A Narcotic from Nicotiana ingulba, used by the Desert Bindibu
Chewing of a true Tobacco in Central Australia

Donald F. Thomson
O.B.E., D.SC., PH.D.
Department of Anthropology, University of Melbourne

Man, vol. 61, 1961, pp. 5-8

[5] In an article on smoking and smoking pipes in North Queensland and Arnhem Land, published in Man1 more than 20 years ago, I recorded the fact that the use of tobacco was of long standing among the aborigines of Cape York Peninsula as well as in Arnhem Land. I pointed out that it was always smoked and not chewed, and that I had never seen tobacco chewed by an aborigine despite the precedent that must have been established in the long contacts of these people with seafaring men. In the same article I contrasted this use of tobacco exclusively for smoking with the practice among certain other aborigines of northern Australia, especially in parts of central and western Queensland, of chewing leaves of the pituri, Duboisia hopwoodii, F. Muell., a plant with narcotic properties, now well known as the source of the drug hyoscine.

During the expedition to the Bindibu tribe in the desert of central Western Australia in 1957 which was the subject of a recent article in Man, the practice of these people of preparing a chewing quid from a true native tobacco, Nicotiana ingulba, J. M. Black, was studied. That this plant [6] possesses powerful narcotic properties was suggested by observation of the behaviour of a group of Bindibu men- particularly young men-who were addicted to the chew of Nicotiana ingulba, prepared by them as described in this paper.

A preliminary note on the Bindibu country was incorporated in a previous article on the discovery of a sandal in use by these people in the remote desert west and north of Lake Mackay, where they have survived and retained their primitive culture away from contact with the white man.

In 1957, just over 40 Bindibu people from the surrounding desert visited Labbi Labbi Rock Hole where the expedition was based, and many of them stayed there for several weeks. As soon as the confidence of these people had been won, I accompanied them on food-gathering expeditions among the sand dunes in the desert, as well as in Hidden Valley below the rocky escarpment of Red Cliff Pound. When the natives were hunting on the sand dunes I noticed that they would pick bunches of the young branches of a species of Grevillea that grew on the slopes of the dunes. The purpose for which these fresh leafy branchlets, grey or green in colour, were intended, was not apparent at first, but later the natives were seen to burn the leaves to produce a white ash which they used in preparing the chewing quid. The leaves of only one Grevillea appeared to be used for this purpose, but unfortunately, in the absence of the inflorescence, for which I searched in vain, the species of this plant could not be determined.

As we neared camp on return from a hunting expedition, two or three of the younger men would break away and visit a patch of low alluvial ground where the tobacco grew in profusion. The plants were about nine or ten inches tall, and the flowers showed the typical floral character of this genus-white, with long tubular corolla. The men would collect large bunches of these tobacco plants, most of them in full flower or just setting seed, uprooting the entire plant complete with tap root.

Preparation of Chewing Ball

The quid or ball, prepared from Nicotiana ingulba- called männagärrätta by the Bindibu-for the extraction of the narcotic juices by chewing. was prepared in the following way.

The freshly gathered tobacco was carried back to camp where the men would at once sit down and make a fire. They then swept clean a patch of sand in front of them, smoothing it with their hands, or, if stone was available, they often laid a sheet of flat, stratified stone on the ground and placed the tobacco on this, but sometimes the broad, deeply concave surface of a spear-thrower (llänguro) would serve as a palette. One of the men would now cram enough of the Nicotiana plants into his mouth to fill it, chewing the material until it formed a compact ball or quid. Meanwhile his assistants took the young green branches of the Grevillea that they had collected while hunting on the dunes, and lighted these, holding the burning leaves over the smooth patch of sand, the stone, or the concave face of the spear-thrower, to catch the white ash that fell. The man who had been chewing the tobacco now removed the quid from his mouth and rolled it in the white ash produced by burning Grevillea leaves, working the ash in until it thoroughly impregnated the tobacco. The last of the precious ash would be collected carefully by mopping it up with one finger so that none was lost. The quid was now chewed in turn by each of the men who had assisted in collecting the material and making the quid, each retaining it in his mouth for a short time, showing by his facial expressions and grimaces that the tobacco was burning his mouth. It is probable that the addition of the alkaline ash serves to accelerate the narcotic action of the nicotine and at the same time irritates the mucous membrane of the mouth. After chewing it for a short time, each man either passed the quid on to another sitting nearby, or tucked it behind his ear, where it was carried when not in use.

