The Aborigines Had Penicillin Thousands of Years Before We Did

Brad West shows us boomerangs at Cape Otway Lighthouse.
Brad West shows us boomerangs at Cape Otway Lighthouse.

Our day of hiking today on the Great Ocean Road took us to an iconic lighthouse near where for years, many ships found themselves beached on reefs. It’s called the Shipwreck coast and today, the once crucial lighthouse is no longer illuminated, replaced by a simple solar-powered light that’s much less impressive. My guide, Greg told me he worked her for a few months guiding the tourists and

telling the story of the Cape Otway Light, and the background of the WWII radar bunker and the signal flags that are still flown from the big flagpoles that look out on this ferocious sea. “If you traveled far, far in that direction, you’d hit Antarctica,” Greg said.

We ducked down a path through the woods, into a canopy of vines and came upon an Aborigine hut. Inside we met Brad West, who was reading the sports section, b

ut was happy to jump up and welcome us. He’s an interpretive guide here, and he showed us to a table where five vario

us-sized boomerangs were laid out, along with clubs, hook-shaped pieces of wood, and behind him, an array of spears.  “This one was used to take down kangaroos and wallabies,” he said, holding the biggest of the boomerangs. I asked him what everyone wonders when the see these ancient Aborigine devices: Do they come back when you fly them?

“They can, but it would be tough to catch this one, because it’s sharpened on the edges and would hurt coming back at you,” he said. They used to hit the animals while they were on the run, cutting out their giant outstretched legs, and then they’d club them to death. He picked up a smaller boomerang, and said it was used to nail ducks while they flew. He explained that the boomerang would curve around and hit them from the side, as they were flying, and I wondered how the hell anyone could hit a flying bird with a curved piece of wood. “People weren’t as distracted as they are now,” Brad explained. “They had to learn how to do this, they didn’t have cellphones to waste time on…and they spent hours learning how, since they had to eat!”

We moved outside to a plant with bulbous yellow inch-long fruit, that he said was called a kangaroo apple. When it’s ripe it’s an orangish red color he said. The plant also emits estrogen when it fully matures, and the indigenous peoples knew enough to use it as one of the earliest forms of birth control.  Then he showed us another plant, that when we tasted it had a salty taste. This was used to season fish and eels, to make them taste better.

To catch said eels, he pointed to a crude basket trap made of woven reeds. “They would set a bunch of these in a stream, and pile up rocks so the eels and fish all had to swim into them. Then they’d go take a nap and when they came back it would be full of fish.” People weren’t as distracted as they are now, nothing except perfecting these crafts, and after lots and lots of practice, they’d get good at it.

He told a story about another bush, this one’s leaves were tucked up into the cheek to give someone more energy. “A man came here and asked me if it was sort of like Viagra, and I told him yeah, that might be an effect. The man grabbed a bunch only to have his wife come up and berate him, telling him to stop picking that man’s plants! When his wife’s back was turned and they were leaving, I handed him a bunch to take with him.”

Tonight when I arrived at the Aire Valley Guest House, proprietor Martin Tunley told me that Aborigines also knew of a plant that had the same properties as penicillin. “So that many thousands of years ago, before we ever had it, they had the miracle drug of penicillin!”