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 

Implications for the Archaeological Record

Archaeology, whether historical or prehistoric, often relies on textual sources to provide a context for interpretation. In this chapter, historical and other evidence will be used in a discussion concerning the possible factors affecting the location and composition of Aboriginal occupation sites during the contact period. The results of this examination will be tested and used to interpret the archaeological record in Chapter 4.

Location of Campsites.

As discussed in Chapter 1, the location of Aboriginal campsites before the arrival of white settlers probably varied throughout the year according to the seasonal availability of resources on the tablelands and in the mountain region. From the available evidence it is difficult to assess how Aboriginal settlement patterns may have changed in the contact period, though the role of European resources in influencing the location of Aboriginal campsites appears to have gradually increased over time.

From early contact it is probable that Aborigines camped in the vicinity of European settlements, perhaps partly out of curiosity, and possibly also as a means of facilitating reciprocal exchanges. Also, as examined in the previous chapter, early properties were established on land significant to the Ngunnawal, which they continued to use. However, as the number of Europeans and stock in the area were initially low, the Ngunnawal were probably able to retain control over many areas and utilise traditional resources largely unhindered.

By the 1840s it appears that Aborigines had made attachments to particular European settlements on which they located their campsites. Evidence suggests that the Ngunnawal may have been using European resources, obtained as payment in kind for short-term labour, and by other means, as supplements to diminished traditional supplies (V & PLC 1842: 19, Sydney Morning Herald 14.1.1922). However, although some individuals probably remained on European settlements, the level of social integration remained low, and Aborigines continued to exploit traditional resources until at least the mid-nineteenth century. White settlements at Yarralumla, Pialligo, Queanbeyan, Lanyon and Cuppacumbalong appear to have been used as regular campsites by the Ngunnawal and their visitors based upon the availability/accessibility of resources, employment and traditional campsites. Other stations, including Uriarra and Gudgenby, seem to have been used as the location of less frequently-used camps by large numbers of people, perhaps associated with seasonal movements to and from the mountain ranges for the exploitation of bogong moths.

With the further intensification of European land use and its effects on traditional food supplies, the time spent by Aborigines on white settlements would have increased proportionally. From the 1860s onwards, the majority of historical accounts concern individuals working on stations as domestic servants and stockmen, suggesting that Aborigines were dependent on European resources, and were perhaps living in fairly sedentary camps close to settlements on which they were employed.

Campsite Selection.

Based upon archaeological evidence, Flood (1980: 158)has suggested several factors which may have influenced the location of prehistoric campsites in the Canberra Region. All sites have several features in common: they are between 100m - 1km from a water source, on well-drained ground which is not on the water's edge; and they are located in defensible positions, with access to firewood, and bark for hut-making. Flood (1980: 158-159) remarked that as the aforementioned requirements are readily available in most of the Canberra Region, the location of food or other special resources (such as stone quarrying material), was likely to have been the governing factor in the selection of a campsite.

From the nature of historical accounts it is hard to ascertain the specific location of Aboriginal camps in the contact period, though it appears that the criteria for selecting a campsite may have remained essentially the same. For example, Bluett (1954: 23) claims that Aborigines never camped on rivers but on nearby rises because of their fear of bunyips - "half real and half spook" creatures that lived in the water. Kuskie (1989: 12) has suggested that bunyips existed in the mythology and spiritual beliefs of Aborigines, and functioned as an effective mechanism to prevent people from camping too close to creeks where flash floods occurred. Historical references to the close proximity of Aboriginal campsites to European homesteads and blanket issue posts also suggests that the placement of campsites was influenced by access to food and other resources. However, over time, it is likely that other factors may have increasingly influenced the selection of a campsite, such as employment and resource availability, and European control over campsite location.

Material Culture.

