The Pituri Road: Ancient Aboriginal Trading Route

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983

Milky Way viewed in Outback Queensland

The Pituri Road

The tradition of travel is a distinct and important aspect of Aboriginal culture, a central part of life for the traditional owners of Australia prior to European settlement. The scholar Dale Kerwin (2010: 84) has written that “it is a response to the need to renew relationships with the country of ancestral birth and the ritual journey to renew relationships with people across the landscape”.

A fundamental reason for travelling was the trade that took place along routes that criss-crossed the continent, dispersing goods, information, technologies, and culture thousands of kilometres away from their origins. Routes were based on the dreaming paths of Aboriginal nations. Often following coastal estuaries, river systems and catchment areas, they acted as roads which allowed Aboriginal travellers to move deep into the Australian heartland.

The ‘Pituri Road’ was one of the most important, serving as an extensive network of Aboriginal trading routes across the continent.  Pituri is made from leaves of the shrub Duboisia hopwoodii, the most potent of Australian plants containing nicotine. Widely harvested, prepared, traded and chewed by Indigenous people across much of Australia, it has been described as the ‘gold standard’ of Indigenous trading (Brady & Long, 2003). Dominant as a bartering commodity with and within tribal groups, it was considered as equivalent in status to boomerangs, spears, shields, and red ochre.

Pamela Watson (1983: 29) describes the Pituri Road as encompassing “a river system where the headwaters of numerous streams [flowed] into the Gulf of Carpentaria”. This system formed the main trunk route for trade, but trade also flowed along other numerous river systems branching out from the main trunk.

Kerwin (2010: 87) explains that these waterways extended “to the catchment area for the Channel Country, where the tributaries of the south-ward flowing waters of the Diamantina and Georgina Rivers flow. The Diamantina and Georgina Rivers form the floodplains of the Channel Country and Lake Eyre basin. In this area the Finke and other river systems flow south into Central Australia. “

This article explores the extent of the pituri trade across Australia, after beginning with an overview of pituri, its preparation and use. For more information, readers are urged to take a look at Dale Kerwin’s Aboriginal Dreaming Paths and Trading Routes, a key source used in the writing of this article.

Aboriginal trading routes - map
Map displaying the extent of Aboriginal trading routes across Australia.

What is Pituri?

Pituri
Nicotiana suaveolens, sometimes used in central Australia as the active ingredient in pituri.

Pituri – also spelt as pitjuri, pitcheri, pituri, bedgery, petchery and bedourie – is a mixture of leaves and wood ash which was traditionally chewed by Aboriginal Australians before European tobacco replaced it. The term ‘pituri’ is also used by to refer to the shrubs and trees that are the sources of the leaf and ash.

The leaves are gathered from the shrub Duboisia hopwoodii, a narrow-leafed plant belonging to the solanaceae family. It is similar to native tobaccos across Australia, which were also chewed in wads or smoked, but is the most potent of those plants. Its nicotine content is up to 8%, four times more potent than that found in commercial tobacco. Wood from various species of Acacia, Grevillea and Eucalyptus are burned to produce the ash.

Duboisia hopwoodii / Mark Marathon / CC BY-SA 3.0

Knowledge of how to process pituri had a sacred ritual significance, understood only by specific Aboriginal groups or clans, and usage was most likely restricted to olden men (Greenhalgh et al. 2020). Traditionally it was prepared by drying the leaves and stems in sand ovens and crushing them into small flakes, before being packed into specially designed netted bags for trading. Prior to chewing, the dried pituri would be mixed with the ash which has an alkaline effect, facilitating the release of nicotine from the plant so it could be absorbed more readily through the mouth wall.

The mixture was chewed into a thick brown-grey paste, which could then be bound together in a small quid (a roll about the size and shape of a cigarette), making it easier to transport and trade. The quid could be chewed from time to time and held behind the lower lip or cheek for long periods. In this way the nicotine was readily absorbed through the blood vessels of the thin skin.

What was Pituri used for?

Although no early record exists of Aboriginal people describing what chewing pituri did for them, the nicotine would have had two major effects. The drug first acts as a stimulant, boosting certain chemicals in the brain. After sustained use, however, the brain becomes temporarily exhausted, unable to maintain these heightened levels of chemicals, and so nicotine begins to act as a depressant and in high doses may have a hallucinogenic effect and induce stupor or trance.

Written observations by early European explorers confirm these effects. In their view, Aboriginals used it to achieve two main objectives: to energize themselves and thus alleviate physical stress; and in some cases, to achieve a state that was seemingly drunk or drugged.

