While some people think Ballarat’s story began with the gold rush, this part of Australia has a human history perhaps as long as 50,000 years. Before the gold rush, there was sheep farming, and before that the Wadawurrung people lived traditional lifestyles just like their ancestors had for thousands and thousands of years before them. The story of Australia begins a long time before the arrival of Captain Cook.
The Traditional Owners of Ballarat call themselves the Wadawurrung people, named after the language they speak. Their country starts at the coast around Geelong, and ends just north of Ballarat. For tens of thousands of years, Wadawurrung people have studied the plants, animals, climate and natural features (like rivers and mountains) and their knowledge of this environment enabled them to farm it to produce all of the food, clothing and shelter they needed to live comfortable lives.
The kind of farming the Wadawurrung people undertook before the arrival of Europeans looked very different to the kind of farming we see around Ballarat today. Instead of keeping animals on healthy feeding grounds (like grassy paddocks) through the use of fences, Wadawurrung people promoted the growth of the animals’ favourite foods close to their family campsites, making animals easy to find and kill for food and clothing (they used possum and kangaroo skins to make clothes/blankets). They didn’t need fences, so these animals could enjoy wild, free lives. This kind of farming was also used to provide plant foods and medicine plants.
Wadawurrung people knew their country well, so they knew where certain foods/medicines would thrive and could be easily accessed. By understanding when plants created fruit or grew big yummy tubers (like the sweet, coconutty roots of the murnong daisy which was an important Wadawurrung food) and what soil/rain conditions plants liked, the Wadawurrung people were able to produce a wide variety of foods that were reliable and plentiful. During the early years of European colonisation, many Europeans in Australia wrote in their diaries etc. that Aboriginal people appeared very healthy, and most lived long lives.
Due to this deep understanding of their environment, the Wadawurrung people only needed to work for a few hours each day to collect all of the food and clothing/housing resources they needed, which meant they had plenty of time for other activities. Like Australians today, they spent a lot of time teaching skills and knowledge to their children, and enjoyed complex cultural lives. During regular ceremonies like Corroborees and Tanderrums, they might visit family, friends and trading partners (business friends) all over what we now call Victoria. This leisure time could also be used to improve eel traps and hunting technologies (like spears and boomerangs), or decorate their possum-skin cloaks with stories about their lives and their country.
When the squatters (sheep farmers) arrived after Batman’s “treaty” in 1835, the lives of the Wadawurrung people started to change. Within just a few years the introduced sheep had eaten almost all of the murnong daisies, and the farmers started to push the Victorian Aboriginal peoples off their traditional lands which resulted in violent conflicts around Victoria, much of which wasn’t recorded in the history books.
By the time the gold rush began in 1851, introduced diseases, despair and violent conflict had caused the deaths of many Victorian Aboriginal peoples. Those who survived the squatter period had been compelled to learn English and seek work on farms, and could now use these skills to work with the gold miners. Traditional skills like hunting, tracking lost people and making warm possum-skin cloaks were all shared with the Europeans, usually for a price. However, as a result of this destruction of the traditional lifestyles of Victorian Aboriginal peoples, like others the Wadawurrung people have lost many aspects of their cultural, economic and language knowledge.
Many Wadawurrung people still live “on Country” today across Ballarat and Geelong. They are working hard to piece their culture back together based on both oral history and written history to better understand the lives of their ancestors. At Sovereign Hill, we think that learning about the culture, history, language and experiences of the Wadawurrung people, from 60,000 years ago until today is an important part of being a Ballaratian.
What do you know about the Wadawurrung people? If you would like to learn more about their traditional way of life and their experiences of the squatter period and the gold rush, take a look at this website Sovereign Hill created.
If you are a teacher and want some support in teaching your students about Aboriginal history and culture, we have produced a Teaching Kit to complement our Hidden Histories: The Wadawurrung People digi-tour which you can access for free here: for primary schools, for secondary schools.
During Reconciliation Week 2016, Sovereign Hill launched its first Aboriginal history festival called ‘Gnarrwirring Ngitj’ (meaning ‘learning together’ in Wadawurrung language and pronounced ‘noworring nict’). Check out the program of events here.
Links and References:
The Wathaurong Aboriginal Corporation (trading as Wadawurrung) website: http://wathcorp.com.au/
Sovereign Hill’s free digi-tour Hidden Histories: The Wadawurrung People: http://sovereignhillhiddenhistories.com.au/
A great Wikipedia page about possum-skin cloaks: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Possum-skin_cloak
A Wikipedia page about the frontier conflicts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_frontier_wars