The First Inhabitants
It is believed that the Aborigines of Australia first arrived on the continent some 25,000 years ago from southeast Asia, either by canoes, or by the now submerged Saul Shelf which once joined Australia to mainland Asia. At the time of the arrival of the first white explorers, the Aboriginal population was in the vicinity of 300,000. Scattered across the face of the continent, there were some 500 semi-nomadic tribes and sub-tribes, each of which was made up of clans or families. Each tribe had its own language, with dialects of a common language being common where a tribal area was vast. Each clan, comprising of between 20 and 300 people, had its own territory through which it wandered, hunting animals and collecting food before moving camp as the seasons changed and the food supply diminished. Communication between clans was common, particularly for initiation ceremonies and social gatherings, but tribes rarely came together.
The aboriginal people did not have homes. To them, the land itself was their home and everything in it within the bounds of their territory belonged to their tribe or clan as a whole. Caves and overhangs were used as shelters against the elements, and if huts were built, they were not viewed as permanent dwellings, rather as temporary shelters from wind, rain and the sun, built because no natural shelters such as rocks or caves existed in the place where they were. A village of about a dozen such huts stood near the mouth of the Cooks River when Watkins Tench first surveyed the area. He described them as being constructed out of stringybark in the shape of a triangular prism, not tall enough to stand up in but big enough to accommodate four people lying down. The huts were unoccupied but would have been inhabited when their owners revisited the area. Similar huts were found near Lachlan Swamp (Centennial Gardens) where there are also no rock shelters. To them, their fire and their environment had great spiritual significance, and had the same meaning as the home does to today's Australians.
With the exception of pockets of communities in the Northern Territory, the Aborigines had no form of cultivation. Their diet consisted mainly of small animals such as kangaroos, snakes, grubs. etc., supplemented by plant roots and fruits like berries and lilli pilli. The Kuring Gai-speaking tribe which inhabited the Sydney district were blessed with a plenteous supply of seafood. Cockles, crabs and oysters were collected from the rocks and larger fish including stingrays were speared from rocks around the foreshore. Their staple diet of seafood was supplemented by meat from ducks, goannas, possums, wallabies and other small mammals, and a variety of foods derived from the local flora including lilli pill fruit, found in abundance in the rainforests of the harbour foreshores, berries and nectar from banksia flowers. The centre pith of cabbage tree palms were used as a vegetable and orchid tubers were roasted and eaten. Native sarsparilla vines had a double use - as twine in the construction of boats, and brewed for a kind of tea. Grevillieas were also soaked in eater to make a sweet drink. Seeds from various plants were ground on rocks to make flour. The palm-like burrawongs were a great food source and the women took care in soaking, grinding and baking of the nut to remove the poison, and extracted nutritious starch, grubs and resin for glue from grass trees and wattle gums.
The Port Jackson and Broken Bay Aborigines had developed considerable skills in canoe-making, utilising the bark from Bangalay trees to make canoes. The bark was scorched, stripped in one piece, then glued and tied together at both ends. Though effective in the harbours, they were not sea-going craft as they sat very low in the water and could not cope with the rough seas of Broken Bay and the Pacific Ocean. So low did the canoes ride that the first whites saw them, they thought the natives were sitting in the sea as their craft were not visible.
Less aggressive and warlike than some of their inland counterparts, the Kuring Gai-speaking Aborigines used their weapons more for hunting than defense. The boomerang, first described by an amazed Captain Watkins Tench as being 'a large heavy piece of wood shaped like a sable and capable of inflicting a mortal wound', was used to kill or stun small mammals and ducks. A variety of sticks were used in hunting, including the wad (thick stick) and bandy (knob headed club). Guiding (spears), made from the shaft of a grass tree or the long spiral shoot of a yellow gum, were used to catch smaller animals and fish. The nuding was a 3 prong harpoon, the golana a 4 prong fishing gig barbed with bone from a kangaroo or prickle of a stingray glued to the shaft with eucalyptus gum.
Photo: Australian Museum
The yarung was a wooden shield, hardened with fire, that had been cut in one piece out of a section of tree trunk. The yilimury was a bark shield and the dawarang, a smaller parrying shield. Mug (stone axe heads) had a variety of uses - lighting fires, grinding seeds, chopping wood for fires and carving rock art. While the hunting was left to the men, the women collected fruit, dug roots with a Minoan (scraping stone).They also fished, but their fishing was done with a line made by tightly twisting together two evenly laid strands of bark, which was dark in colour and as fine as silk.
