On this page...
This project researched the rich and complex culture of Aboriginal people in the Port Jackson region, revealing continuing importance and connections.
Port Jackson archaeology project
The findings of Australian Museum archaeologist Dr Val Attenbrow's Port Jackson Archaeology Project, and research undertaken for her book, Sydney's Aboriginal Past, provide a basis for the material for Aboriginal People of the Sydney region webpage.
These sources include: written descriptions, oral histories, drawn and painted illustrations as well as objects collected by the earliest colonists and visitors to Port Jackson in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as the archaeological record.
When the British arrived in January 1788, there were more than 1500 Aboriginal people living in the area from Botany Bay to Broken Bay and as far west as Parramatta. They belonged to many clans including the the Gadigal, Wangal, Wallumedegal, Boromedegal, Gamaragal, Borogegal, Birrabirragal and Gayamaygal. They spoke languages now known as Darug, Dharawal and possibly Guringai. To the south-west Gundungurra and to the north-west of the Hawkesbury River Darginung was spoken.
Fish and fishing were an important part of life although a range of marine and land animals as well as plant foods provided a varied diet for people living near the coast.
Archaeological research on sites such as Aboriginal rock engravings and shell middens* along with the excavated artefacts and food remains provide a record of the distant past.
Using these sources, it is possible to bring together a picture of the changing life of Aboriginal people in the Sydney region over many thousands of years.
Statement of Tuhbowgule Nangamay
It is the current generations that ultimately hold the responsibility and honour of maintaining Aboriginal culture around Sydney Harbour. This statement by members of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council makes clear
"It is the current generations that ultimately hold the responsibility and honour of maintaining Aboriginal culture around Sydney Harbour and ensuring that the natural presence, restoration, interpretation and beauty of Aboriginal culture be continued through the dreaming.
It is therefore our duty to educate our community within to ensure that the traditional pathways of knowledge are passed on and interpreted by our people in genuine Aboriginal cultural environments. We see this as having inseparable sustainable relationships within all elements of 'Tuhbowgule'.
We seek to protect the cultural sites of 'Tuhbowgule' through conservation, restoration and maintenance programs. We will achieve this by active participation in natural resource and environmental, cultural heritage and interpretive tourism industries.
We will strive to demonstrate and promote Sydney Aboriginal culture and heritage as a living and evolving culture, one which is expressed in traditional and contemporary ways, honouring the past, celebrating the present and securing the future 'spirit of place'.
The vision ensures all Australians and visitors are rewarded by the 'Tuhbowgule' experience. It is hoped that by providing a cultural platform, which promotes gestures of goodwill, harmony and reconciliation, people will be able to identify, feel and connect with 'Tuhbowgule' and its 'Nangamay'."
Jenny Munro and Allen Madden - Metropolitan
Local Aboriginal Land Council - June 2000
Apart from William Dawes, who we know gained much of his information about the language of coastal Sydney directly from Aboriginal people (in particular a woman, Patyegorang), Aboriginal sources are not given for the place names listed in most documents. However, a comment by Captain Watkin Tench suggests that place names in Vocabulary 1790-1792 may have come from Arabanoo, a man who was originally called 'Manly' by the British.
By the 1820s few of the original inhabitants of the shores of lower Port Jackson remained in the area, and most people who camped around these shores from this time on appear to be from other areas. It is possible that some names recorded in documents written after 1820 were provided by people who did not speak the Port Jackson dialects, and who perhaps gave these places their own names.
The names recorded are principally those of the bays and headlands and other landscape features around the shorelines. There would have been Aboriginal names for places in all parts of the country. Those place names that were recorded may simply reflect the focus of interest for the first British surveyors and administrators as they were mapping the country.
The Aboriginal place names used on this site come from historical documents and publications dating from 1788 to1899.
It is only after the 1870s that the names Darug, Dharawal, Darginung and Gundungurra were used by pioneer anthropologists and linguists to refer to the languages spoken in the Sydney and surrounding regions, and only in 1970 that the name Guringai (originally used in 1892 to refer to people living between Port Macquarie in the north to Bulli in the south) was used for a language of the Sydney region.
Spelling variations occur throughout the historical literature and through to the present. This site uses the spellings listed below, which follow the linguistic conventions used by linguist Jakelin Troy (1993), but also provides a number of different spellings for each language group and clan as documented between 1788-1800.
Language groups: Darginung, Darug, Dharawal, Gundungurra, Guringai. There were at least two dialects in the Darug language: a coastal dialect spoken between Botany Bay and Port Jackson, and a hinterland dialect to the west on the Cumberland Plain. A separate language Guringai may have been spoken north of Port Jackson or possibly another Darug dialect. Dharawal was spoken south of Botany Bay and west as far as the Georges River, and Darginung to the north-west of the Hawkesbury River.
Language group name: Darginung
Other spellings: Darkinung (Mathews 1897); Darkiñung (Mathews 1903); Darginyung (Capell 1970).
