Indigenous food practices

Discovery of ancient Bogong moth remains at Cloggs Cave gives insight into Indigenous food practices

ABC Gippsland / By Jedda Costa

Bogong moths migrate from as far as Queensland each year to alpine NSW and Victoria(Supplied: Ajay Narendra )

Cloggs Cave near Buchan, in eastern Victoria’s alpine region, has long been known by the Gunaikurnai people, but a recent archaeological discovery has opened up a dusty window into more of its history.

Key points:

  • Researchers have discovered ancient Bogong moth remains on a grindstone tool believed to be up to 2,000 years old inside a cave at eastern Victoria

  • It is the first conclusive archaeological evidence of insect food remains found on a stone tool anywhere in the world

  • Traditional owners say the remains provide insight into historic Gunaikurnai food practices


Researchers from Monash University collaborated with traditional owners from the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Corporation (GLaWAC), to excavate the cave for the first time in 50 years, and found microscopic remains of Bogong moth on a small grinding stone tool believed to be up to 2,000 years old.

It is the first conclusive archaeological evidence of insect food remains found on a stone artefact anywhere in the world.

Elder Russell Mullett said the discovery provided a deeper understanding of Aboriginal food practices, that has for so long remained scientifically invisible in Australia.

“We have oral histories about eating the Bogong moth in our culture, but since early settlement a lot of that knowledge has been lost, so it’s exciting to use new technologies to connect with old traditions and customs,” he said.

Gunaikurnai Elder Russell Mullett and Professor Bruno David have been working on a series of excavation projects at sites throughout East Gippsland.(Supplied: GLaWAC)

A rich food source

The moths migrate in their billions from southern Queensland each year, through to New South Wales and eventually land in Victoria’s alpine country to keep cool during the summer.

Gunaikurnai people would travel to the high country to feast on the moths, taking advantage of their large numbers and high fat content which provided a rich food source when other animal food supplies were down.

The Bogong moth is a staple food and major source of protein for several native animals including the endangered Pygmy Possum.(Supplied)

Different methods were used to create meals out of the moths, including cooking them in a fire or grinding them into cakes or paste, which could then be smoked and preserved for weeks.

“For 2,000 years this 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,” Mr Mullett said.

“It’s critical for First Nations input into these projects because these remains are our properties, so we should make the decisions about how they’re managed, who has access to them and what happens with them.”

Biochemical staining proves a reliable method in archaeology

Cloggs Cave is located 72 metres above sea level and was seasonally occupied by Gunaikurnai’s Krauatungalung clan during the warmer months in East Gippsland.

According to Monash University Archaeologist Professor Bruno David, the conditions inside the cave aided with the preservation of the Bogong moth remains.

“It’s a limestone cave which means the temperature is cool and so rather than being acidic, the soils are alkaline — perfect to preserve organic materials,” he said.

The grinding stone tool and the moth remains were examined using a unique method called biochemical staining — a technique not often used around the world.

Microscopic Bogong moth remains were found on a small grindstone that would have been carried by traditional owners during their travels.(Supplied: Richard Fullager)

Some of the residues on the stone were extracted, placed on a microscope slide and stained with a special dye which turned fluorescent, helping scientists to identify the collagen and proteins [crushed-up insect remains] in the hollows of the rock.

The successful discovery has encouraged the team to use the staining method at other excavation sites around Gippsland.

“It’s opened our eyes up to ancient food cultures, how Indigenous people travelled and interacted with different landscapes and country for over 2,000 years — that’s about 80 generations of Gunaikurnai people,” Professor David said.

Collaboration key to uncovering unknown histories and monitoring moths

The cave was first excavated in 1972 without the input of traditional owners, which Mr Mullett and Mr David agreed was counterproductive to telling Indigenous stories.

A team of researchers from Monash University collaborated with the Gunaikurnai community in an effort to intertwine cultural knowledge with science.(Supplied: GLaWAC)

“GLaWAC initiated this project with us because of their unique knowledges of their lands … Aboriginal people know their cultures better than anyone else — that’s why listening and good partnership is so important because it’s not up to us to tell people what to do with their histories,” Professor David said.

“We often associate foods with different countries like frog legs in France, spaghetti with Italy … so to not have Aboriginal insect food on the archaeological record would be downplaying deep community histories in Australia.

“Food is an expression of culture and Aboriginal people coordinated social gatherings and feasts with the arrival of Bogong moths … these findings are dots along a story line, connecting past with the present.”

But present-day figures have seen a dramatic drop in Bogong moth numbers around alpine areas from around 8.8 billion to just a few individuals in 2017 according to Landcare Australia.

Professor David said a range of contributing factors were at play.

“Pollution containing pesticides has become a problem, low rainfall and drought during winter, but also lights in the city, tend to disorientate the moths [because they migrate at night time] and it causes them to lose their way,” he said.

Victorians have been encouraged to report sightings of Bogong moths on the Zoos Victoria website as part of its citizen science Moth Tracker initiative.

The information gathered will provide data to experts about population numbers, locations and migration timing in a bid to help bridge knowledge gaps about the native insect.