Other than their tools and items of clothing worn during winter, their personal belongings were few, among them being the gallium, a contained made from the knot of a tree; the Bangalay, a basket made from a single piece of bark; ngangung, nose and hair ornaments, usually made from bone of shells.
Like all other Aboriginal languages, Kuringgai was not a written language, so there is no tribal record of their history. The only record of Aboriginal culture by the Aboriginal people themselves is contained in their art, found on rocks and in caves across the country. In the Sydney region, some 600 rock art sites have been recorded with over 4,000 separate figures mainly of plants, animals, fish and people, which recall the dreamtime and events from the past.What is recorded about them by the white settlers is very limited since their society quickly broke down after the arrival of white man, and in the perilous early years of the Sydney colony, the focus was on survival rather than recording the culture of the native people. Captain Hunter and Captain Tench made one-on-one word lists, but it is the contribution of Lieut. William Dawes, whose The Vocabulary of the Language of N.S. Wales give the greatest insight into the Kuringgai language and the people who spoke it. Prepared in 1789, they consist of a series of unpublished field notes which document a number of conversations Dawes had with Patyegarang, a native woman.
Whilst anthropologists have followed the pattern of other countries and categorised the various groups of Aborigines as tribes, the tribal names by which the Sydney district Aborigines are known refer more to the localities where the language or language group was spoken rather than ancestry. Around Sydney there were three main groups - Dharug, Kuringgai and Dharawal - each comprising of a number of smaller units called clans or hordes who claimed a common ancestry had their own land area with its sacred sites.
The largest of the groups, the name being spelt in a variety of ways, including Daruk (the name of the land council), Dharug (the National Park) and Dharruk (the suburb). Their territory extended from the Blue Mountains to the coast, but were predominantly in the area we now know as Western Sydney. The name Dharug is actually the native word for Yam, which were an important part of the group's diet. These yams were particularly common on the plains of the Hawksbury-Nepean River system, which is why there was so much trouble between the natives and whites in the 1800s when the new arrivals began clearing the river flats, wiping out the yams for their crops. The coastal Dharug became known as the Eora, not because it was their name, but because of a cross cultural misunderstanding, a situation which still exists. When asked by the whites to identify themselves, the answer given was 'eora', which means 'here'. Capt. Phillip took that to mean that their tribal name was eora, not realising he was being told that they were the local residents from 'around here'! The name Eora is used in historic documents and books to describe all the Aborigines who lived in the area from Broken Bay to Botany Bay and inland as far as Liverpool and Parramatta.
Dharug Clans or Bands
Cadigal / Kadigal - North Head to Five Dock Wangal / Wanegal - Iron Cove, Concord Burramattagal / Burramedigal - Parramatta Wallumattagal / Walumedegal - Milsons Point / Ryde Mura-ora-dial - Maroubra Kurrajong - Sackville / Portland / Kurrajong Muringong (probably Muringal) - Camden district Kameygal - Rockdale / Kyeemagh / Botany Bay Bool-bain-ora - Wentworthville Mulgoa - Penrith Birrabirragal - Watsons Bay / Vaucluse Bediagal - north of Georges River Toogagal - Toongabbie Cabrogal - Cabramatta / Fairfield Burruberongal / Boorooberongal - Richmond / Windsor Cannemegal - Prospect Gomerrigal-Tongara - South Creek Bidjigal - Castle Hill Cattai - Windsor / Middle Hawkesbury
Kuringgai is used to describe the Aborigines who lived between Port Jackson and Broken Bay. For many years it was believed that the Kuringgai were a different tribe and spoke a language different to the Dharug, however today there is considerable doubt about this, the origin of the name Kuringgai having given the biggest clue to the truth. The name Kuringgai is derived from two words; kuri, the name by which the Aboriginal people of South Eastern Australia still refer to themselves; and nggai, which is the possessive suffix. Thus, it seems likely that the name Kuringgai would have been recorded as a result of the Aborigines being asked 'What place is this?' and the whites being given the answer 'belonging to us' or 'our land'. The name Kuringgai was recorded, and in time it would have become a common belief that their language was also Kuringgai. It appears that the naming of the people and their language as Kuringgai could well be the result of another cultural misunderstanding. As recorded history indicates that the Kuringgai communicated freely with the Eora, it seems logical that they were in fact Dharug and spoke the same language, if not a different dialect to the Dharug.
