Introduction to Aboriginal Sydney

Much of what we know about the lives and cultures of the people of the Sydney region before British colonisation comes from many sources.

Garrigarrang: Sea Country exhibition #2

Garrigarrang: Sea Country exhibition #2
Photographer: Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

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.

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 used in the Aboriginal People of the Sydney region section of this website.

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.

'The natives on the sea-coast are those with whom we happened to be the most acquainted. Fish is their chief support.' Judge Advocate and Captain David Collins, 1798

* Shell middens are archaeological deposits in which shells are the dominant visible cultural items. They are the location of campsites and 'dinner-time' camps, and the shells are principally the remains of past meals.

Dr Val Attenbrow , Principal Research Scientist
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