The material culture used by the Ngunnawal before the arrival of Europeans presumably would have included a wide range of items. Stone tools were probably used predominantly in manufacturing (for example, hatchet-heads and spear barbs) rather than for extractive purposes. Wright (1923: 58-59) described the numerous wooden implements used by Aborigines in the Lanyon area including spears, shields, nulla-nullas and boomerangs. Bluett (Sydney Morning Herald 11.6.1927) listed a similar range of implements and also recorded the use of spear throwers, stone axes, and kangaroo and possum skin rugs. In the Yass region, Bennett (1834: 175-176) recorded the use of bone awls to sew skins together, and shells to remove flesh. He also observed the use of digging sticks, which were probably the main tool for food procurement used by Ngunnawal women. Further, Brennan (1907: 206), described the use of hammocks, ropes, nets for fishing, shell ornaments and "domestic utensils", though such descriptions did not specifically refer to Aborigines of the Canberra region.

Contact with Europeans probably marked the beginning of many innovations in the material culture of the Ngunnawal. Innovation can be defined as an idea, an object, an attribute of an object, or just a new interrelationship between objects, which affects the overall performance of a cultural system at a certain time, and which may not have previously exercised its influence (Bargatzky 1989: 17). The means by which new materials were adopted by Aborigines may have occurred in several different ways. For example, outside the Canberra Region, Aborigines converted foreign materials (including glass and metal), into traditional tool types which were perceived as more efficient than their stone counterparts (Allen 1969: 216-43, Cooper 1979: 32-33). Other introduced materials, such as steel axes, kingplates and clothes, may have been adopted without modification, either because of their relative efficacy or the absence of a traditional counterpart.

In situations of culture contact outside Australia, innovations often resulted in dramatic economic change. The most notable instance perhaps was the emergence of horse cultures on the American Plains, where such peoples as the Mandans of North Dakota transformed from relatively sedentary maize-cultivating villagers into nomadic buffalo hunters on horseback (Bruner 1961: 203-205). In the case of the Aboriginal-European encounter in Australia, however, the adoption of new materials by Aborigines did not necessarily alter the economy in terms of resource utilisation. This point is well illustrated by the following excerpt:

One day a small white boy, back in the '70s when walking from the river, saw an Aboriginal family on the move - father, mother and four nippers, of about four to ten years. The father was fully garbed in a pair of tattered moleskins; the mother looked sweet in a piece of red blanket which started half-way down; the two elder youngsters had each a chaff bag, while the two youngest were as nature introduced them. The father was carrying a large black billy and about 30 feet of clothes line. The family stopped at a big river-gum which Jackie, carrying his rope and billy, proceeded to climb. He edged his long bare arm and hauled out a fistful of honeycomb and angry bees, which he quickly put into the billy. When this was filled, the bees all the time crawling over his oily body, he lowered it down to the watching Mary. She emptied it into a kerosene tin, which was hailed with relish by the kids; honey, bees and comb popping into delighted mouths (Bluett 1954: 26-27).

The Aboriginal economy did change as European influence increased, but this was generally a result of social and political factors rather than as a consequence of technological innovation. Instead, the adoption of materials such as glass and metal probably increased the efficiency of Aboriginal subsistence activities and perhaps allowed them to maintain a traditional economy for a longer period of time than might otherwise have been possible.

On the other hand, the social effects of such innovations may have been far-reaching, as suggested by Sharp (1952), who wrote of the problems created by the adoption of steel axes amongst the Yir Yoront of Cape York. Traditionally stone axes were owned and held by the older men of a community, and could be borrowed by women and young men by permission of the owner, so acknowledging his authority and power (Sharp 1952: 74-79). Other than being a symbol of dominance of the older men, stone axes had religious significance, and mythical stories were told about the origins of the axe (ibid.). Upon European contact, steel axes were quickly adopted by the Yir Yoront (because of their efficiency compared to stone axes), and were distributed indiscriminately by missionaries and settlers, to those who assisted their efforts (Sharp 1952: 72-73). As a result, women and young men no longer had to borrow axes and thereby acknowledge the authority of the older men, thus disrupting the power relations of traditional society. Further, vast trading systems which transported stone axe heads over great distances were threatened as the demand for them diminished, and the absence of a mythical story to explain the existence of the new steel axes may have also created confusion (Broome 1982: 63).