Sydney boys; Joseph Lycett's painting of Natives and the North Shore of Sydney Harbour. Courtesy Mitchell Library
Kuring-Gai Clans or Bands
Cammeraigal / Kameragal - Chatswood / Cammeray to Lane Cove River Terramerragal - Turramurra / St Ives / Terrey Hills. Carigal - Barrenjoey Peninsula / West Head Cannalagal - Mona Vale / Dee Why / Manly Goruaigal - Fig Tree Point Kayimai or Gayimai - Manly Borogegal - Manly area Gorualgal - Crows Nest / Neutral Bay Borogegal-yuruey - Bradleys Head
These people occupied the area between Georges River and Jervis Bay. The tribespeople who encountered Lt. James Cook when he visited Botany Bay in April 1770, were of the Gweagal Clan which was part of the Dharawal language group.
Dharawal Clans or Bands
Gweagal - Kurnell / Caringbah Norongerragal or Nongerragal - Menai / Bangor Threawal - Bong Bong / Southern Highlands Tagary or Tagarai - Royal National Park Illawarra - Wollongong
Many of the following have been recorded over the years as being the sub-clans and tribes which lived in the Sydney basin. In most cases, they were probably not tribal names, rather they described where they came from. The writings of George Proctor, protector of Aborigines in the 1800s, refer to a number of previously unrecorded groups, including the Bidgimangora and Bulladeersyallaway. These were not tribal names, rather descriptive names made up from words of different languages. Bull is Dharug for two; deers is a Scottish originated corruption of days which was in common use at the time; Yalta is Dharug for walk; and away is English. Bulladeersyallaway was in fact not the name of a tribe, but simply identified them as a people who lived two days walk away. Baja in Dharug means flat, ova indicates a place or district, therefore Bidgimangora simply refers to people from the plains, rather than it being a tribal group name.
The Burramattagal, from which the name Parramatta was derived, lived at the head of the Parramatta River. Their name is derived from Burra, meaning beginning; and matte, used to identify a locality in a similar way in which Europeans add suffixes like ton, town and ville to the name of a location. Burramattagal were literally people from the head of the river. The Boorooberongal were people who lived where Richmond is today. An area that was once plentiful with kangaroos, the name describing the people from there refers to them as being 'from the kangaroos'. Bidgigal was a name to describe anyone from flat country (it was used to describe a number of peoples from different areas); the name of the Mulgoa of the Nepean River refers to the black swan found on the river; The name Cannagal, used to describe the North Head people, literally means people of fire. History indicates they burned their environment more often than Aborigines from other areas, perhaps because the nature of the flora in their area, which was scrub and heath, required this be done to keep it habitable.
Bungaree's family drawn by Pavel Mikhailov, 1820
The clan which inhabited the area around Middle Harbour from Clontarf to Manly are recorded as being the Comma, however it is likely they were part of the Cammeraigals (see below), their name being similar, perhaps a shortened version of Cammeraigal. Numbering between 50 to 100 in 1788, they used the caves around Grotto Point and Washaway Bay as shelters, and the beaches from The Spit around to Manly were their seafood hunting ground. Middens can be found at Fisher Bay and Reef Beach. Little else is known of the Comma people except that they were the most hostile of the Port Jackson natives towards the new arrivals. Within 12 months of Phillip's landing at and naming Manly Beach, half of the clan had died through smallpox, a disease introduced by the newcomers to which they had no natural resistance. Within 7 years, the tribe had all but vanished. Collins Beach, in the heart of Comma territory, is where Gov. Phillip was speared by an aborigine. Phillip and Capt. Collins had 7 arrived at the beach to visit their friend Bennelong, who had just returned from walkabout. Three men had died when a whale had overturned a boat in the harbour. The whale had then been washed up on the beach at Manly and killed by the local Aborigines.
As was their custom, the locals had passed the message on to neighboring tribes that a whale had been beached and hundreds of aborigines had arrived to share the feast. As Bennelong was introducing Gov. Phillip to his fellow tribesmen, a West head tribe leader named Wil-le-me-ring mistook Phillip's outstretched arm as a hostile gesture and speared him above the collarbone. Phillip, not wanting to retaliate and cause problems, calmly moved away, and asked Bennelong to take whatever action he felt appropriate. After the incident, the beach was known as Collins Bea ch, after Judge Advocate George Collins who had accompanied Phillip on this occasion. Arabian, a Comma, was reluctantly captured at Manly Cove by Gov. Phillip. He died of smallpox within six months of capture, and appears to have been infected himself when caring for his 'brothers' infected by the disease.
As more and more whites settled the area around Manly, Welling Reserve, designed to protect the local Aboriginal people, was established. Though the shelters at the reserve were familiar to them, being forced to stay in one area was totally foreign to the aborigines, and the idea of a reserve was totally unsatisfactory to them. Within a few years, they were wiped out by the diseases of the white man.