Aboriginal Heritage and the Cultural Landscape of the ACT

Photo of rock art

The ACT Government acknowledges the Ngunnawal people as Traditional Custodians of the Canberra region, and their continuing sense of responsibility to preserve the spirit and stories of their ancestors throughout the landscape. Neighbouring nations including the Ngarigo, Wolgalu, Gundungurra, Yuin and Wiradjuri people, also gathered here for ceremony, marriage, trade, seasonal foods and lore.

Archaeological excavation and carbon dating of sites in Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and Namadgi National Park confirm Aboriginal presence in the ACT region 25,000 years ago. Temperatures in the region would have been several degrees lower 25,000 years ago, and similar to the conditions on the summit of Mount Kosciuszko today. Bogong Moths would pass through the area in October on their way from breeding grounds on the plains, up to the mountains to hibernate for the summer. The moths are highly nutritious, easy to collect and were in sufficient numbers to warrant large gatherings. Many Aboriginal people from different clan groups and neighbouring nations gathered here for initiation ceremonies, marriage, corroborees and trade. In fact Jedbinbilla, which means 'a place where boys become men’ in Ngunnawal language, is situated adjacent to Tidbinbilla and was an important place for young boys to learn the first of three stages of man-hood (gatherer, hunter, warrior).

The ACT region is rich with archaeological evidence of Aboriginal occupation, particularly in Namadgi and Tidbinbilla. Archaeological surveys of two of the valley’s main access routes, the Fishing Gap Trail and the path over Devil’s Gap, have found clear evidence of frequent Aboriginal passage. Gibraltar Rocks is a highly significant spiritual site and a corroboree site has been found near the headwaters of Sheedy's Creek. Researchers believe the Tidbinbilla valley floor was the focus of a territorial group that survived on the plentiful supply of possum, ducks, wild turkeys, emus, platypus, kangaroo, fish, yabbies and a range of plants, tubers, seeds and fruit.

When Europeans first arrived in the area in the early 1820s hundreds of Aboriginal people lived here. The population of Aboriginal people increased at various times during the year when people travelled to the region for social gatherings, ceremonies and seasonal food collecting. European settlement had the same impact on Aboriginal communities in the ACT as it did in other parts of Australia. It brought displacement from the land and exposed people to new diseases such as influenza, smallpox and tuberculosis, from which many died.

Aboriginal cultural heritage places are defined as any place of significance under Aboriginal tradition. Aboriginal tradition is defined as observances, customs or beliefs of the people who inhabited Australia before European occupation. It also includes observances, customs and beliefs that have evolved or developed from that tradition since European occupation. This recognises that Aboriginal culture is dynamic and evolving and that Aboriginal heritage encompasses all past and present aspects of Aboriginal life.

Today, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people care for the land they also care for their culture. Working on land management projects not only gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a sense of personal pride, it also affirms their identity through a cultural belonging and connection to the land. This has direct benefits to the health and financial wellbeing of their community.

Country refers to an area to which Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people have a traditional attachment or relationship, and includes the plants, animals, water, air, earth, rocks, stories of their ancestors, and persona of that landscape. People speak on Country and visit, worry about and long for Country. Caring for Country is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concept of natural resource management which includes the nurturing and management of the land as well as the cultural responsibility to protect the sites, values, stories, and ancestral obligations of that Country. Connecting to Country refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being on or remembering Country, acknowledging the specific localised knowledge of that area’s natural and cultural landscape and ancestral stories.

Aboriginal heritage sites found in this region include burial places, campsites, rock shelters (with or without ochre paintings), stone arrangements, scarred trees, ceremonial grounds, grinding grooves, quarries and sacred places. At times, Aboriginal occupation is also evident at early European sites such as historic homesteads, cemeteries, reserves and old bridle tracks and coach roads.

No site should ever be seen in isolation and each site would be connected along a pathway. New sites are often discovered in areas subject to development, or in areas that have been subject to natural events such as fire or drought. Some of these places continue to have traditional significance to contemporary Aboriginal society.

Aboriginal heritage is not just about caring for significant sites in parks or placing artefacts in museums. Aboriginal people need to able to access the land, renew their cultural learning, and be involved in and consulted about the conservation of our natural environment.