The distribution of kingplates or gorgets (inscribed metal plaques hung from the neck) to Aborigines (Figure 4), was common practice throughout New South Wales from the 1830s to the late nineteenth century, and may have produced similar effects. Prior to white contact, Aborigines did not have kings or chiefs in a European sense, though the elderly or senior members of a community, and others held in high esteem were deferred to by the Aboriginal community in matters of import to the community as a whole. However, the issuing of gorgets by the colonial government bypassed Aboriginal leadership choices and attempted to impose a European hierarchy on Aborigines to ensure cooperation in their efforts to open up the land (Troy 1993: 13-38, Cleary 1993: 11-12).

It is difficult to assess when technological innovations may have occurred amongst the Ngunnawal. Because of their wide communication network with other Aboriginal groups, it is possible that new materials may have been used before actual white settlement occurred in the region. Historical evidence suggests that some European innovations were quickly adopted, while traditional technology was also maintained. According to Wright:

... the coming of the Europeans and the advent of iron, stone implements were soon dropped, and are now merely curios, of which most settlers have a specimen or two ... In their nomadic style of life, always on the move, they carried their weapons [spears, boomerangs, shields and nulla-nullas] with them, up to at least the year 1850 (Wright 1923: 58-59).

It appears that over time Aborigines gradually incorporated new materials, according to the extent of contact and perhaps with the shift from a hunter-gatherer to a more sedentary European economy. For example, Wright (1923: 56) witnessed the burial of Hongyong at Tharwa in the early 1850s, where a broken spear, shield, nulla-nulla, boomerang, tomahawk, opossum rug, and other items were placed in the grave. In contrast, Senior Constable Reily interred the body of an Aborigine known as Billy the Ram on the Oaks Estate in 1862, where the body was rolled in a blanket, and a tin pot, necklace and several other personal effects were placed with him in the grave (Golden Age 5.4.1862). The body was mutilated by no less than two dozen wounds inflicted with spears and tomahawks, which led the magistrates at Queanbeyan to conclude that the deceased had broken a law of some kind (ibid., Shumack 1977: 151, Gale 1927: 66-68); such an account suggests that Aborigines were using both European and traditional material culture to varying degrees and for various purposes. After the 1860s when Aborigines were more reliant on white settlements and resources, traditional technology was being used more infrequently.


From historical evidence there appear to have been two different types of habitation used by Aborigines in the contact period and perhaps during prehistory. According to Wright:

When in the vicinity of a settler's homestead ... they merely erected bough shelters, just enough to shield them from the rain, frost etc, but in the bush proper they would erect good bark huts, quite warm and comfortable ... The natives canoes, like their huts were always made of bark (Wright 1923: 59).

Bennett (1835: 391), writing of the Aboriginal dwellings used in the Yass region and the Bogong Mountains near Tumut, also noted the use of temporary 'bough shelters' or 'gunyahs'. Bluett (Sydney Morning Herald 21.5.1927) referred to "gunyahs and mia-mias" as "flimsy seasonal affairs" constructed of green bushes with leaves sloping downwards against a low horizontal tree bough, or against a pole set between two forks, which in Winter was supplemented with a few more sheets of bark.

It is not evident from historical sources for the Canberra Region whether the types of habitation used by Aborigines changed over time. It is probable that when the Ngunnawal became economically dependent upon European resources and were living on stations, they were using more substantial dwellings. For example, Clark (1977: 38, 65) described a bark hut built by Aboriginal stockmen in the 1880s near Boorowa, constructed with wire, nails and a steel pike. On an Aboriginal reserve at Yass in 1895, building material was provided by the Aboriginal Protection Board, and 10 two-room metal houses and two bark huts were constructed (AONSW Register of Aboriginal Reserves 2/8348). In the 1891 census, Nellie Hamilton is recorded as living in a house in Queanbeyan (NSW Census 1891 2/8413), and during the early twentieth century King Billy apparently lived in a "mud hovel" near the Oaks Estate (ANL Aboriginal Pictorial Collection), suggesting a general trend towards more permanent habitations.

