Fruits of the sea

To the peo­ple of Arn­hem Land, shell­fish and other sea crea­tures nour­ish a link to coun­try and cul­ture.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY DAVID HAN­COCK

To the peo­ple of Arn­hem Land, seafood is a link to coun­try and cul­ture.

WHEN THE YOL­NGU of north-east­ern Arn­hem Land look to the sea, they know the sea­son from the di­rec­tion and feel of the wind. One thing the wind com­mu­ni­cates, they say, is when cer­tain may­pal are plump and ready to be gath­ered. The term may­pal cov­ers many ma­rine and some ter­res­trial crea­tures that have sus­tained gen­er­a­tions of Yol­ngu for mil­len­nia. In one sense it means shellf ish. But may­pal in­clude foods non-Indige­nous Aus­tralians might not con­sider to be in that cat­e­gory, such as land snails, ma­rine worms and in­sect lar­vae, in­clud­ing witch­etty grubs. May­pal are fun­da­men­tal to Yol­ngu cul­ture. They are tasty and easy to har­vest; just go down to the beach or among the man­groves. And they sus­tain coastal peo­ple not only phys­i­cally, but also spir­i­tu­ally and emo­tion­ally.

Huge mid­dens of shells along Aus­tralia’s north­ern coast­line at­test to the pop­u­lar­ity of may­pal: in some ar­eas mid­dens more than 30m high date back many thou­sands of years.

“In the north of Aus­tralia, we have an in­cred­i­bly var­ied, rich and com­plex coast­line, with a large num­ber of eco­log­i­cal zones,” says Dr Bent­ley James, a North­ern Territory an­thro­pol­o­gist and lin­guist who lived in Arn­hem Land for many years. “There are more than 1500km of coast­line on the main­land and an­other 1750km on the is­lands, not to mention all the reefs and sand bars.”

He says the Yol­ngu recog­nise 15 eco­log­i­cal zones in­hab­ited by 110 species of may­pal. These are de­scribed by about 350 dif­fer­ent Yol­ngu names with com­plex lay­ers of kin­ship and con­nect­ed­ness en­tail­ing a highly so­phis­ti­cated view of the nat­u­ral world. Most may­pal have mul­ti­ple names in dif­fer­ent clan lan­guages and are cel­e­brated in songs and tra­di­tional lore.

SO-CALLED IN­CREASE RITUALS prac­tised by the many coastal clans en­sure the fe­cun­dity of may­pal, en­hanc­ing their fat­ness and abun­dance in the com­ing sea­son. Ac­cord­ing to Yol­ngu woman Doris Yethun Bu­rar­rwanga from El­cho Island,

“As the sea­sons change we think of the old peo­ple, the an­ces­tors, we think of gath­er­ing may­pal.”– Djalu Gur­ruwiwi, Yol­ngu Elder

may­pal pro­vide bal­anced nu­tri­tion and “ev­ery­thing a young per­son needs to grow… That is why chil­dren in coastal home­land cen­tres have the best teeth in the coun­try and inf initely bet­ter health out­comes in the long term.”

These kinds of shellf ish and other in­ver­te­brate sources of pro­tein are much loved by the lo­cal peo­ple, she says. “We sing for them. We care for them… We eat them and cel­e­brate them and, in re­turn, they give us life.”

Doris says may­pal are a cru­cial part of life by the sea for Abo­rig­i­nal kids, not just as a sup­ple­ment to their diet, but also be­cause they pro­vide “a spir­i­tual link and a phys­i­cal and nu­tri­tious re­con­nec­tion with coun­try and kin”.

Bent­ley re­cently col­lab­o­rated with Yol­ngu peo­ple to com­pile a bilin­gual iden­ti­fi­ca­tion guide to may­pal. The knowl­edge was col­lected from con­ver­sa­tions with tra­di­tional own­ers over many years. Dur­ing the process, “we had to f ind the may­pal, catch them, cook them, eat them and name them”, he says. “It was a great joy in­volv­ing fam­i­lies from so many places.”

The book, en­ti­tled May­pal, May­ali’ Ga Wäa: Shell­fish, Mean­ing and Place: a Yol­ngu Bilin­gual Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Guide to Shell­fish of North East Arn­hem Land (NAILSMA, 2016), de­scribes may­pal in three lan­guages: Yol­ngu Matha, English and Latin.

The process of pub­lish­ing the book was con­sis­tent with the Yol­ngu way and lore, Bent­ley notes. More than 500 peo­ple across seven lan­guage groups were in­volved, rang­ing from tod­dlers to nona­ge­nar­i­ans. The book will be dis­trib­uted to schools in Arn­hem Land and among eight ranger pro­grams and even­tu­ally be given to li­braries across Aus­tralia.

It of­fers lo­cal chil­dren “an op­por­tu­nity to know the full spec­trum of rare names and eco­log­i­cal knowl­edge of shellf ish, hith­erto kept safe by a tiny pop­u­la­tion”, Bent­ley says. “This knowl­edge stretches over thou­sands of years from one side of Arn­hem Land to the other – from the east­ern sun­rise over Blue Mud Bay to sun­set west of the Crocodile Is­lands.”

The book is a gift to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, he adds, “to help chil­dren walk in the foot­steps of the an­ces­tors”.

As well as be­ing nu­tri­tious, may­pal – shell­fish and some land in­ver­te­brates – pro­vide spir­i­tual links to gen­er­a­tions past and fu­ture. This spiky chi­ton, known as galkiarr, is a pop­u­lar snack that’s read­ily gath­ered along the Arn­hem Land coast.

A Yol­ngu man plucks a mud mus­sel, sought-af­ter food known as a dhan’pala, from the sub­strate around the roots of man­groves in the in­ter­tidal zone in north­ern Aus­tralia. Her­mit crabs (be­low), called gonjiya, are also a nu­tri­tious food com­mon in man­groves. The lesser long­bum (bot­tom) is a type of ed­i­ble mud whelk, known by the Yol­ngu as barawara.

Doris Yethun Bu­rar­rwanga (right) has suc­cess find­ing long­bums, called walawuny and nonda by the Yol­ngu, in the man­groves of Ban’thula on El­cho Island, off the Arn­hem Land coast. Nu­tri­tious var­ie­gated venus clams, known as war­ra­pal (be­low), and spiky chi­tons (bot­tom), are also found in the same area’s in­ter­tidal zone.

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