Aboriginal and European Encounter in the Canberra Region:
a question of change and the archaeological record

Table of Contents 
Chapter 1 
Chapter 2 
Chapter 3 
Chapter 4 
Chapter 5 
Appendix 1 
Appendix 2 
Appendix 3 
List of Figures 
List of Tables 


In this chapter, evidence concerning the prehistoric occupation of the land area encompassed by the boundaries of the Australian Capital Territory will be considered as background to the examination of the contact period. The area in question is part of a broad geographic unit known as the 'Southern Uplands' which consists of a wide range of geographic features including the Southern Tablelands, sections of mountainous highland, coastal scarp, and numerous gorges and peneplains (Flood 1980: 6-7). The ACT generally includes two of these geographic features - tablelands and mountain ranges. Discussion will be focussed on the tableland region of the ACT, known in historical times as the Limestone Plains, and also referred to in the course of this thesis as the 'Canberra Region' (see Figure 2). The characteristics of the tableland environment will be examined later in this chapter in considering Aboriginal subsistence patterns in the ACT.

Aboriginal Land Tenure.

Peterson (1976: 51) has identified two principal levels of groupings within Australian hunter-gatherer populations - the local group or 'band', and the regional or 'culture area' population. Between these two exists a third level of grouping composed of congeries of bands (ibid.), referred to in this discussion as a 'tribe' or 'community'. The 'culture area' group is defined by major drainage divisions which tend to restrict communication between regions, leading to the development of distinct regional styles in language and culture, while the 'band' is considered the basic social and economic unit, using more or less bounded and exclusive ranges such as river valleys or drainage systems (Peterson 1976: 60-67). Larger catchment areas which correlate with the territories of aggregates of bands (occupying different tracts of land though speaking basically the same language) constitute a 'tribe' (ibid., Howitt 1904: 41).

Examination of Aboriginal spatial organisation in the ACT is generally restricted to evidence obtained from ethnohistorical sources. The use of ethnohistory in the interpretation of prehistory is limited, in the sense that such evidence is characteristic of the contact period and there is a distinct lack of adequate sources for the Canberra Region. It is not until the early twentieth century that a substantial number of sources appear, in the form of the reminiscences of long-term residents of the district (i.e. Bluett 1954, Brennan 1907, Gale 1927, Shumack 1977, Wright 1923). The reliability of such sources is questionable, taking into account the time elapsed between the authors' actual experience and the time of writing, and the dynamic evolution of Aboriginal society as a result of European settlement. Similarly, anthropological and linguistic work was undertaken in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and information concerning Aborigines of the Canberra Region was obtained from sources of questionable reliability.

It is from archaeology alone that a more objective picture of prehistory can be obtained, though the use of ethnohistorical evidence is essential in the consideration of many aspects of pre-contact Aboriginal occupation of the Canberra Region (i.e. land tenure, demography, material culture, subsistence regimes, social and political relations).

Cultural Groupings.

There is some dispute concerning the boundaries of culture groups in southeastern Australia, due to the inexactitude of linguistically assigned boundaries and the uncertainty of some historical records (Tindale 1974: 128-129, Flood 1980: 107, English 1985: 24-25, Peterson 1976: 1-2). Tindale (1974: 198-199) has placed the ACT within the territories of three cultural groups based primarily on linguistic evidence collected by the anthropologists Curr, Howitt and Mathews during the late nineteenth century. The Ngunawal [sic] estate was described as extending north from Queanbeyan to Goulburn, and west to Tumut and Gundagai, and the Walgalu estate, located in the Namadji region to the southwest of Queanbeyan, and the Ngarigo estate was described as extending from Queanbeyan to the Monaro Tablelands (Figure 1).

Dixon (1980: 263) identified only one language group, Ngarigo, from the uppermost reaches of the Murray River through to Lake George, incorporating land previously identified as belonging to the Ngunnawal and Walgalu. Gundungurra or Gandangara is considered to be related to Ngarigo, extending from Lake George to the Lachlan-Hawkesbury divide (Dixon 1980: 241, McBryde 1986: 44). Accordingly, Walgalu was a form of Ngarigo, and Ngunnawal a form of Gundungurra (Flood 1984: 22). Howitt (1904: 58) stated that where two large language groups met, it was usual to find a tract of country between them in which people spoke a language which was demonstrated features of the languages from both areas. This may be the case for the Canberra Region, as suggested by vocabulary lists taken from Aborigines at Yass and Yarralumla in the 1840's which do show a mix of both Ngunnawal and Ngarigo dialects (Flood 1984: 22).

