The Jirrbal - A Rainforest Aboriginal People


In north-eastern Queensland, between Cardwell and Cooktown, lies the largest area of natural rainforest in Australia. The southern part of this region with the neighbouring tract of open forest is the traditional territory of the Aboriginal people who speak the six languages shown on the map – Girramay, Jirrbal, Mamu, Djiru, Gulngay and Ngajan. The speakers of these languages consider themselves to belong to separate tribes, although linguistically they can be considered dialects of one language group. To simply the diversity here all these tribal groups will be referred to as Jirrbal people. Today many people who speak Jirrbal and Girramay live at Jambun Community at Murray Upper.

Click here to view language map


The home of the Jirrbal people stretched from the Coral Sea to the mountain ranges and the tableland plateaus beyond, and included many river valleys and associated lagoons and swamps. Structurally, the mountains are composed predominantly of granitic and metamorphic rocks, while the plateaus are basaltic. Rivers flow down from the ranges frequently through steeply incised valleys with numerous waterfalls. The coastal plain and valleys are alluvial: the Tully and Murray Rivers flow between broad sandbanks as they approach the sea.

Davidson Valley Landscape


A tropical climate is experienced by this region with a highly seasonal patten. Temperatures range from about 37° to approximately 5° C on the eastern coast, and become cooler as the ranges are ascended. Frosts occur in winter on the tablelands and an average annual rainfall of over 200 mm, the highest in Australia, is experienced on the coast, with some places receiving up to 400 mm and over. Most of this rain falls between January and April which is also the season when destructive tropical cyclones may occur.


Before Europeans began to explore and exploit this region, tropical rainforest was the dominat natural vegetation. The rainforest which survives today is being studied by botanists and seems to vary in structure with differences in altitude and exposure, soil type and soil draingage, and rainfall. Tall deciduous or rain-green trees dominate the closed canopy and there are few low growing herbs or shrubs except where there have been disturbances. There are many vines and woody lianas which entwine around tree trunks and climb up to the canopy. The lawyer canes, Calamus spp., with their inescapable prickles are found frequently. They provided our people with the raw materials for cane baskets as well as being a source of food. They bear berries which our people eat raw while sections of cane are more commonly roasted to eat. Roasted cane has a taste similar to strong flavoured celery. A number of vines found in the rainforest bear edible fruit; guyu (Pothos longipes) bears a bright red berry which must be roasted before being eaten.

There are many different types of plants in the rainforest. Botanists have described over nine hundred species of trees between Townsville and Cape Flattery. Single species seldom dominate even small areas so that it may be necessary to walk considerable distances to find more than one or two individuals of a single species. An exception to this is the black bean, mirrany (Castanospermum austral) a major source of food for the Jirrbal people in times past. Along the Murray River today, for example, lies an area of forest which has not been exploited for timber. In this area, approximately 2000 m long and about 30 m wide, are to be found over fifty fully grown black bean trees.

Mirrany - Black Bean
Processing the Black Bean


Many different types of animals in Australia are found in North Queensland’s wet tropical rainforests. The mammal fauna includes the two monotremes, platypus and echidna; 37 marsupials, such as the four ringtail possums and tree-climbing kangaroo; 16 rodents, including one of Australia’s largest rodents, the white-tailed rat; and 34 species of bats. The largest and most diverse group of vertebrates is that of the birds, including the cassowary and the two mound-building birds, the scrub-hen and the scrub-turkey, both of which lay their eggs in huge mounds of rotting vegetation which they have scratched together. The heat from the decomposition incubates the eggs. Twenty-three percent of Australia’s reptile species occur here; there are over 35 species of snakes.

Walguy - Taipan
Gumbian - Echidna


It has been noted that a marked seasonal climate is experienced. During the wet season flooding occurs from time to time and swamps are inundated with water. Movements of fish and other animals take place and various lagoons are replenished. During the following cooler period non-permanent streams slowly dry up and lagoons diminish as the drier and hotter season progresses. The Jirrbal people possess an intimate knowledge of the seasonal variations in these water sources and their potential as larders containing fish, turtles and other foods.

