Nature conservation

Biodiversity Reform

Riverina - regional history

Aboriginal occupation

It is thought that Aboriginal people have been present in the Murray-Darling Basin for at least 40,000 years (Hope 1995, cited in Eardley 1999).

The Riverina Bioregion was the original homeland for many large Aboriginal communities that lived on the Hay Plain and around the rivers. These communities include the Wiradjuri, Nari-Nari, Mudi-Mudi, Gurendji and the Yida-Yida, while the Bangerang, Yorta-Yorta, Baraba-Baraba, Wamba-Wamba, Wadi-Wadi and Dadi-Dadi communities were found along the Murray River (NSW Department of Lands 1987, cited in Eardley 1999).

The rivers of the bioregion were central to the local Aboriginal lifestyles, especially as a source of food (Hope 1995, cited in Eardley 1999). It has been suggested that access to the water and its resources was a privilege inherited by generation after generation of certain groups (Pardoe 1988, cited in Eardley 1999).

Unlike Europeans that have tended to use major rivers as administrative boundaries, the Aboriginal communities of the Riverina did not view the rivers as boundaries between language groups. Wiradjuri country straddled the Murrumbidgee, Bangerang country lay west from Albury to Moama on both sides of the Murray, and the Narinari occupied the land west of this.

The Bangerang people used the Murray River extensively, travelling the river in bark canoes. Many trees by the river today still show evidence of bark cut from them in at least the early nineteenth century (HO and DUAP 1996). Other relics of Aboriginal presence are common along the Riverina river systems, including human burial sites, camping sites and middens (NSW NPWS 2001b and Donovan 1997, cited in Eardley 1999).

The extensive use of the Murray by the Bangerang has been compared to the way early settlers used the Hawkesbury in the Sydney Basin Bioregion as a means of communications and trade and as a source of food (HO and DUAP 1996). Near what is now Corowa near Albury there is a line of rocks across the river that the Aboriginal people used to aid the spearing of fish. The Murray supplied the Bangerang with Murray cod and shellfish, while nuts, fruit and tubers were found in the river's surrounds.

It is likely that the Bangerang joined the Wiradjuri and Monaro groups at the summer feasts of bogong moths in the alpine country, although they had less of a nomadic lifestyle than these communities (HO and DUAP 1996).

By the 1830s, European settlers had made their presence clear when diseases such as influenza, smallpox and syphilis ravaged the Wiradjuri and Bangerang communities (HO and DUAP 1996). The 1840s saw a worsening of the damage to these communities as they began to let go of their traditional practices that were now made so difficult by European presence.

A census of Aborigines in 1845 estimated there were about 2,000 living in the Murrumbidgee Pastoral District, including 100 at Thomas Mitchell's station near what is now Albury, 300 near Deniliquin, and 200 at Urana on the eastern boundary of the Riverina Bioregion. Middens, which reflected the high usage and high population density of the eighteenth century, were deserted, and midden material was used in place of gravel by the Europeans (HO and DUAP 1996).

Some traditional life of the Aborigines continued through the 1840s and 1850s but by the 1870s important ceremonies such as corroborees began to attract the interest of settlers who encouraged them as a form of entertainment by paying groups of Bangerang to perform them.

The 1870s also saw social problems arise in Aboriginal communities. Having been forced out of their traditional practices of fishing and being ill treated and unappreciated by the settlers, the men were forced into employment on local stations or went to live in towns such as Albury. The women of the Wiradjuri and Bangerang communities were forced to work as domestic servants and often bore settlers' children (HO and DUAP 1996).

More recently, the reinstatement of marriage practices in the Wiradjuri community has helped them to retain and encourage a sense of identity (HO and DUAP 1996).

European occupation

John Oxley first explored the Riverina in 1817, following the Lachlan River downstream southwest of Booligal in the centre of the bioregion (Eardley 1999). Oxley was followed almost 20 years later by Thomas Mitchell, who arrived at the junction of the Lachlan and the Murrumbidgee Rivers in 1836, and by Charles Sturt, who explored the Murrumbidgee and lower Murray in the years between 1828 and 1831 (Eardley 1999).

Graziers followed soon after, establishing pastoral runs near Yanco and on the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers as far west as Hay between 1835 and 1839 (Eardley 1999). In the 1840s, cattle were the primary industry but by the 1860s sheep were the predominant stock (Eardley 1999).

The river steamer trade was important for the development of Darlington Point (HO and DUAP 1996) from 1858 when the first steamer came past and local entrepreneurs realised the business potential of selling local timber for fuel. Inns opened at Darlington Point in the 1860s and in 1876 McCulloch and Co began trading in a general store and wool-store. The town was successful, continuing in the steamboat trade for a further 50 years.

In 1915 the River Murray Waters Agreement allowed 26 weirs to be constructed with locks, providing permanent riverboat access to Echuca in Victoria. When riverboats were no longer used, the primary focus was on the provision of water for irrigation (Eardley 1999). The Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area was established in the Riverina in 1912, created by the diversion of water from the Murrumbidgee near Narrandera.

Construction of several dams followed in the ensuing years, with the Hume Dam built between 1919 and 1931 on the Murray near Albury, Burrinjuck Dam built on the Murrumbidgee in 1928 and Blowering Dam on the Tumut River built in 1968 (Eardley 1999).

Since rice growing is highly dependent on water supply, these dams, along with irrigation schemes endorsed by the state, allowed rice production to grow into an important industry for the region (Eardley 1999). Large-scale rice farming, particularly in the central and south of the bioregion, and the technology used to produce rice, are largely driven by the Japanese export market (Eardley 1999).

Water availability in the bioregion due to dams, bore water and increased agricultural technology has allowed the irrigated area to extend its range, enabling the cultivation of irrigated crops in the plains around Darlington Point, Deniliquin and Hay (Eardley 1999).

Cotton crops, which are also highly reliant on water supply, were established in the Riverina Bioregion more recently. Sheep grazing still occurs on land not suitable for cropping, and potatoes are farmed on fast-draining sand hills (Eardley 1999). Orchards and vineyards are also a common land use in the east of the bioregion (HO and DUAP 1996).

The high soil fertility and abundance of water in the Riverina floodplain has made the area highly productive for plant growth. This has influenced land use in the region in the past 150 years, causing extensive changes in the natural distribution and condition of the vegetation cover (Eardley 1999).

The use of the Murrumbidgee River for irrigation and greater crop production has led to Aboriginal poet Iris Clayton lamenting the fate of the Murrumbidgee, especially if it continues to be treated as it has been for the last 200 years:

    'No one knows how long he's been there
    Twisted, old ravaged beyond repair
    Father to many, too many to count.
    His dying will be a terrible account
    Perhaps if the damage is quickly mended
    His shores and banks strongly defended
    Old River Bidgee need never be
    Another lost legend of the Warrajarree.'
    (Clayton 1988)

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Page last updated: 26 April 2016