2,000-Year-Old Moth Meal Discovered in Australia
Cloggs Cave near Buchan, in eastern Victoria's alpine region, is located on ancestral territory of the Gunaikurnai people. This is the location of the first conclusive archaeological evidence of insect food remains found on a stone tool. They are the remnants of an ancient moth.
This discovery not only represents the earliest conclusive archaeological evidence of insect food remains found on a stone artifact anywhere, not just in Australia but in the world, but it also promises to provide fresh insights into traditional Gunaikurnai people’s food and culinary practices.
The Ancient Moth that Sparked a Rebirth
Cloggs Cave was excavated for the first time in 50 years by a team of researchers from Monash University, working with traditional owners from the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Corporation ( GLaWAC). The ancient remains of the Bogong moth were found lying upon a small grinding stone tool that has been dated to 2,000 years old. Gunaikurnai Elder, Russell Mullett, said the discovery of the ancient moth remains provided a deeper understanding of Aboriginal food practices, which includes “oral histories about eating the Bogong moth.”
Gunaikurnai Elder Russell Mullett and Professor Bruno David have been working on a series of excavation projects at sites throughout East Gippsland. (GLaWAC)
Every summer the Bogong moth migrates to Victoria's alpine country from southern Queensland via New South Wales. Cloggs Cave is located 72 meters (236.22 ft.) above sea level and it was seasonally occupied by Gunaikurnai's Krauatungalung clan during the warmer months in East Gippsland.
According to a report on ABC.AU the Gunaikurnai people travelled to the high country to feast on the billions of fat, protein packed moths, when other animal food supplies and resources were slack. Mr. Mullett said his ancestors developed a range of different moth meals including “cooking them in a fire or grinding them into cakes or paste, which could then be smoked and preserved for weeks.”
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For at least 2,000 years, said Mr. Mullet, this ancient grindstone has, “been sitting idle with a story to tell and a single artefact has sparked the rebirth of knowledge to help tell the stories of my people.”
The ancient moth remains were discovered on the Cloggs Cave grindstone. (A) Surface A, with the accretion that formed across parts of the surface after its use. (B) Surface B. (C) Margin A. (D) Margin B. (E) Narrow end. The numbers in circles are the residue sample numbers; the ‘control’ samples are in areas where grinding did not take place. (Richard Fullagar)
2000 Years of Moth Meals
According to Monash University Archaeologist Professor Bruno David in a University article, the conditions inside the limestone cave helped preserve the Bogong moth remains. He told the Independent that the cool ambient temperature made the soils more alkaline and less acidic, and this means they're perfectly suited to preserve organic materials. Applying a seldom used analysis technique known as “biochemical staining” the grinding stone tool and the moth remains were set on a microscope slide and stained with a special dye that makes collagen and proteins [crushed-up insect remains] within rock fluorescent, therefore, easier to identify.
Professor David said the results of the moth analysis have “opened our eyes up to ancient food cultures.” The study shows how indigenous people travelled and interacted with different landscapes at different times of the year for the lasty 2,000 years. And putting this timeframe into historical context, 2000 years represents about 80 generations of Gunaikurnai people. However, the Bogong moth is now so rare that Victorians have been encouraged to report sightings of Bogong moths as part of its citizen science Moth Tracker initiative.
Fall of the Mighty Ruler of the Night
How did the numbers of Bogong moths come from countless billions only 2000 years ago, to virtually none left today? Professor David had a go at answering this question and he said a range of contributing factors were at play to cause this sharp decline.
Thousands of moths per square meter estivating on a rock surface. (Eric Warrant)
Firstly, looking at the “human factor,” the researcher explained that perhaps the number one reason for the species demise was modern agricultural pesticides, which he said “are becoming a major factor” in the decline of many species. Furthermore, it is known that city lights can disorientate migrating nocturnal moths and they simply “lose their way,” he said. Then, on top of all these manmade pressures, mother nature is compounding the problem with lower amounts of rainfall, and hard winter season droughts.
Top Image: The Bogong moth. Ancient moth remains were found on a 2,000-year-old stone tool in Australia. Source: Ajay Narendra
By Ashley Cowie