It appears that language did not necessarily create distinct boundaries between different cultural groups in southeastern Australia. Dixon (1980: 263), for instance, has identified close affinities between the languages of the Ngunnawal and Ngarigo. Further, Mathews (1904: 294-305) writing on the subject of initiation ceremonies, linked the Ngunnawal, Gundungurra, Ngarigo and Walgalu, and suggested that the ceremonies, customs and language of the Thunawall (also known as the Tharawal or Dhurga) were so closely related to these other groups that in ancient times they may have represented one 'nation'. At present it is the Ngunnawal who identify themselves with the Canberra Region, and as this is probably an accurate association, it will be referred to as such in this thesis.

Factors other than language, such as political and social relations with other groups, may have played a more dominant role in determining the area frequented by different bands or tribes. For example, from early historical evidence, Hongyong (also known as Hong Hong, Hong Kong, Hong Gong and Ong Gong) of the Nammitch 'tribe', whose home-base was located on the Tuggeranong Plains, travel extensively - as far as Goulburn and Bungonia to the northeast, Mannus to the southwest and the Bogong Mountains near Tumut to the west (Jackson-Nakano 1994: 7-8). These areas frequented by Hongyong include the estates associated with the Walgalu, Gundungurra, Ngarigo and Ngunnawal.

Tribes and Bands.

William Davis Wright (1923: 57-59), who grew up with Aborigines in the Lanyon area during the 1840's and 1850's, recorded that at the time of first white settlement the 'Kamberra tribe' numbered between 400 and 500 individuals, and met once a year for a big corroboree. They would then divide into smaller groups of 20 to 30 and "resume their uneasy flitting from one spot to the another, living on the animal, grub and plant life and moving on as they exhausted each place".

Two tribes were identified by George Augustus Robinson amongst the Ngunnawal in 1844, the Onerwal of Yass and the Koronial or Yammoit Mittung on the Limestone Plains (Mackaness 1941: 26-27). Within the Ngarigo culture there appear to have been two tribes, the Wolgal or Walgalu and the Ngarigo (Cooke 1988: 28).

From records of blanket issues to Aborigines in the early contact period, three different groups of Aborigines are referred to as using the Canberra Region; the Nammitch, Hagen-Hope and Molonglo 'tribes' (AONSW Blankets to Aborigines 4/1133.3). It is difficult to ascertain whether these different groups represented different bands of the same community or separate tribes. Considering the size of these groups recorded at different blanket issues and in other historical sources (Robinson 1844: 275-280), and that the Nammitch and Hagen-Hope tribes appear to have amalgamated fairly early in the contact period (see Chapter 2), the former explanation seems likely. The 'Return of Aboriginal Natives at Janevale, Murrayshire, June 1834' (AONSW Blankets to Aborigines 4/1133.3) described the Nammitch tribe as utilising the mountains beyond the Murrumbidgee River opposite the Limestone Plains (the Namadji Ranges) and Tuggeranong. The Hagen-Hope tribe identified themselves with the Limestone Plains, the Condor Mountains (maybe the Brindabella Ranges) and the Murrumbidgee River. The Molonglo tribe is not listed in the 1834 return, though is recorded in the 1841 and 1844 blanket issues at Queanbeyan (ibid.), and as suggested by their name, probably utilised the Molonglo Valley.

In other historical sources the names of different groups are often European inventions or corruptions of Aboriginal names, and/or relate to the location of regular Aboriginal campsites in the contact period. For example, Bluett (1954: 1), from the reminiscences of European settlers in the 1840's, identified two groups of Aborigines occupying the Canberra Region; one group camped at Pialligo, known as the Pialligo blacks, and the other comprised of a larger number of families camping at the foot of Blacks Mountain [Black Mountain] near Canburry Creek [Sullivan's Creek] known as the Canburry or Nganbra blacks. Bluett refers to these groups collectively as the 'Kgumburry tribe' or the 'Nganbra-Pialligo tribe'. Other sources referred to the 'Queanbeyan tribe', the 'Pialligo tribe', 'the Narrabundah tribe', 'the County of Murray tribe' (Shumack 1977: 148-151, Sydney Morning Herald 11.6.1927), the 'Kamberra tribe' (Wright 1923: 57), 'the Molonger tribe', and the 'Limestone Plains tribe' (Robinson 1844: 279-280).

