The Grey-headed Flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus … Greek polios, ‘grey’, cephalus, ‘head’) lives in a big colony near Tocal. I have been thinking about them lately as bats and viruses have been in the news.
The history of human interaction with Flying foxes is a curious mixture ranging from chiroptophobia (fear of bats), to forms of material and spiritual adulation.
The eating of bats by Australian and Polynesian people was common prior to European colonisation and Burnam Burnam in his account of Indigenous life in Australia relates that:
“A special delicacy prized on the menus of all the indigenous people of the South Pacific … was flying foxes, which were either speared or knocked down with clubs or boomerangs from the trees and collected as they fell to the ground.“
Clearly, as Indigenous people have been resident in what is now called Australia for over 80,000 years, there appeared to be no special issue with the eating of fruit bats.
The proximity to live bats in colonies of many thousands while hunting them and the exposure to their recently deceased bodies (saliva, urine, blood) when collecting and eating them (often raw in PNG) must have put humans at risk of deadly disease, if such disease was rife during that historical span.
There is, however, no cultural record of a prohibition relating to bats because of “sickness” or death resulting from eating them (as far as I know).
Indigenous people in other parts of Australia do have prohibitions concerning fruit bats, but they relate to spiritual, not material issues.
Men, in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie region of NSW revered bats and had totemic protection on both the micro-bats and the flying foxes. In the early 19th century the Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld recorded many of the traditional beliefs of the Awabakal people of this region and the relationship between flying foxes and men is particularly important.
For the Awabakal, it was believed that after death, old men transformed into flying foxes and that as a consequence to kill a flying fox would be an offence to their culture.
The grey visage of a flying fox does bear some similarity to an aged male, human face.
There is a deep wisdom etched into their faces. Maybe our current fear of them is upside-down?