themes and issues

The Wadda Wurrung people

But what about the people who built this “Australian Stonehenge”?

The Aboriginal tribe of the Wadda Wurrung, also called Wathaurong or Watha Wurrung, lived in the region where the Wurdi Youang site was discovered, so scientists think that they were the authors of this peculiar stone monument.

The Wadda Wurrung belonged to the Kulin, an alliance among five Indigenous Australian communities in Central Victoria. Each community consisted in twenty-five land-owning groups called clans. Clans were led by an arweet (clan headman). They occupied the territories from the southern side of the Werribee River to Port Phillip, the Bellarine Peninsula, the Otway forests and northwest to Mount Emu and Mount Misery. Their territory included the Ballarat goldfields.

From 1803 to 1847 they suffered a lot of massacres by Europeans (during one of them Woolmudgin, the head of the Wadda Wurrung balug clan, was killed) and, between 1836 and 1838, Europeans established in their territories. The Wadda Wurrung started to decline rapidly because of the scarce food sources and a severe flu
epidemic in 1839. By 1853 they numbered thirty to forty.

They had lived in their areas for the last 25,000 years and 140 archaeological sites have been found in the region, indicating a significant level of activity of the Wadda Wurrung people.

The Wadda wurrung were distributed over their wide territory according to seasonal food sources, ceremonial obligations and trading relationships. In fact they cultivated root vegetables and promoted grasslands, creating the best conditions for plants and game (=wild animals).

They used to cook their food in a pit lined with stones which retained and radiated the heat of the fire, that
they called minne. When the fire burnt down to glowing coals, food baskets woven from green rushes were filled with murnong (yam potatoes), meat (possum, wallaby, duck, fish), leaf vegetables etc., sewn up tightly and covered with more hot stones and coals and left to bake slowly.

After the meal the oven was swept out in preparation for the next day’s feast and, as a result, a midden, a heap of waste made up of animal bones, burnt shells, vegetable remains (but mostly ashes) was built up beside the ovens. Some of these heaps grew to be some metres high and examples can be found on many riverbanks and seashores in Australia.

An important meeting and camping area for the Aboriginal community was “Barwon Bluff”. Here people gathered and feasted on shellfish, eels and other seafood. It was known as Kolo:oit, which means the “mingling of fresh and salt water”.

The Wadda Wurrung lived in huge structures that could contain more than forty people and built with stone or timber walls and turf roofs, sometimes with two doorways, which were surrounded by smaller buildings. On the roofs they grew bower spinach (a vegetable) in the same way as Europeans grow grape and passion fruit vines over their terraces.

They were the first stone tool makers: they manufactured them using a sophisticated smoothing technique. Even without steel, Aboriginal people were able to make axes with wooden handles, spears with barbs and points, knives with sharp blades, scrapers, grinding tools and a lot of other useful tools. With hair and grass they wove baskets, while fishing nets were made from hair and bake cords; bowls, basins and babies’ cradles were shaped from the bark of trees and clothes were made with animal furs and sewn together with thin tendons. Some people even wore the skins of swans and pelicans as a decorative shawl.

They spent much of their time in cultural activities: dance was closely linked to music, produced by instruments like possum skin percussions, clap sticks, boomerangs or simply the human voice, which was the principal instrument used. The mosaics were another form of culture and they represented bunyips (mythological Aboriginal figures, like lake monsters), eels, whales and seahorses as vital spirits linked to the health and the prosperity of the people and the region.

Today the Wathaurong Co-operative tries to save the cultural identity of these ancient and wise people, that, although “primitive”,  found sophisticated solutions to everyday life needs.


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