Evidence from blanket issues and other historical evidence suggests that Aborigines local to the Canberra Region maintained relationships with both near and distant Aboriginal groups, including those located in the Tumut Valley, Yass, Boorowa, Goulburn, Gundaroo, Braidwood, Cooma and the Illawarra region (see Chapter 2). According to Bluett (1954: 4-5), the Kgumburry tribe made frequent visits to Braidwood to barter for salt, to the Yass Plains for kangaroos and grass seeds, to Shoalhaven for sandstone for spear sharpening, the Monaro for basalt and other volcanic material for axe-making, Kiandra for bogong moths, and the South Coast for "sea-fishing" (Sydney Morning Herald 14.6.1927).

The relationships of the Ngunnawal of the Canberra Region with other groups were not always peaceful. In 1844 Robinson remarked that the Onerwal at Yass were not on good terms with the Koronial on the Limestone Plains (Mackaness 1941: 26). Robinson also noted while in Bega that "the tribes of this country have been greatly reduced by the Yass Blacks and others of the Interior who are constantly making incursions on them" (Mackaness 1941: 22). Bluett (1954: 19) further recorded that spasmodic raids were attempted by the Yass tribe and the large Lake George tribe on the Nganbra-Pialligo tribe in the early days of white settlement. John Patrick Cunningham also witnessed a battle on the Duntroon Plains during the 1820's, between the Narrabundah and Pialligo tribes, and 300 Aborigines from Cooma (Shumack 1977: 95, Sydney Morning Herald 11.6.1927).

Aboriginal Subsistence.

According to Flood (1980: 159), the main sources of nutrition for Aborigines in the Southern Uplands would have been obtained from three zones; tableland rivers, mountain slopes and alpine areas. Riverine foods would have been available on the tablelands with its slow-flowing rivers, mammals and vegetable foods from mountain slopes (especially wet sclerophyll forests), and bogong moths from the sub-alpine and alpine zones. Flood (1980: 159-170) found that archaeological evidence of the distribution on Aboriginal occupation sites in the ACT supported this hypothesis, where sites were either located close to aquatic resources, to wet sclerophyll forests or to bogong moth habitats.

The tableland region of the ACT is generally considered to extend from Gungahlin in the north to Lanyon in the south, bounded in the west by the Murrumbidgee River and in the southwest by the Namadji Ranges. The tablelands consist of gently undulating plains (at an altitude of less than 610m), and scattered hills, with savanna grassland and woodland vegetation. Mean monthly temperatures on the tablelands range from 18.3-21.7 deg. C in Summer and 5-7.8 deg. C in Winter; such temperature ranges may have allowed occupation by Aborigines throughout the year, if drainage hollows were avoided during the colder months (Flood 1980: 7-9, 304-305).

According to ethnohistorical evidence, a wide range of resources was obtained by Aborigines on the tablelands. Bluett (1954: 6) asserted that prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Limestone Plains were rich in animal and bird life. The open plains surrounded by timbered country attracted kangaroos, wallabies, wallaroos, wombats, emus and a variety of other fauna, which were hunted by men and older boys. Scrub and reeds grew around the numerous lagoons, swamps and streams, allowing favorable conditions for the proliferation of numerous types of aquatic birds, and "the food of the tribe was doubled" thereby. Smaller game and vegetable foods were obtained by women and children including birds, lizards, possums, native cats, fish, mussels, bird eggs, yams, berries, grubs and grass seed.

Two settlement types in the tableland region have been identified from archaeological evidence, both associated with the exploitation of riverine resources. Firstly, large lowland base-camps - open-sites stretching over several kilometres containing more than 1500 stone artefacts (Flood 1980: 162). Three such camps are known within the vicinity of the ACT, including Pialligo on the Molonglo River (Bindon 1973, Saunders 1989), Reidsdale to the north of the ACT-NSW state border (Gillespie 1984), and Nardoo located on the east shore of Lake George, NSW (Flood 1980). All sites are positioned near water and aquatic resources, and the former two sites are in close proximity to stone quarries.