Language group name: Darug
Other spellings: Dhar'-ook (Mathews and Everitt 1900); Dharrook (Mathews and Everitt 1900); Dhar'rook (Mathews 1901a, 1902); Dharruk (Mathews 1901b, 1903, Capell 1970); Dharook (Capell 1970); Dharuk (Capell 1970: Map 1).
Language group name: Dharawal
Other spellings: Turuwal (Ridley 1875, 1878); Thurrawal (Mathews and Everitt 1900, Mathews 1901a, 1901b, 1903, Capell 1970); Thur'rawal (Mathews 1902); Dharawal (Capell 1970, Eades 1976).
Language group name: Gundungurra
Other spellings: Gundungurra (Mathews 1901a, 1903, Mathews and Everitt 1900, Capell 1970); Gun'dungur'ra (Mathews 1901a, 1902); Gun'-dung-ur'ra (Mathews & Everitt 1900).
Language group name: Guringai
Kurig-gai (Fraser 1892a, 1892b; Thorpe 1913); Kuringgai (Fraser 1892a; Capell 1970); Kurringgai (Fraser 1892a, 1892b); Kuring-gai (Fraser 1892b, Appendix 10); Kurring-gai (Fraser 1892b); Guringai (Capell 1970).
Coast and coastal hinterland
For the purposes of the Port Jackson Archaeological project, this research was derived from, the coastal zone was defined as the land within 29-30 km of the coastline.
The coastal zone includes the ocean shoreline, Port Jackson, Broken Bay, Port Hacking and Botany Bay, and the estuarine reaches of the different rivers running into these bays. It also includes the land adjacent to the waters.
The coastal hinterland extends west from the limits of estuarine conditions as far as the foot of the Blue Mountains escarpment.
Estuarine conditions exist along the Parramatta River and Georges River for about 29 km from the coast. Along the Hawkesbury River the boundary between coastal and hinterland is around 29-30 km from the coast, even though the tidal influences extend much further. The boundary is placed here because upstream of this point shellfish no longer grow in large numbers and could not contribute substantially to the diet of Aboriginal people in this area.
Fishing & fishing gear
Both men and women caught fish but each used different equipment: men used multi-pronged fishing spears, called fizz-gigs by British colonists, while women used a hook and line. The men fished from rock platforms and canoes while the women fished only from canoes.
Shell fishhooks were first used along the New South Wales central and south coasts around 900 years ago. Their introduction would have led to substantial changes in the food-gathering patterns of both men and women during this period.
Fishing equipment was designed to be portable - it was lightweight and most objects were small in size. The principal fishing kit consisted of spears for the men and hooks, lines and sinkers for the women. Both men and women used net bags or bark baskets to carry equipment and the fish caught. Both fished from canoes, although the men also fished from rock platforms and in shallow waters.
'While fishing, the women generally sing; and I have often seen them in their canoes chewing muscles or cockles, or boiled fish, which they spit into the water as a bait.' Collins, 1798 [1975:461]
Food from the sea: mammals and birds
Marine mammals (seals, dugongs, dolphins and whales), sea-birds and possibly turtles were all eaten by Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney.
Whales, seals and dolphins are regular visitors to Sydney Harbour, particularly between June and October. Whales have been known to beach themselves along the Sydney coastline and in the past people probably kept watch for these events as they enabled large numbers of people to gather and feast.
Dugong bones unearthed at Sheas Creek in St Peters in the 1880s, which have 'cut marks and scars' on their surface, suggest the animal was butchered probably for food.
Seal bones found in coastal shell middens suggest that these animals were probably hunted by Aboriginal people. The small amounts of seal bone recovered in the excavations, however, suggest seal was either not a major food item, or was butchered and/or eaten away from campsites. The bones are probably those of the Australian Fur Seal, Arctocephalus pusillus. Before the mid 1800s, when European hunting killed thousands of seals, numerous colonies extended along the New South Wales coast to just north of Newcastle.
The local name for one of the seals was Wan yea-waur and that for dolphin or 'porpoise' was Bar-ru-wall u-re.
Archaeological material from shell middens at Balmoral Beach and Cammeray on Sydney Harbour, suggest that turtles may have been captured and eaten. Turtles, such as the Green Turtle Chelonia mydas, Leatherback Turtle Dermochelys coriacea and the Loggerhead Turtle Caretta caretta, visit Sydney's estuaries but none of them are common visitors.
Bones found in archaeological sites suggest birds such as Short-tailed Shearwaters Puffinus tenuirostris, also known as muttonbirds, Little Penguins Eudyptula minor, and petrels may have been eaten.
Short-tailed Shearwaters arrive on Australia's east coast in September to breed and stay until January each year. In September they return from the northern hemisphere and large numbers of birds, exhausted from the long flight, wash up on the shore. Such birds may have been a source of food. Their bones were used as points and barbs for prongs of fishing spears.
Food from the sea: shellfish and crustaceans
Aboriginal People of coastal Sydney collected and ate many different types of shellfish and crustaceans.
