The Dharug word eora means “here,” or “of this place.” The term was used to refer to the nation of 29 Aboriginal clan-groups who had called Sydney’s metropolitan area home for over 40,000 years.
The clans lived in close proximity to one another, spending much of their days fishing around Sydney’s coast and within its estuaries. Aside from hunting and gathering, the Aboriginal clans took part in complex social and cultural systems and traditions belonging to the country’s semi-nomadic groups. Although life in Sydney had its fair share of challenges at the time, its Aboriginal people were free to roam and live as they pleased.
But on February 7, 1788, a group of settlers who were decidedly not “of this place” landed in Sydney Harbour, and their captain, Arthur Phillips, declared it a new penal colony. While this occurrence marked the beginning of Sydney’s modern-day history in many minds, the occupied land had a rich and vibrant history long before the British docked upon its shores.
To honor the vibrant history of the land, we’ve put together this guide to Aboriginal sites around Sydney.
A BRIEF HISTORY
British colonization had an immediate and negative impact upon the Aboriginal groups that called (now) New South Wales their home. While the Brits brought a host of new plant and animal life to the Australian continent, they also carried germs that would eventually devastate native Aboriginal populations. Due to a series of measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis epidemics, 90 percent of the local Darug population was decimated by 1789.
Conflict and strife continued as British rule expanded in Sydney and beyond. In the 1800s, settlers greedily seized ancestral Aboriginal lands to pasture cattle and sheep. The colonizers also depleted the region’s kangaroo population and took control of water resources, effectively siphoning off access to natural resources that Aboriginal populations had relied on for millennia.
By the early 20th century, more than half of the indigenous population living in the Sydney Basin had died, and the population of nearly 800,000 Aboriginal people living on the continent had been killed, infected, and starved into a group of only 90,000.
While some British settlers learned to coexist peacefully with Aboriginal groups, tensions between the two continued well into the 1900s, with many recorded accounts of violence toward native clans, and especially against Aboriginal women.
ABORIGINAL GROUPS TODAY
Over the past 60 years, Aboriginal groups in Sydney (and in Australia proper) have magnified their voice and improved their societal status, thanks to support from both indigenous and Australian activists.
It wasn’t until 1962, however, that Australia permitted Aboriginal people to vote in local and national elections. The following decade saw a wave of human rights activism that included the Freedom Ride — a student-led bus tour of NSW that spread awareness about indigenous peoples’ often sordid living conditions — and the Wave Hill Station walk-off, a famous protest of Aboriginal peoples’ unfair payment and poor working conditions. In 1976, Australia’s federal government formally acknowledged indigenous peoples’ right to Australian land with the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Aboriginal people sought seats in Australia’s political office, often winning and serving.
While these populations have made strides, they still face discrimination from mainstream society as they continue to fight for equal rights, pay, status, and health. Even today, Aboriginal people are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned, have a comparatively higher unemployment rate, suffer from greater infant mortality and suicide rates, and have a lifespan that is ten years shorter than non-native Australians.
Non-profit organizations in Sydney and across the continent (such as Dhumba and World Vision) continue to provide support and resources to Aboriginal communities in Australia. For more information about these organizations and their work, visit their websites.
ABORIGINAL SITES IN SYDNEY
It’s significant to note that the city — and its environs — is home to some of the best examples of traditional Aboriginal archaeological sites (there are nearly 5,000 of them in Sydney alone). So, if you’re looking to expand your understanding of this cultural metropolis, here are a few Aboriginal grounds you shouldn’t miss.
Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park
Escape from the bustle of Sydney and head to the serenity of this beautiful national park, which lies a mere 16 miles (25 kilometers) north of the city. Home to crystal-blue pools, tranquil eucalyptus groves, and meandering trekking trails, the park is also an unrivaled archaeological site, which displays a number of ancient Aboriginal rock engravings. The carvings, which depict animals, symbols, and people, are distinctly unique in composition and date back to over 7,000 years ago.
To observe the ancient artwork up close, embark on the Aboriginal Heritage walk. This 2.75-mile (4.4-kilometer) loop guides visitors through the park’s archaeological treasures, including Red Hands Cave (where you can view palm-prints of an indeterminable age), traditional occupation shelters, and countless rock engravings.
Part of Sydney’s appeal is its spectacular coast, so if you’re looking to get a little sun while you learn about the Aboriginal history, take to the shore for a spectacular view and a foray into the area’s archaeology. The small, waterfront village of Bundeena is just a short train ride from central Sydney, and one-way tickets generally cost only about $5 USD. Once there, you can embark on a guided tour of the area’s significant Aboriginal sites — including Jibbon Point, which contains numerous rock carvings (Gurrawul the Great Whale and Biame the Sky Spirit) and once served as an ancient initiation site. En route, you’ll spot bones, stone tools, and carvings from over 7,000 years ago.
Few experiences in Sydney are as impactful as the walkabout hosted in Australia’s Blue Mountains. Located just an hour outside of Sydney, the majestic range holds rich traditions, legacies, and everyday practices of the Aboriginal peoples who called this land their home for thousands of years.
The walkabout is truly the best way to honor this ancient legacy, as the two-mile (3.5-kilometer) Aboriginal-led trek includes an introduction to the practice of Dreamtime stories and songline, visits to ceremonial sites, artifact sightings, and educational workshops about body painting and bush medicine.
Located within New South Wales’ Art Gallery, Yiribana Gallery is the largest permanent collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the world. The gallery showcases works from communities all across Aboriginal Australia in an effort to better represent the diverse communities and cultures that have shaped Australia’s past, present, and future. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is free.
We recognize and celebrate the histories, diversity, creativity, resourcefulness, and endurance of the First Peoples of Australia and encourage all who visit to learn more about the land’s original ancestors.
Header image by Joey Csunyo