Deadly dining out

Hover over or click on the coloured fish and shellfish below to find out more about what is hidden in a midden

By Shane Ingrey

I know some spots around Sydney where you can look at a dinner plate thousands of years old. Places where family feeds have been “documented” over millennia, layer upon fascinating layer.  Middens are places that show where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been eating – and the secrets they reveal could help us all be healthier if we tried.

Before the arrival of the British, my ancestors had an impressive diet and ate regularly at some beautiful waterfront locations. Their health and fitness was one to envy, mainly due to their diet.

Sure, you had to go out and hunt or collect your food yourself, but it was worth the effort. How do we know that this diet was high quality? Looking through a window in time at shell middens, using the tools of science.

Middens are sites that contain the physical leftovers of up hundreds of thousands of meals that generations of communities have enjoyed together. Middens were places where local people camp, meet and eat together, as they’ve done for thousands of generations. The most common midden around coastal areas is the shell midden. It is mainly (as the name suggests) made up of shells from shellfish but also contains animal bones, stone tools, evidence of cooking fireplaces, fishing technology such as shell fish hooks and sometimes even burials.

Fancy a midden picnic?

The places where middens are found are more than likely the scenic places that you visit today with your family and friends. You just didn’t know it! As a family, we would always go to certain beaches or areas for fishing and diving with Dad. As a young fulla I never knew why we always went to these particular spots, but most times we would catch something to eat. Looking back now I realise that there were always middens located close by. Middens are found around coastal areas in or on rock overhangs, along beaches, in the frontal sand dunes, along rivers, lakes creeks and waterholes. They are found today in places you wouldn’t expect such as your backyard garden, golf courses – even under houses where past landscapes have been changed.

Middens are usually contained in dark to black soil with a concentration of brittle white shells, shiny or shaped stones and or bones. In the cases of beach or dune middens they will be found on top of or within a sandy dune back from the water’s edge. The views from these locations are the most spectacular and probably the same places that people take snaps for Instagram or Snapchat, watch the sun rise or the spots that you will possibly propose or get married at. Your local coastal picnic area, your favourite fishing, diving or swimming spots, or people’s favourite scenic water-edge walking track will possibly have evidence of a midden. Whatever it may be, middens are almost certainly present everywhere around coastal areas.


Do not disturb

If you come across a midden you can look but don’t touch. It’s actually illegal to disturb a midden by walking over it, picking up, digging or removing material from a site without permission. If in doubt, contact your local Aboriginal Land Council, National Parks and Wildlife Services or Local Council for advice.


Sometimes middens are hard to find. Care has to be taken when treading around coastal sites.

Dharawal Country: The McCue midden

Located on Dharawal country at Quibray Bay, along the shores of Botany Bay, is the McCue midden, a site of local, state and national significance because of the riches it holds. The Gweagal family groups of Botany Bay have long congregated here for cultural ceremonies, food gathering or family meals. Situated on the journey out to Kurnell, along Captain Cook Drive, the McCue midden is one of the largest undisturbed midden sites in Sydney. It was uncovered underneath a four metre shifted sand dune in 2001. This midden is a part of a much larger cultural landscape that links a number of clan groups around Botany Bay and the Sutherland shire.


  • In 2001, the McCue Midden was uncovered and excavated by La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, La Perouse community members and archaeologists.
  • Using scientific dating techniques, it is thought to have been used continuously for nearly 2000 years between 30C.E.-1850C.E., possibly over 100 generations.
  • The undisturbed section of midden was about 30,000 square metres with the original midden being much greater in size.
  • It is estimated that the excavated portion represents about 0.1 percent of the total midden area.
  • Cultural remains recovered from the excavation include over 600 kilograms of shell, nearly 10 000 pieces of animal and fish bone, almost 500 stone artefacts and several hearth stones.
  • The most frequent identifiable shellfish species included hercules whelk, cockle, mud and rock oysters.
  • A single concentrated layer of mussel shell was seen, showing a single meal exclusively made up of mussels.
  • Identified fish bone found were from grouper, snapper, leather jacket, wrasse, blackfish, jewfish, bream, shark and flathead.
  • Mammal bones included dolphin, spotted tail quoll, bush rat, dingo, possum and pademelon.
  • The remains of a stone lined hearth (fireplace) were located among a shell lens – a layer of shell in the midden – and consisted of up to seven sandstone pieces in a circular fireplace pattern.

Dr Shane Ingrey is a Dunghutti/Dharawal man and a research fellow at CABAH.

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