They also have a detailed knowledge of when particular foods are ready to eat and where in their territory to find them. A system of ‘markers’ assists in this, for example, a rush grass, jindarigan (Lomandra longifolia), flowers when it is time to dig out the scrub-hen eggs and a plant commonly called ‘dog foot’, gudamurran (Balanophora fungosa), grows when the carpet snakes are fat. They also know the location of springs which are still to be tapped along the foot of the mountains of the Upper Murray Valley providing welcome fresh water even in the driest season.

Jindarigan - Rush Grass

Gudamurran - Dog Foot

Jirrbal culture: the food quest

The only Australian Aboriginal culture which could be described as a true rainforest culture, was located in the region roughly extending from Cooktown to Cardwell and the Jirrbal people are representative survivors. They retain knowledge passed down through the generations, often in unbroken tradition.

Before European contact the rainforest Aborigines enjoyed a lifestyle based on hunting, gathering and fishing to satisfy day to day needs. They gathered a wide variety of plants, using nuts, seeds, fruits, leaves and stems, roots and tubers, some of which were eaten raw and others cooked or processed in various ways. One of the distinctive cultural traits of the rainforest people was the regular and frequent use of poisonous plants as food resourcesl In other societies such foods were only occasionally utilised, but the Jirrbal people used sophisticated methods of detoxification for a number of different plant foods on a regular basis.

They also gathered the eggs of the scrub-hens, scrub-turkeys and other birds in season. The scrub-hen lays a number of eggs and each one can be three times as heavy as the egg of a domestic hen. Since these megapods share their nesting mounds, many eggs may be found in each. Cayley notes a case where 48 scrub-turkey eggs were taken from one mound.

(CAYLEY, N.W., 1973, What bird is that?, Angus & Robertson, Sydney).

Their gathering activities also extended to invertebrates. At the appropriate time witchetty grubs were cut out from rotting fallen trees (one witchetty grub contains as much protein as a pork chop) and honey gathered from native bees provided a much relished sweet delicacy.

While the women, accompanied by the children, usually gathered nuts and fruits, dug the yams and processed the toxic fruits, the men frequently pursued hunting activities. This included catching most of the animals available, often in specialised ways: wallabies were speared and trees were climbed to seek out possums, and to find carpet snakes sleeping in lofty ferns. Nooses made from lawyer cane were devised for catching goannas and nets made from fibre obtained from the inner bark of particular fig trees were used to trap scrub-turkeys.

Both women and men engaged in various methods of fishing depending on the season. Simple methods included the catching of freshwater prawns by throwing up handfuls of leaves from the river onto the bank and grabbing the prawns as they scurried out.

More sophisticated techniques included the stupefication of fish in quiet pools. Particular plant such as a gilbajin (Jagera psuedorhus) were known to stun fish if the leaves or other parts were crushed and placed in a dilly-bag in water which was not flowing. The stunned fish then floated up to the surface and were gathered up. Long traps for eel were woven from the split lawyer canes. These were set in the waterways with a fence of sticks each side of the mouth of the baskets. The eels had to enter and were promptly trapped.

These hunting and gathering activities ensured that, like Aborigines adapted to the varied environments which prevailed over the rest of Australia, the Jirrbal people were “masters of stoneage economics…having a healthier, more nutritious diet than have many Europeans today’

(FLOOD, J., 1989, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, Collins, Brisbane).

Jirrbal society

Economic activities were interwoven with social activities. The Jirrbal people lived together in extended family groups which moved around their own areas, but which came together for larger gatherings at certain times of the year. At these corroborees or brun, people from all six dialect groups might meet for social interaction which included dances, fights and the settling of disputes and differences.

They had a kinship system whereby each person was to marry someone not from their own generation, but from a generation above or below. This marriage rule worked with a fourfold section system. Everyone belonged to one of the four sections and could only marry someone from a different section; their children were automatically members of a third.

The social system was rich and complex. The oral tradition encouraged the passing on, through the generations, of knowledge about the local area. This included knowledge essential to survival, such as when to gather particular foods and how to prepare them for eating. Knowledge significant for spiritual life included many stories which surrounded every part of the landscape, explaining the locations and formations of every rock, valley, mountain and waterfall.

Society was egalitarian, the elderly people being respected for their wisdom and experience. A man with extensive knowledge of the environment and customs of the tribe could be a gubi (wise man or doctor). He also attempted to heal illnesses in particular ways.


H Pedley – Aboriginal life in the rainforest