Number Occupying a Campsite.

As examined in Chapter 1, the tableland region in prehistoric times probably served as a location for large gatherings when resources were plentiful, and for smaller groups in the sparser months. The number of people occupying a campsite may have varied throughout the contact period, though historical accounts more frequently record large gatherings of people, often numbering between 100-300 individuals (i.e. AONSW Blankets to Aborigines 4/1133.3, Shumack 1977: 148-150, Goulburn Herald 11.4.1859, Golden Age 5.4.1862, Queanbeyan Observer 11.3.1913). Although the numbers of Aborigines recorded are probably exaggerated and/or may be connected to the seasonal abundance of resources on the tablelands or mountains, it appears that with the upheaval caused by European settlement and other related factors (i.e. blanket issues), Aborigines were associating in larger groups.

Structural changes within the local Ngunnawal community may also account for the large numbers of Aboriginal people recorded in historical accounts. As previously discussed, two groups of Aborigines are recorded as having utilised the Canberra Region in 1834 - the Hagen-Hope tribe of 46 individuals, and the Nammitch tribe probably numbering 60-70 (AONSW Blankets to Aborigines 4/1133.3). The chiefs of these groups were recorded as Jemmy the Rover and Hongyong respectively. In the 1841 blanket issue at Queanbeyan (ibid.), Jemmy the Rover and Hongyong were both recorded as belonging to the Hagen-Hope tribe, numbering a total of 56 individuals, suggesting that the two groups had united. Also, from the names of Aborigines recorded in blanket issues from 1834-1844 (AONSW Blankets to Aborigines 4/1133.3), an increasing number of people from outside the Canberra Region appear to have joined the local Ngunnawal groups and/or participated in the annual gatherings at Queanbeyan.

Such a trend appears to be dominant until the 1862 gathering at Queanbeyan. After this date, Aborigines do not seem to have gathered in large numbers, with the majority of records concerning individuals working on European stations. The depletion of traditional resources and increased reliance on European settlements, and other factors including population decline within the local Ngunnawal community, may explain this transition. For example, Shumack recorded that the local tribe numbered around 70 in 1856 (Shumack 1977: 148) and 64 in 1862 (Sydney Morning Herald 11.6.1927). By 1872, there were only five Limestone Plain Aborigines left; Bobby and Nellie Hamilton, their children Eddie and Millie, and a "half-caste" woman called Nanny. In the same year, with the exception of Nellie Hamilton, all "were carried off by measles" (Shumack 1977: 148). However, contrary to this pattern, large gatherings of Aborigines are recorded at Tharwa and Queanbeyan in 1889 (Lea-Scarlett 1968: 21, Walker 1988: 4-5), and in the early 1900s at South Lanyon (Brown in Withycombe 1988 - oral transcript).


From the foregoing discussion concerning the possible factors affecting the location and composition of Aboriginal campsites, and the archaeological record, during the contact period, the following hypotheses are proposed:-

1) the location of Aboriginal campsites in the Canberra Region was increasingly determined over time in relation to white settlements;

2) the criteria for selecting a campsite in the contact period were similar to those used in prehistoric times, though over time other factors may have also determined their placement;

3) the material culture used by the Ngunnawal would have been gradually dominated by European forms and technology; Aborigines may have continued the use of traditional tools until the mid-nineteenth century. However, when Aborigines became reliant on European resources the use of traditional technology would have eventually disappeared;

4) the dwellings used by Aboriginal people probably became more substantial over time, and this change was related to the shift towards sedentary living;

5) Aborigines appear to have camped in large numbers from the 1840s -1860s. After this time Aborigines were probably camping in smaller groups according to places of employment.