Contemporary paediatric practices of Australian Aboriginal men and women, in more than 100 Aboriginal Language Groups, comprise a living discipline whose origins predate Western medicine by tens of millennia. The history of paediatrics acknowledges this surviving continuum of the world’s oldest child-care practices. Because of the inextricable nexus between Aboriginal men and women and the land in which they live, medical ethnobotany forms a major part of the medical aspects of Aboriginal child care. Traditional tribal healers, called ‘Nungungi’ in some language groups of Central Australia, are identified as such whilst still young children and are given special education in the healing arts, especially that of medical ethnobotany, by older healers. Distinct from this specialized role, all Aboriginal men and women (and in particular grandmothers) in traditional communities use a sophisticated botanical materia medica in the treatment of sick and injured children.
In cultures in transition, medical ethnobotanical practices may persist long after the local use of flora as sources of traditional food, weaponry, totemic identity and religious rites have disappeared. Some selected botanical ‘cures’ were adopted by early European settlers and a number of such relict uses have become part of mainstream Western life today, particularly as this applies to self-medication. Drugs and medicaments used in the treatment of children are obtained from leaves, bark, roots and flowers, usually as fresh preparations. They are prepared as infusions, decoctions and macerations and may be enjoined with emollients such as emu or kangaroo fat for topical application. Botanical drugs and medicaments are usually prepared fresh for each administration and are rarely stored. Contemporary Australian ethnobotany exploits the medicinal properties of more than 100 genera – using such extracts as antiseptics, analgesics, astringents, antipyretics, sedatives, hypnotics, expectorants and carminatives. Their widespread use, by the world’s oldest surviving cultures, reflect perhaps 50 millennia of acute observation and clinical interpretation, trial and error, serendipidity and experimentation.
Australian medical ethnobotany generally, and that used specifically for children, is characterized by several features including
(i) the multipurpose or ‘broad-spectrum’ use of many floral species;
(ii) a paradigm of the use of botanical material to treat symptoms and symptom-complexes rather than disease-based treatment;
(iii) the widespread and universal medical knowledge of botanical remedies by all members of local Aboriginal communities, not only traditional community or tribal healers and
(iv) the use of botanical material in the context of preventive medicine.
Seventy per cent of the world’s population uses traditional herbal remedies in the treatment of sick or injured children. In this context, the detailed and extensive ethnobotanical pharmacopoeia of the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia holds an important place.