Shoalhaven Indigenous History

Aboriginal History

Twenty thousand years ago, the most recent ice age was coming to an end and the Shoalhaven coastline was approximately 20 kilometres further east than it is today. At that time, the region was already inhabited by Aborigines, but as the ice melted the sea level rose slowly, burying much of the archaeological evidence of habitation beneath metres of sea and sand. The sea reached its present level approximately 6,000 years ago and fro this time numerous archaeological sites survive, which provide evidence of the Aboriginal lifestyle. Excavation has revealed the shells of edible shellfish, bones of fish, the remains of a variety of mammals, charcoal, hearthstones, bone and shell artifacts.

Seafood formed the basis of the Aboriginal diet and shell middens provide experience of the types of food which were eaten. Until 1,000 years ago shellfish were collected and fish were caught in the mouths of estuaries and close to the shore, but more recently bark canoes were used to fish further offshore. Bowen Island offered good hunting, where penguins and mutton birds were captured and bones from these animals are found both on the island and in shell middens on the mainland. Small marsupials from the forests fringing the coast formed a regular part of the diet, while larger sea mammals such as seals were also eaten occasionally. Although plant foods would undoubtedly have formed a major part of the diet, little evidence of this remains. With such a bountiful and varied supply of food and a temperate climate it is thought that the Indigenous people would have enjoyed a good lifestyle.

Tools were manufactured from bone, stone or shell. Flaked stone artifacts such as cutting and scraping tools, spear barbs and points have been excavated from campsite locations throughout the Shoalhaven. Due to the soft nature of the local stone, stone for axe heads was traded from considerable distances. Axe grinding grooves, where the heads were ground to a smooth cutting edge, can be seen on sandstone outcrops such as the stream bed above Mary Bay. Although evidence of rock art is not extensive in the region, paintings have been found in rock shelters on the Beecroft Peninsula.

Aboriginal names are prominent as place names throughout the region. Coolangatta means splendid view, Culburra means sand, Myola is a place of crabs and Nowra is the word for black cockatoo. Ulladulla is a corruption of the Aboriginal word Woolahderra which means safe harbour and Cambewarra is a combination of two words, camba meaning fire and warra meaning mountain, probably because of the Illawarra flame trees which used to grow there. Captain Cook bestowed the name Pigeon House Mountain on the remarkable outcrop of stone which dominates the skyline in the south of the region, but the Aboriginal people know it as Dithol, which means woman’s breast.

The first encounter the Aborigines had with Europeans were merely two races sighting each other from a distance. It wasn’t until 1797 that direct contact first occurred, when survivors from a shipwreck at Point Hicks in Victoria were making their way northward. As they travelled through the lands of many different tribes they were received in a friendly manner where it was perceived they were passing through, and with hostility if they were viewed as permanent invaders.

In the latter years of the eighteenth century the indigenous people would have witnessed regular visits from whalers and cedar cutters, but it wasn’t until Alexander Berry took up a grant of 10,000 acres on the Shoalhaven River in 1822 that settlement by Europeans commenced in earnest and the traditional lifestyle of the Aboriginal people was threatened. Once the country was stocked with sheep and cattle, many of the edible plants disappeared and the Aborigines were forced away from their traditional hunting grounds. Contact with Europeans also brought new diseases such as smallpox, influenza, measles and syphilis. During the early decades of the 19th century, some traditional food gathering practices were maintained, but by the 1830’s the former population had been decimated by the combined effects of disease and the removal of land and those who remained were relocated to reserves such as Roseby Park at Orient Point and Bilong at Myola.

By 1914 small groups of Aboriginal fisherman had settled at Wreck Bay, south of Jervis Bay, and in 1952 the area was gazetted as an Aboriginal Reserve. The Wreck Bay Community were granted land rights over an area of 403 hectares in 1986 and today the community numbers about 50 families, most descended from or related to the first settlers at Wreck Bay. In June 1995 the Federal Government offered the title of the Jervis Bay National Park to the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community upon the condition that it was leased back to the Australian Nature Conservation Agency for a period of 99 years.

Text reproduced with permission of Lightstorm Photography, from their book ‘ The Shoalhaven’.