Among the early historical observation of shellfish being cooked and eaten, and scattered around the huts, there are few descriptions of shellfish collecting. However, the few observations that mention the gender of the collector or carrier of the shellfish indicate men as well as women were involved in collecting shellfish in the Sydney region.
Shellfish were collected by hand from rock platforms as well as the sandy and muddy intertidal shorelines of the coast and estuaries. In Botany Bay Captain Cook saw people were in canoes collecting shellfish by hand from the sand and mud banks in shallow waters.
Oysters (probably both mud and rock oyster, though this is not specifically stated), mussels, cockles and limpets were the only species named. The local names of only a few shellfish were recorded: Dal-gal mussel, Dotang-by a rock oyster, Dainia oyster, and Kah-dien 'the shell on the wo-mar-ra or spearthrower', which could be one of several cockles.
Analysis of the shell species found in excavated shell middens indicate that people living around Sydney Harbour, Botany Bay and Broken Bay, most commonly ate Rock Oysters Saccostrea glomerata, Hairy Mussels Trichomya hirsuta and Sydney Cockles Anadara trapezia. Mud Oysters Ostrea angasi and Hercules Club Whelks Pyrazus ebeninus were also relatively common.
Along the ocean coastlines, there is a greater range of shellfish in the shell middens. Limpets Cellana tramoserica and Black Nerita Nerita atramentosa are the most common species, with Cartrut Dicathais orbita and Turbans Turbo torquata and Turbo undulata and Spengler's Triton Cabestana spengleri being less common.
In shell middens in the lower parts of Sydney Harbour, Botany Bay and Broken Bay, where ocean conditions exist, both estuarine and ocean species are present.
People living along the upper brackish parts of the Georges and Hawkesbury Rivers were reported to have eaten teredinid or Teredo. Although commonly called shipworms they are a shellfish and not a worm. They are also known as cobra, a name from the local Aboriginal name, cah-bro. They are a marine wood-borer which inhabit trees and logs that have fallen into the water and remain submerged, preferably in still water.
After a trip to the Hawkesbury River (Richmond Hill) in 1790s, Judge Advocate David Collins wrote that a man left;
'behind him a specimen of his food and the delicacy of his stomach; a piece of water-soaked wood (part of the branch of a tree) full of holes, the lodgment of a large worm, named by them cah-bro, and which they extract and eat' (Collins 1798:462)
Collins continued with reference to groups living on the Georges River:
'There is a tribe of natives dwelling inland, who, from the circumstance of their eating these loathsome worms, are named Cah-bro-gal.'
The present-day Sydney suburb Cabramatta is named after this area.
Blue Swimmer Crabs Portunus pelagius, Mud Crabs Scylla serrata, Soldier Crabs, Spiny Lobsters or Sea-crayfish Jasus verreauxi, Eastern King Prawn Penaeus plebejus, Eastern School Prawn Metapenaeus maclyeayi and rock barnacles such as the large 'purple plated' Austrobalanus imperator are common in Sydney Harbour. The only crustaceans reported by the colonists to have been eaten were crayfish, which were caught in Port Jackson with small hoop nets. There is no mention at all of prawns, crabs or barnacles being caught or eaten, though the name for crabs, Ke-ra, was recorded.
Archaeological excavations have recovered only small amounts of crab and crayfish remains. The fragility of the exoskeletons, which do not survive well in archaeological deposits, probably explains why only small amounts are found. Barnacles occur in middens, but they may not have been collected for food as they often attached themselves to other shellfish that were eaten.
Whale beachings and feasts
The most common whales that frequent the Sydney coastline are Southern Right Whales and Humpback Whales. On occasion, whales beach themselves along the coast, and were an opportunity for a feast for Aboriginal people in the reg
A whale beached itself in August 1788 on the coast near Botany Bay and another in Sydney Harbour, at Manly Cove, at the end of July 1790. Engraved whales are found on rock platforms along the coast and around the shores of Sydney Harbour, for example at Balls Head, Waverton and Grotto Point at Clontarf.
'September, 1790. On the 7th instant, captain Nepean, of the New South Wales corps, and Mr White, accompanied by little Nanbaree, and a party of men, went in a boat to Manly Cove, intending to land there, and walk on to Broken Bay. On drawing near the shore, a dead whale, in the most disgusting state of putrefaction, was seen lying on the beach, and at least two hundred Indians surrounding it, broiling the flesh on different fires, and feasting on it with the most extravagant marks of greediness and rapture' (Tench 1793:54).
The most common whales that frequent the Sydney coastline are Southern Right Whales, Eubalaena glacialis, which breed off the New South Wales central coast during September-October, and Humpback Whales, Megaptera novaeanglaise which migrate north from the Antarctic seas in winter to breed. In spring the Humpbacks move south again to feed in the Antarctic.
Engraved whales are found on rock platforms along the coast and around the shores of Sydney Harbour, for example at Balls Head, Waverton and Grotto Point at Clontarf.