The second settlement type, medium-sized lowland camps, occur in a lineal pattern along riverbanks (Flood 1980: 166-168). These are the densest settlement type found in the ACT, and have been located on the Molonglo (Kinsela 1934, Moss 1939, English 1985, Boot & Bulbeck 1992), Queanbeyan (Smith 1975), and Murrumbidgee Rivers (Barz and Winston-Gregson 1981, 1982). Artefact scatters occurring along associated creek-lines also come within this settlement category, including those located on Ginninderra (Kuskie 1992, Huys 1993, Access Archaeology 1990, 1991) and Tuggeranong Creeks (Paton 1984).

The highlands of the ACT, collectively known as the Namadji Ranges, form the northernmost outlying peaks of the Australian Alps, comprising a series of deeply dissected ranges over 1830m in altitude, and numerous deep river valleys. Three settlement types have been identified from archaeological evidence within this region. Firstly, montane valley camps, situated below the Winter snowline 745m-1160m in altitude, occur in association with creeks and fast-flowing mountain rivers (Flood 1980: 169-170) and have been located in the Brindabella Valley (Argue 1991), Tidbinbilla Valley (Bulbeck & Boot 1991), Orroral Valley (Egloff 1988, Boot 1990), Naas and Gudgenby Valleys (Winston-Gregson 1978), Nursery Swamp (Feary 1984, Rosenfeld & Winston-Gregson 1983), and in the Uriarra and Swamp Creek catchment area (Anderson 1984). Although rivers would have provided little in the way of regular food resources, mammals and vegetable foods from wet sclerophyll forests would have been readily available in montane camps throughout the year, and may have also acted as base-camps during the Summer for the exploitation of bogong moth supplies on the mountain peaks above (Flood 1980: 168).

The final two settlement types in the highland region include high Summer camps, 1160m-1525m in elevation, and camps above the Winter snow-line, over 1525m in elevation (Flood 1980: 169-170). Both site types are probably associated with the exploitation of bogong moths, though other resources would have also been available (ibid., Bowdler 1981: 104). According to ethnohistorical sources, bogong moths were abundant in the mountains during the Summer and provided the basis of support for large congregations of people who exploited the moths and engaged in social activities including ceremonies, trade, and marriage exchange during the season (Flood 1980: 61-82).

According to Flood (1980: 175), the use of high-level camps must have been seasonal, as they would be covered in snow during the Winter, while montane valleys may have used in both Summer or Winter. Lowland camps would have probably been occupied between October and April, when the best fishing occurs, and may have allowed for large gatherings as suggested by the large quantity of archaeological material found at Pialligo, Reidsdale and Nardoo. The tablelands may have also been used for the location of Winter camps, in the more sheltered and low-lying areas of the Molonglo and Murrumbidgee Valleys.

Reference to ethnohistorical evidence also suggests that Aborigines used different environments on a seasonal basis. According to Bluett:

... when the skies were brassy and plains burned brown, the lagoons dried up, the live provender, in search of its own sustenance, walked or flew itself to the cooler moister mountains ... then began the "walk-abouts", when each family would migrate to some favoured valley, which aforetime had provided productive (Bluett 1954: 7).

The designation of the Nammitch and Hagen-Hope tribes given in the 'Return of Aboriginal Natives at Janevale, Murrayshire, June 1834' (AONSW Blankets to Aborigines 4/1133.3) further implied that Aborigines utilised both the tablelands and the adjacent mountains. Bluett (1954: 27) also remarked that an annual trek was made by the Kgumburry tribe in the spring to the Kiandra Mountains, located to the southwest of the ACT, for the bogong moth harvest. Two or three families would band together and if they had joined forces in Canberra, might be away for three months (ibid.). Other historical sources recorded that Aborigines of Canberra Region exploited several sources of bogong moths on a regular basis - the Brindabella Ranges to the west (Gale 1923: 57, Wilson 1968: 109), the Tinderry Ranges to the southwest of the ACT (Eyre 1859: 55) and the Bogong Mountains near Tumut (Howitt 1904: 693).


From ethnohistorical evidence it is difficult to determine the boundaries of different cultural groups in southeastern Australia, though other factors (i.e. social relations) may have determined the lands frequented by different bands or tribes. Three groups of Aborigines are recorded as utilising the Limestone Plains; the Nammitch, Hagen-Hope and the Molonglo 'tribes'. These groups were probably bands of the same tribe and appear to have maintained relations with both neighbouring and distant Aboriginal communities. Archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence suggests that Aborigines of the Canberra Region used the tablelands and mountain region on a seasonal basis. The tablelands were an important part of their economic and social life, possibly allowing large gatherings during favourable seasons, and a valuable resource base during the sparser Winter months.