PRE-EUROPEAN ABORIGINAL CULTURE IN THE
PORT PHILLIP REGION


[Dr. G. Presland]

Dr. Gary Presland Digs Up Interesting Information About Aboriginal Life

Dr. Presland, historian, archaeologist, and author is an authority on Pre-European aboriginal life in the Melbourne area having studied this topic for 30 years. He discovered it was impossible to study the aborigines in the Melbourne vicinity alone because of the strong family ties they had with other aborigines north of the Great Dividing Range.

Aborigines identify themselves firstly by the clan to which they belong. A clan is made up of people connected to a certain area of land to which they are connected for their whole life. The clan in Melbourne was the Wurundjeri-balluk and this clan was split into two, the Baluk willam and the Wurundjeri willam.

They were also part of a language group, the Woi-wurrung which consisted of four clans whose lands abutted. Collectively they were called the Kulin nation. The Kulin did business such as trade with other groups with similar languages but there was no intermarriage between them.

The Woi-wurrung or Kulin nation claimed a large area of central Victoria extending to the Murray River. It consisted of the Eastern and Western Kulin.

Four language groups made up the Eastern Kulin: the Bunwurrung, the Daung Wurrunag, the Ngural-illamwurrung and the Woi-wurrung. Their languages were probably different dialects of the same language. These people shared the same knowledge and belief system and most importantly they intermarried.

Extending westward along the coast from Western Port Bay to the Werribee River, passing through modern day St. Kilda and south of the Yarra was the territory of the Bunwurrung people or salt water people. The Woiwurrung had no contact with salt water but lived in the fresh water catchment area of the Yarra River, north of the Bunwurrung territory. North of the Great Dividing Range were the Daung wurrung and the Ngural-illiamwurrung who claimed lands which were water catchment areas for the Goulburn River and the Ovens River.

Each of the 8 clans of the Woiwurrung would have had 100-150 people but for foraging purposes, a group of 100 or more people would have been unsustainable so each clan would have been broken up into 15-20 people. The composition of these foraging groups was determined by the women in the group.

When a woman was given by her father to marry, the husband was always from another territory so when the woman moved to her husband's territory, she became his sexual partner, mother to his children and the person who would supply him with food for the remainder of his life. The woman's father had done the husband a favour which would have been repaid. For example if at some time things were difficult in the area where the father lived, he might travel for a while with the husband's group.

The woman's uncles made sure that any sons received the right spiritual instructions. So at any one time a foraging party, north of the Great Dividing Range for example, might include men from south of the Range and these men would always be a relative of one of the women. Also women had to return to their original territory at times for spiritual instruction.

The aborinines were hunters and gatherers. Although women sometimes hunted, their primary role was as gatherers. They provided the bulk of the food and in tropical areas they supplied 80% of their food requirements. Even in the harshest areas of the country the Aborigines survived well. The men hunted for animals and fished in the rivers but even if unsuccessful they knew that on their return to camp, the women would have collected sufficient food. In the Bunwurrung area the women also collected shell fish.

As gathering of food took 4-5 hours and started early in the day there was plenty of time in the afternoon for their chores. The women might make string from fibrous plants and make bags. The men might make tools for hunting such as throwing sticks, shields, spears and hatchets. With a hammerstone the men could make a spear head in seconds if they found the right material. As well as a collecting bag the women carried long digging sticks. These were vital in the gathering of tuberous plants which made up a third of the 940 plant species recorded as a food source.

'Fire stick farming' was used to manage natural resources. By controlled burning of the countryside, there were fewer shrubs and trees, and new growth of grasses after burning attracted animals like kangaroos which were easier to kill in the more open landscape. Also the burning encouraged the growth of tuberous plants. When the women thinned out the plants with their sticks the plants produced larger tubers. Over a period of time, perhaps 3 years, the tubers would become smaller and burning would commence again. In the Melbourne area daisies, Lilies and orchids flourished. Murnong or yam daisies were eaten raw in spring but cooked at other times.

Material possessions other than tools were non-existent to the aborigines and in fact would have been a hindrance. It was easy to move camp with little to carry. Bark stripped from trees could be used for quick shelters and bark could be crafted into canoes. A woman could only carry one child whilst collecting food and moving around so infanticide was a common practice.

The Aborigines allowed plenty of time for the spiritual part of their lives which has been passed down in the Dreaming stories and which was how they defined their daily lives.

[Dr. Gary Presland]

( The above is a report on Dr. Gary Presland's address at the General Meeting on 10 September 2011 )

Contributed by Jan Hanslow ( PPPG Member No. 1057 )


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