Ku-ring-gai Aborigines – the non-existent tribe that left a rich legacy
By ALEC SMART
The Aboriginal clans of Sydney’s Upper North Shore were driven out by Europeans and their history and culture ignored. But worst of all, their tribal name was invented for them.
The original inhabitants of Ku-ring-gai area, the Aboriginal people from whom the name was derived, are recorded as the Kuringgai or Guringgai peoples. This name has been given to the local government area, libraries, government institutions, schools, a suburb, Australia’s third-oldest national park and countless clubs and sporting venues.
And yet the Kuringgai tribes probably never existed.
Certainly, prior to late-19th century musings by European academics, the word was not in use by the last remaining Indigenous occupants of what is now Ku-ring-gai area: the Darramurragal clan (aka Terramerragal, from which Turramurra – meaning ‘big hill’ - is derived) and neighbouring Garigal people (encompassing the upper Northern Beaches, including Pittwater and Broken Bay. Garigal mans ‘meeting place’).
‘Kuringgai/Guringai’ (spellings are varied) was coined in 1892 by a poorly-researched and plagiarising anthropologist named John Fraser (1834-1904), who, by his own admission, relied on “ten years thought” rather than verifiable data from Indigenous sources to create his fictitious ‘tribe’.
Fraser was aware of the Guringay peoples north of Newcastle, who spoke their own language and whose traditional lands stretch between the Hunter and Manning rivers. But he made a giant leap of logic and claimed they were one super-tribe that stretched all the way to Sydney Harbour.
Successive colonial academics further expanded on Fraser’s poor research and theorised the Kuringgai super-tribe occupied a region that encompassed the whole of Sydney’s upper north shore, including the northern beaches. However, they couldn’t agree if the Kuringgai’s territory stretched as far northwards as Port Stephens near Newcastle, or only to the lower Hawkesbury River.
A 2015 report by the Aboriginal Heritage Office, titled Filling a Void: A Review of the Historical Context for the use of the Word ‘Guringai’ - much of it sourced from Australian Museum archaeologist Val Attenbrow’s excellent and thoroughly-researched book Sydney’s Aboriginal Past (second edition 2010) - concluded “it seems clear from the available evidence that the early Europeans did not record a discrete and widely understood name for the language or tribe of the area nor for other parts of the region.
“The first use of the word ‘Guringai’ is over a hundred years after the arrival of the First Fleet… it is based on a nineteenth century fiction… It is not authentic to the area, it was coined by a non-Aboriginal person and it gives a misleading impression of the connectivity of some original clan boundaries..”
Although most of the Indigenous Darramurragal and Garigal hunter-gatherer peoples of, respectively, Sydney’s upper North Shore and upper Northern Beaches, were either driven from the area by European settlers or succumbed to the deadly smallpox epidemic of 1789, they left behind incredible examples of their culture.
These include petroglyph communications – engravings of animals and figures in sandstone rocks - to other important remnants that reveal how they lived, interacted and sourced food.
Shell middens, stone and ochre quarries, campsites, rocks adapted for seed-grinding and tool-sharpening, ceremonial sites and scarred trees from which bark and wood were removed for boomerangs, woomeras (spear launchers), shields, canoes, coolamons (carrying vessels) and gunyas (temporary shelters).
If you know where to look, they make for fascinating glimpses into an ages-old culture that was pushed aside, but whose timeless presence remains all around us.. (See Indigenous Bushwalking article that follows..)
Photos: Alec Smart
Council is a member of the Aboriginal Heritage Office, which preserves and protects over 1000 Aboriginal heritage sites across the North Shore.
Address: 818 Pacific Hwy, Gordon NSW 2072
Phone: (02) 9424 0000 Email: email@example.com
The Aboriginal Heritage Office
Address: 29 Lawrence St, Freshwater NSW 2096
Phone: (02) 9976 1682