Culture and heritage

Aboriginal heritage

Places of significance

Aboriginal people have lived in the area known as New South Wales for at least 45,000 years. Many sites around the state show the remains of Aboriginal occupation, or are significant to Aboriginal communities today.

These places are important to Aboriginal people for social, spiritual, historical, and commemorative reasons. They reflect the ways in which Aboriginal people view their cultural heritage. These places carry a relationship between one person and another, and between people and their environment.

Locations

There are over 65,000 known Aboriginal sites in NSW. Aboriginal sites are found all over the landscape, including:

  • in towns and cities
  • on popular beaches
  • along river banks and tracks
  • on open plains
  • in dense forests
  • in parks and reserves.

Different environments and cultural practices produce different types of sites.

The Aboriginal 'Living Places' project was a four-year study, which aims to record places in NSW where Aboriginal people have settled since colonisation.

Types of sites

Aboriginal sites in NSW range from large shell middens on the coast, to small surface scatters of stone artefacts on the inland semi-arid plains.

They can include:

Ceremonial grounds

These are sites where initiation ceremonies, marriage alliance ceremonies, tribal meetings, and other important social functions were held. They are places of great significance to Aboriginal people.

Carved trees

Carved trees are becoming rarer in NSW as trees decay and fall over or are burnt. Aboriginal people used carved trees to mark burial and ceremonial sites. Usually a section of the bark of the tree was removed and a carving made on the exposed wood. These trees are still significant to particular Aboriginal groups.

Scarred trees

These are trees from which a section of the bark and wood has been removed to make canoes, shields, containers (coolamons), and other utensils and weapons. Other trees have toeholds cut in them, for hunting possums or gathering honey.

More information about Aboriginal scared trees

Stone arrangements

Stone arrangements range from simple mounds to complex ceremony sites. Some of these may have a practical use, as hunting hides or fish traps. Others may have a ceremonial role, for initiation or other religious purposes. We do not know the purpose of many stone arrangements, but some are still important and significant to Aboriginal groups.

Protection

Development has destroyed many sites, and those that remain need to be protected. The primary piece of legislation which protects Aboriginal cultural heritage in NSW is the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NPW Act). Under the NPW Act it is an offence to harm (destroy, deface, or damage) or desecrate an Aboriginal object or Aboriginal place, or in relation to an object, move the object from the land on which is has been situated.

An Aboriginal Place declaration recognises that places are (or were) of special significance to Aboriginal culture. It gives the land a higher level of protection, to safeguard its significance to Aboriginal people.

Search of Aboriginal Places using the NSW Heritage Inventory for detailed information including a map, photos, location information, gazettal notices, and an explanation of the significance for each of the declared Aboriginal Places.

Learning from the sites

When Aboriginal places are protected, there are benefits for both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal sites can tell us a lot about the history of Aboriginal people in NSW. The next time you drive into the NSW countryside, think about how the landscape may reveal a very different story to Aboriginal people who understand the land. They may see such things as:

  • important food and medicinal plant species
  • territories, important sites, or good camping areas, reflected in landscape changes such as soil colour or plant species, rivers or mountains
  • cultural aspects of prominent natural features, formed long ago by one of the creation ancestors.

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Page last updated: 16 February 2016