Fig. 1 - Preparation of Tobacco in Camp. Nicotiana ingulba, called männagrträtta by the Bindibu, in course of preparation in camp at Labbi Labbi. Centre, a smooth slab of sedimentary rock, used to receive the white mineral ash obtained by burning the young green leaves, freshly gathered, of a species of Grevillea. Left centre, entire tobacco plants as they are gathered, and on the right of these, the quid after preliminary chewing, ready to be rolled in the white ash which can be seen in the central foreground. Extreme right, the leaves of the Grevillea from which this ash is obtained.

On several occasions I had noticed Bindibu men gathering the branches of the Grevillea in the way which I have described without understanding its purpose until I followed them to the place where they were accustomed to collect the tobacco. It was only after I had watched the little group prepare the quid of tobacco and pass it around to one another that I realized the extent to which some of these people were addicted to the habit of chewing. It was evident, after I had seen the natives gathering the leaves of the Grevillea-which they often carried for an hour or more, before making a detour to collect the tobacco itself- that the hunters derived a considerable amount of satisfaction from swallowing the juice produced by chewing the prepared ball of tobacco. Soon after chewing, the men, who had returned tired from their hunting in the hot sands of the desert, would recline in a resting position on their [7] elbows or loll on the ground in attitudes of relaxation. And, invariably, when they returned to camp, with the tobacco and the gleanings from their food quest, they would devote themselves to the preparation of the chewing quid in preference to the less laborious and seemingly more immediate task of cooking food.

In an article published in the British Medical Journal,2 Professor J. H. Burn, of the Chair of Pharmacology in Oxford, discussed the effect of nicotine injected intravenously in man. He concluded that the absorption of nicotine is associated with coronary disease, or at least with the restriction of coronary circulation. Professor Burn also recorded the observation that the power to destroy nicotine after absorption by the human body-either by intravenous injection or by the inhalation of tobacco smoke-became progressively less with advancing age. By coincidence, addiction to the chewing of tobacco among the Bindibu, or among the restricted population that I met in the desert in 1957, appeared to be greater among the younger, more active men, and I do not remember having seen any of the old men chewing.

Professor F. H. Shaw of the Chair of Pharmacology in the University of Melbourne has informed me that the action on the partially chewed quid of Nicotiana of the white ash obtained by burning leaves of the Grevillea is to convert the alkaloid salt into a base. In addition, the absorption through a mucosal surface, i.e. the lining of the mouth, would be aided by the alkalinity of the ash. In its altered form, nicotine is probably more rapidly absorbed into the human body. The practice of using lime in the preparation of green betel nut for chewing is widely known among the natives of New Guinea and the Pacific, but it is of interest to discover a technique such as the use of a specially prepared wood ash by the Bindibu in the remote interior of Australia, to achieve the same purpose and apparently developed independently.

The pattern of chewing the Nicotiana plant to extract the juice which was then swallowed, rather than smoking the leaf; was new to me in Australia, and, as I pointed out in the paper on tobacco and smoking pipes on Cape York and in Arnhein Land, in those areas tobacco was always smoked, never chewed. This may appear the more unusual, at least on the southern boundaries of the territories mentioned, since the chewing of pituri had long been practised there and the pattern of chewing might have been expected to extend to tobacco.

