Food from the sea: mammals, birds and turtles

Marine mammals (seals, dugongs, dolphins and whales), sea-birds and possibly turtles were all eaten by Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney.

Humpback Whale

Sally Gleeson/Nature Focus © Australian Museum

Marine mammals

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.

Marine reptiles

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.

Birds

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.


Dr Val Attenbrow , Principal Research Scientist
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Tags living, harbour, people, coastal, sydney, aboriginal, food, sea,