Aboriginal Sydney Part 3

Image: Wikipedia, 'A map of Sydney 1789'
This excerpt was taken from Melinda Hinkson's 'Aboriginal Sydney' book, published in 2001.


Across Australia more than 250 distinct languages were spoken by Aboriginal people at the time of European contact, with many languages in turn comprising a number of dialects. Due to a lack of reliable information, our knowledge of the names and boundaries of language groups around Sydney is incomplete. Commentators and Aboriginal people themselves generally agree on the areas that were inhabited by the Ku-ring-gai and the inland Darug speaking groups, and on the rough boundaries of the lands of the Dharawal, Gandangara, and Darkinjung peoples who were their neighbours. The area which reamains to some extent unclear is that which centres squarely on Sydney itself - the land and waterways bounded by Port Jackson and Botany Bay. There are two broad positions regarding the identification of language groups and communities of people in this area. One holds that the peoples of Sydney spoke a coastal dialect of the Darug language and that Sydney should be identified as Darug land. The other proclaims Sydney as belonging to the Eora people and views Eora as a distinct language. 

Eora is the name that the British used to identify the poeple of Sydney at the time of colonisation. The name probably arose from a misunderstanding - when asked where they came from, the local Indigenous people replied 'Eora', meaning 'here', or 'the people of this place'. There is no evidence to suggest the word was actually used by Aboriginal people themselves as a name for a social group, but Eora has survived and been adopted by many descendants of Sydney's original traditional owners as their term of self-identification. Darug is said to have been the Aboriginal word for a small yam which was the totem of the Darug people.

Pre-1788 forms of Community

In terms of everyday social organisation, Sydney's Aboriginal people identified not as belonging to a language group, but rather as members of groups of people descended from a common ancestor, who claimed ownership of specific territory or 'Country'. People from adjoining groups formed small communities through intermarraige; anthropologists often refer to these as 'bands'. Community recognition of traditional ownership of land and waterways was the cultural cornerstone of pre-contact Aboriginal society. Ownership of territory was inherited at birth and had a strong spiritual component - collectively, members of a community shared responsibility for protecting sacred sites and hunting grounds, and for maintaining the cultural knowledge which gave these sites meaning.

Membership of communities ranged in number from about 35 - 60 people. However, it was only on rare occasions, when resources were plentiful or ceremonies were held, that all members of a community would come together. More often, people moved around, hunted, fished, foraged and camped in smaller groups. 

British officers recorded the names of some communities. People were known by the name of their country, with the suffix 'gal' added for men and 'galleon' for women; so a man from Sydney Cove, or Cadi, was known as Cadigal, and a women Cadigalleon. In the names recorded by the British, the male identifier often came to stand for the group as a whole, so the community who owened and occupied the southern side of Port Jackson incorporating Sydney Cove were known as the Cadigal. The people of the southern shores of Botany Bay, which was referred to as Gwea, were the Gweagal, those at Cammeray were the Cammeraigal, and so on. Communities came together throughout the year for initiation ceremonies, to share a feast, to exchange goods, and to hold funeral ceremonies.