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History of Aboriginal Peoples Around Lane Cove


When Europeans arrived in January 1788 to establish their penal colony, there were an estimated 29 Aboriginal clans resident throughout what came to be known as greater Sydney.

They spoke several dialects from two main language groups: Dharug, which encompassed the northern and southern shores of the harbour and extended west to the Blue Mountains; and Dharawal, which began on the southern shores of Kamay (Botany Bay) and extended south to Jervis Bay region.

Aborigine people in Lane Cove

The northern shoreline of Sydney Harbour, from east of the Lane Cove River (Turranburra) around to Manly Cove (Kayeemy), was historically occupied by the Cammeraygal clan, from where we get the suburb name Cammeray.

The west bank of Lane Cove River and the region from Woolwich peninsula (Moco Boula) inland to Ryde, including the north shore of Parramatta River, was occupied by the Wallumedegal, named after the Dharug word for snapper fish, Wallumai.

Northwards, around the upper reaches of the Lane Cove River and throughout the forested hills and valleys of the upper North Shore around Killara (meaning ‘permanent’), the Durramurragal clans ranged - this is where we get the suburb name Turramurra, meaning “big hill”.

Despite the vast distances between them, overlapping clans of what is now called the Eora Nation of the greater Sydney region understood each other, sharing common words that enabled communication and facilitated social and ceremonial gatherings.

There were extensive trade networks up and down the coast for necessary items that might be accessible in one region but harder to come by in another, such as ochre for ceremonies, bone for tools and bark canoes for fishing.

Smallpox Scourge for Aborigine People

Tragically, all this came to a calamitous halt shortly after the arrival of Europeans. In April 1789, smallpox broke out among the Indigenous populations surrounding Sydney Harbour. Oral reports reveal it quite likely started around Balmoral Cove, Mosman. There is a compelling argument that it was introduced into the Indigenous community via deliberately contaminated blankets – Aboriginal witnesses describe receiving bedding with distinctive Royal Navy markings, perhaps issued by rogue Marines.

Smallpox had a devastating effect on Aboriginal communities, who, with no immunity, died rapidly. Sydney’s first governor, Arthur Phillip, estimated that half the Aboriginal populations living around Sydney Cove succumbed, but historians have since revised the figure upwards to between 60 to 90 per cent fatalities.

Thereafter, when survivors fled inland to escape the deadly contagion, which, horrifically, enabled smallpox to spread further, the greater Sydney region was sparsely populated. Although Indigenous peoples continued to interact with the expanding British settlements in Sydney Cove and Parramatta – and were (until the 1860s gold rushes brought thousands more immigrants) highly important to the colonial economy in the fishing, whaling and hunting industries – their language, traditions and dwellings almost faded from history.

Lately there has been a concerted effort to preserve Aboriginal Australia, identify and maintain important sites, resurrect forgotten languages and understand cultural practices.

Indigenous sites of interest

Evidence of Aboriginal peoples around Lane Cove and other sites of interest are scattered all over greater Sydney - testament to an adaptable, complex culture that survived - indeed thrived - for tens of thousands of years in harsh and often life-threatening rugged terrain.

For years undiscovered, or kept secret to deter vandals, many of them are now marked on maps for curious explorers to visit and appreciate.

These include: camp sites, social areas, shell middens, scarred trees (from bark removed to makes canoes or coolamon carrying bowls), carved trees (spiritual markings, often totemic or adjacent to a grave), ceremonial grounds (now known as Bora sites, taken from the Kamilaroi word for ‘ritual’), rock engravings (notifying important fishing and hunting areas, tribal markings or spiritual symbols), fish traps (stones placed on tidal reaches where fish swim in at high tide but cannot swim out when the tide recedes), burial grounds, grinding grooves (for tool sharpening, often at the edge of streams), quarries, rock shelters, ochre pits (for digestive medicine, sunburn protection and treatment of insect bites), seed grinding stones (flat stones worn into bowls for grinding acacia, grass, kurrajong and wattle seeds to flour for dampers), scattered artefacts, paintings and stencils.

An estimated 6,000 Indigenous engravings and assorted artistic pieces were once spread throughout greater Sydney. However, through a combination of vandalism and ignorance, many have been destroyed as industry, infrastructure and houses were built.

Where the Aboriginal peoples around Lane Cove once had designated custodians to re-groove ancient and often totemic carvings in rock faces, with the decimation of the Aboriginal peoples, those traditions have vanished over the last two centuries.

Many of the current rock carvings are slowly but irretrievably being worn away by wind, sand, rain and sea erosion and a significant proportion will be lost over the next decade. But in our guide on page 10 (Issue #4), you can visit sites of interest in and around Lane Cove district to get a greater understanding of how they lived in the not-too-distant past.

Painting of aborgine people in Lane Cove


Photo captions

Aborigines Spearing Fish, Others Diving for Crayfish, a Party Seated beside a Fire Cooking Fish. Joseph Lycett, 1817, National Library of Australia

Fishing by Torchlight, Other Aborigines beside Camp Fires Cooking Fish. Joseph Lycett, 1817, National Library of Australia


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