2. Resources Available to the Aboriginal People

  1. Ethnohistory
  2. Resources Available to Aboriginal People
  3. Melbourne Region Contact History
  4. Monash Region Contact History

The resources available for Aboriginal subsistence in the past would have been rich. The study area and surrounding region contains a variety of productive ecological zones such as riverine, mountainous, lacustrine and terrestrial that would have been attractive for hunter-gathers.

It is likely that areas associated with water bodies and drainage systems were the focus of exploitation by Aboriginal people within and near the study area. The Dandenong Creek, its tributaries and floodplain as well as Scotchman's, Gardiner's and Damper Creeks would have formed part of the focus of pre-settlement Aboriginal exploitation and habitation. Within the riverine ecological zone, there would have been variations in staple species diversity and abundance, and this in turn would have influenced site location and visitation frequency (Walsh 1987). Campsites would have been situated on elevated dry and sheltered ground adjacent to Dandenong Creek from which its wetlands as well as the other creeks, forest and heath ecological zones in the study area could be exploited.

Gott (2001: 1-8) identifies plants utilised by Aboriginal people in the various vegetation communities of the City of Monash. Plants that were utilised in heath vegetation included Scrub She-oak (Allocasuarina paludosa), Silver Banksia (Banksia marginata) and Common Beard-heath (Leucopogon virgatus). In the open forest, Aboriginal people used species such as Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis ssp. viminalis), Messmate Stringybark (Eucalyptus obliqua), Red Stringybark (Eucalyptus macrorhyncha) and Black She-oak (Allocasuarina littoralis) and Kangaroo grass (Themeda trianda) (Gott 2001: 1-8; Gott nd: 2-4).

Plants such as murnong, bracken and tree ferns provided staple foods for Aboriginal people, while medicines could be made from species such as Blackwood (Acacia mearnsii) and wood or bark from Silver Wattle could be used to manufacture implements. The Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung practiced the regular burning of the forest understorey to regenerate staple foods such as Murnong, or Yam daisy (Microseris lanceolata). Grazing in the study area has largely depleted Murnong, however some survives in the Damper Creek reserve (Gott nd: 4). In 1873 Aboriginal people in the Melbourne area were observed as eating murnong:

'Their natural food consists of the meat of the country when they can kill it, but chiefly roots, of which the favourite is a plant very much like dandelion. This they roast or eat raw' (Winter 1837 in Bride 1968:395).

The underground stems, or rhizomes, of the bracken fern were "roasted in hot ashes and beaten into a paste with a stone to break up the hard fibre" (Gott and Conran 1991: 25; Zola and Gott 1990: 37). The stem of the tree fern was split and the starchy pith was taken out and eaten (Gott and Conran 1991: 40; Zola and Gott 1990: 36). Open forest trees such as,Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) and the Late Black (Acacia mearnsii) and Silver wattles (Acacia dealbata) had a variety of uses. As a medicinal plant, the bark of Blackwood was used to ease rheumatism by heating and infusing with water, string for fishing was obtained from fibre in the inner bark, with spear throwers and shields manufactured from the hard wood of the tree (Gott and Conran 1991: 50).

The wood of the Silver wattle was used for stone axe handles. The gum of both Silver and Late Black Wattle could be mixed with ash to make a waterproof paste for repairs of canoes, or as food eaten plain or dissolved with flower nectar and water as a sweet drink (Gott and Conran 1991: 44; Zola and Gott 1990: 38). Found also in the forest, were the ripe fruits of the Kangaroo apple (Solanum aviculare) and Cherry Ballart (Exocarpos cupressiformis) that were eaten, while the wood from the Cherry Ballart was also used to make spearthrowers (Gott and Conran 1991: 31, 37). The forest would have provided habitat for a number of land and arboreal mammals that would have been exploited for food, sinew, fur and skin, such as possums, kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, emu and echidna.

The creeks in the study area were not only important sources of fresh water, but also aquatic animals, such as fresh water fish, eels, crustaceans and waterfowl. Plants found along and within creeks, such as reeds and rushes provided both food and fibre. It is probable that stone or fibre traps for fish and eel were constructed along all creeks in the area. Evidence of similar stone structures was noted along the Maribyrnong River on the western side of Melbourne in the early Contact period (Popp 1979 in Vines 1997). The roots (rhizomes or tubers) of the Cumbungi (Typha orientalis), Water ribbon (Triglochin procerum) and Common Reed (Phragmites australis) were harvested and cooked in earth ovens (Gott nd: 5; Gott and Conran 1991: 8-9). In the case of the Cumbungi, after being cooked, the centre part of the rhizome was knotted then chewed to extract starch and the remaining fibre was used for string (Gott and Conran 1991: 8).

Members of Aboriginal clans rarely numbered more than thirty during their day-to-day activities, only forming large groups for particular social functions or to exploit abundant seasonal food resources. Eels were obtained during autumn from locations such as the Carrum Swamp and other wetland areas along the Dandenong Creek and other nearby waterways and enabled large and/or extended campsites. Exploitation of the low-lying flood plain area and Dandenong Creek banks would have been greatest during summer. During the winter months when the Dandenong Creek flood plain would often have been inundated, higher and drying grounds would have been preferred campsite locations (Rhodes 1993).

Swamp, Manna and Red Gum trees were common along watercourses and within flood plain areas of the region. Because of their smooth bark and large size, they were commonly used for the manufacture of bark and wooden implements by Aboriginal people (Edwards 1972: 31). Apart from the manufacture of implements and access to food and medicinal resources, the bark from these trees would also have been removed for other ceremonial and social non-utilitarian purposes. The red gum forests that dominated the pre-settlement landscape from Dandenong to Cranbourne (Carrum Swamp) are known to have been an important bark and wood resource area, as evident by the high numbers and wide variety of recorded Aboriginal scarred tree sites.

Some stone resources used by Aboriginal people in the past would have been available in areas near the study area. Silcrete and basalt were favoured stone materials for the manufacture of stone implements. These materials would have been readily available from nearby sources that have been documented to the west and east of the study area. Quartzand quartzite river pebbles were also readily available from rivers and creeks within or near the study area. Extensive deposits of a variety of ochre were present within the shire, later forming a substantial industry in paints and may have been an important trade item for local clans. This ochre would have been well known and probably well utilized by local Aboriginal groups during the pre-contact period.

The Woi wurrung tribe had specific rights or custodianship over the Mount William greenstone quarry near Lancefield. This provided the Woi wurrung clans with material for axe heads and considerable economic and cultural influence by controlling access to the site and distribution of the stone. Stone from the quarry was exchanged through a barter system of other prized possessions such as a possum skin cloak, which would be exchanged for three or four greenstone axe blanks. The value of the stone was evidently high as a cloak often contained as many as twenty-eight skins and took considerable time and effort to make. Billibellary (Willam Barak's uncle) who was chief of the Wurundjeri willam clan, was the last custodian of the Mount William quarry prior to European settlement of the area (McBryde 1984, Barwick 1984).

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Last updated: 19 February 2015