Taking it could fulfil practical purposes (Greenhalgh et. al 2020). As a stimulant, it made Aboriginals feel brave in the face off warfare and staved off hunger and increased endurance and stamina for long journeys over hundreds of kilometres. One boy, for example, was recorded to have supposedly walked two days with no other sustenance (Low 1987: 238). In larger quantities, it served as a painkiller.

Its hallucinogenic effect undoubtedly helped the elders of a tribe maintain their position. By taking it they claimed they could communicate with the spirits of their ancestors and forecast the future. Meanwhile, due to the mood-enhancing effects of the nicotine, the sharing of pituri also symbolised and facilitated social bonding.

Aboriginal people also used pituri for catching game, as the alkaloids nicotine and nor-nicotine contained within are poisonous for animals. Kerwin (2010: 88) explains: “Dried and crushed pituri put into a waterhole would stupefy game once they drank, so it would be easy to catch. Game such as emu, parrots, and wallabies were caught in this manner.”

The Pituri Trade

Although Duboisia hopwoodii grows naturally in large parts of the desert areas of southern and western Australia, the most sought-after pituri was prepared in south-western Queensland. It is considered likely that the leaves from the plants growing in this region were favoured because they contained nicotine in a less immediately toxic form.

The pituri road began in the Channel Country at Bedourie and travelled to Birdsville, the Lower Diamantina, Goyders Lagoon, Mungeranie, and Kopperamanna, where the pituri was then distributed in many directions. Low (1987: 257-60) and Watson (1983: 303-311) suggest that  it was traded over an area of more than 550,000 square kilometres as far north as the Gulf of Carpentaria, south to Lake Eyre, east to the mid-region of Queensland, and west into the Northern Territory to the area where Alice Springs is now located.

Approximate Area of Pituri Trade

Kerwin (2010: 88) notes that Aboriginals from the West Darling travelled as far as the Birdsville Track to obtain supplies from southbound traders. In Autumn, other customers, often numbering as many as 500, received their pituri from a main centre at Goyder’s Lagoon when supplies were brought down from the north. Traders carried their bags of pituri on foot along the Musgrave and Everald Ranges to Ooldea and to Lake Nash through Arltunga, along Harts Range from Alice Springs. It also moved southwards from Alice Springs with the movement of water to Lake Eyre.

Lake Eyre
Lake Eyre, South Australia

The main Pituri Road is estimated to have been over 3,800 kilometres in length, running the length of the interior of Queensland, across New South Wales and beyond Lake Eyre, and could be older than the Silk Road, the Incense Road, the Inca Roads, and other ancient trade routes. Pituri was produced and traded in such considerable volumes that harvesting it would have demanded specialised skills and knowledge of the techniques used to maximise cropping and maintain the highest levels of nicotine.

These traditional methods of cultivation and preparation were lost however in the decades following European colonisation. When the first white settlers moved into the producing areas of south-western Queensland, a significant disruption of Aboriginal community life occurred, and the people suffered major losses to disease and violence, as they did elsewhere in Australia.

Nevertheless, the pituri plant is still consumed today by Aboriginal people throughout the Channel Country. Particularly when resources are scarce, it is used as a substitute for European tobacco, or mixed with the tobacco to make it go further.

Tour of Aboriginal Trade Routes

Odyssey Traveller has drawn on ancient Aboriginal trading paths like the Pituri Road in designing our tours of Australia. From our escorted tour of Aboriginal World Heritage Sites in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, to our tour of the spectacular scenery of Kakadu National Park, and even our Marvellous Melbourne tour, we take the time to learn about the ancient history of our destination, showing how the places we encounter were at the heart of pre-settlement Aboriginal lifeways.

Travellers with an interest in learning more about the Aboriginal heritage of Australia may want to check out our various outback Australia tours. These include visits to:

Odyssey Traveller has been designing international tours for mature and senior travellers since 1983, with an emphasis on educational tours, designed to give you an in-depth experience of your travel destination. We are now pleased to announce that we are running fifteen new tours of Australia. An Odyssey guided tour is not your typical Australia vacation – Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Harbour and iconic Uluru (Ayers Rock) – but a chance to get off the beaten path. On one Australia tour we explore stunning coastline on a trip around the Eyre Peninsula – better than Bondi Beach, Byron Bay or the Gold Coast, and without any of the crowds of the East Coast! Another small group tour sees us explore Adelaide and surrounds, making a day tour to beautiful Kangaroo Island. Or why not choose our tour of the Kimberley, on the remote north west coast, for your next Australia trip?

Our tours are really small group tours, generally including 6-12 travellers accompanied by an expert tour operator/tour guide. The tour package price generally includes accommodation, transport in a comfortable vehicle, access to attractions, and several meals, to give you the opportunity to get to know the rest of your small group tour passengers.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Australia:

We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

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