When I first noticed the chewing of tobacco among the Bindibu I was ready to accept this custom as evidence of culture contact with neighbouring tribes. But later experience with these people, supported by the discovery that none of the natives at Labbi Labbi had ever visited a cattle or mission station, and that they possessed no clothing, nor any iron tools, and had no neighbours on the eastern side of their territory, confirmed the belief that they had remained in isolation far out in the desert. On my return from the expedition I found a reference by David Carnegie3 to the preparation by natives in the western desert of a quid made for chewing from a plant that he did not identify but which can only have been the Nicotiana discussed in this paper. Carnegie described the manufacture of the chewing ball and the addition of white ash produced by burning the young silvery leaves of a Grevillea, that left no doubt as to its identity.

Addiction and Ritual Aspects of Chewing and Smoking

Observation on the behaviour of the tobacco-chewing groups among the Bindibu, with whom I lived in close proximity for some months, led to the conclusion that the chewing of the Nicotiana quid described in this paper was practised under a compulsion or craving which appeared to have a physiological rather than social basis. The urge to chew would begin to manifest itself when the hunting party was far out on the dunes and while the men were still engaged in hunting. One or more of the hunters would be seen to gather the green branches of the Grevillea from which ash would later be obtained. And these leaves might well have to be carried for hours before the group returned to camp, when two or three men would make a detour to collect the tobacco plants. Invariably, as I have pointed out, the preparation of the chewing quid would take precedence over the preparation of the food-such as reptiles or vegetable food-brought back by the party.

Although two or three men would assist in the actual manufacture of the quid for chewing, and this would later be handed to others, not all the Bindibu men were addicts, and it could not be said that the tobacco was chewed by all those sitting near as would occur if the practice had been of great social value, and as certainly would be the case with a smoking pipe in Arnhem Land. The social or ritual aspect of tobacco-smoking, wherever it occurs among aborigines, is high, apart from the narcotic or stimulant aspect, which, however, is not to be underestimated. I have described the ceremonial presentation of fire as a prelude to readmission to the social life of a group.4 This occurs invariably after a long period of separation and may even happen after an absence of only a few days. Even at the time when the paper to which I refer was written and the people of the Edward River were living under tribal conditions, tobacco would be produced and smoked, if any was available, as a ritual adjunct to the presentation of fire. I have stressed the importance of the ritual aspect of the smoking of tobacco in Arnhem Land, notably on the critical occasion of my first approach to the warlike Dai'i-speaking people of Blue Mud Bay in camp on the Koolatong River where I made the first important contact with a big group of natives in terms of the commission with which I had been entrusted by the Commonwealth Government.5 I have made these references to the importance of the ritual aspect of the smoking of tobacco in Northern Australia to make clear the distinction between the social aspect of smoking and the essentially physiological addiction to the chewing of native tobacco in the desert.

The success of my own contacts with the people of far east Arnhem Land-then uncontrolled-and their acceptance of me, to the extent that I lived and travelled with them, generally unarmed, for years, was in large part due to respect that I showed for their patterns of behaviour and etiquette. The place of tobacco and tobacco pipes in the [8] prolonged bandying of kinship terms-a necessary prelude to the sorting-out of behaviour patterns-cannot be over-stressed. Nothing approaching this ritual attitude could be found in the usage by the Bindibu of tobacco for chewing, where, as I have said, there appears still to be a predominantly physiological basis that contrasted with the social and prestige value of the smoking of tobacco in North Queensland and Arnhem Land.


1) Donald F. Thomson, 'Notes on the Smoking Pipes of North Queensland and the Northern Territory of Australia,' Man, 1939, 76.

2) J. H. Burn, M.D., F.R.S., 'Antiduretic Effect of Nicotine and its Implications,' B. Med.J., 21 July, 1951, pp. 199-201.

3) David Carnegie, Spinifex and Sand, 1898, p. 265.

4) Donald F. Thomson, 'Ceremonial Presentation of Fire in North Queensland,' Man, 1932, 198.

5) Donald F. Thomson, 'Explorations among an Unknown People,' Geog. J., Vol. CXIII (1949), p. 24.