Eels ( Japun )

Eel from the Barron River. c.1945

Fish provided a very important source of animal protein. The seasonal variation in rivers, creeks and lagoons due to the wet and dry seasons were linked to corresponding cycles in the fish population. The Aborigines were intimately aware of these cycles and made use of them to their advantage. They also greatly enjoyed the pastime of fishing.

Non-Aboriginal explorers in the region soon recognised the importance of one particular food source in this category: the eel. In 1886, Christie Palmerston made a journal entry '..August 25..I saw eels today the length of a man's leg and equal to a man's thigh in thickness.'

Lumholtz (1889:17) also noted that eels were a great delicacy among the people of the Herbert Gorge, while Roth (1984/1901b) included in his writings a number of methods for catching eels, as distinct from fish in general.

More recently, George Watson of the Mamu-speaking people of the Dyirbal language group, recalled how, early in this century, ten or more people could get a good meal from one big eel. As a food source for the rainforest Aborigines, the eel was of special significance. Sometimes the eel bones were made into ornaments and charms.

Pedley (1992) p.58


Eel traps were usually a little over six feet long, tubular in shape and made of closely woven lawyer cane, and about a foot in diameter. They were placed in rapids or narrow passages between waterholes, held in place by rocks, and other nearby passages blocked as much as possible. There was no bait, the idea was to catch the eels moving from one waterhole to another, which they did frequently. The drill was to sneak up quietly at daylight to see if there was an eel or turtle in the trap, it was then stood on end by a piece of cane attached to the open end so the creature was unable to get out.

Short (1988) p.59


Eels also had a particular place in the social customs of the Ngadjonji. Dixon (1972:31) has recorded how each tribe was divided into sections, after which people were named. These sections also outlined who could marry whom and each section had a distinctive totem, the Ngadjonji sections included the eel and the hawk.

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