Claude Levi-Strauss explored ‘sensory’ logic in his book known as “The Savage Mind” (a very poor translation from his title in French). He had also written on Dual Organisation (which he briefly reviews in his chapter19 ‘The Bipartite Ideology of ‘ the Amerindians’ in his 1991 ‘Histoire de Lynx’ (English 1995:225-242) ‘The Story of Lynx’))

Qualities may be represented by a particular bird. The Willie Wagtail, for a Western Arrernte Dreaming story example, may represent a brave and perhaps dominating quality (telling an enormous serpent what to do!). Male Willie Wagtails, I read elsewhere, raise their ‘eye-brows’ to fight! There is a whole world of abstract qualities represented in all the Dreaming narratives.

What I have yet to track down is where Swan would be placed in the dual-sided forms of knowledge (‘Moieties”) which typify First Peoples systems of interpreting and classifying their world.


From an orthodox perspective in this country, Black Swan is located in one ‘conceptual hemisphere’ and has relationships with the overall configuration formed by both hemispheres.

The late C G Von Brandenstein’s research into an ‘Aboriginal Ecological Order’ – a ‘superstructure of the highest philosophical order’ – places Black Swan, Cygnus atratus, in his CSF category for Kidja, Lungga people. Cold + Moist/Slow + Flatter? (‘Names and Substances of the Australian Subsection System’ 1982:113 and Figure 1.31 pp 24-25) (Also in the ‘Mythological’ moiety C (as opposed to W) – Cold as opposed to Warm?)

The major complementary opposite hemispheres are sometimes named as White Cockatoo – Crow (SW Australia?) and Eaglehawk and Crow in different parts of the country (SE Australia)

Another quick search, which also touches on the markings of black and white birds, Peter Hancock writes:

“In the past, the Noongar had two great family groups – the crows (Wardong) and the white cockatoos (Mandich) – and for a crow to marry a crow or a cockatoo to marry a cockatoo was regarded as incest and severely punished.”

A very brief search on Black Swan and Dreaming stories place Black Swans (initially White, like their cygnets?) on the side of the Crows and in opposition to Eaglehawk. See material from K Langloh Parker ‘Australian Legendary Tales’ – and note link from feathers to Flannel Flowers (& Sun as Woman) – at

More research needed. Check Daisy Bates materials e.g.


There is much more to be said on these themes. Briefly, it is time for a new sense of ‘taste’ – a sense which is bi-culturally balanced and which regards First Peoples methods of classifying, naming, and knowledge of ‘things’ as an essential part of what counts as adequate forms of representation. The privileging of European forms at the expense of those of First Peoples is drawing to a close.

This shift is already underway with a renewed interest, on a formal level, with ‘ontology’ – and a more down-to-earth movement in other parts of life.


  1. Locate the Swan River area on the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) map of indigenous languages of
  2. Check out and note the sub-entry “Indigenous Australia’
  3. Follow the link on ‘Noongar People’ at the Wikipedia sub-entry on Indigenous Australia
  4. Check out indigenous words for Swan at Daisy Bates Online”

Further reading:
Continue reading “Black Swan Song v ‘Modern’ Certainty”