For thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans, the surrounding areas of Goulburn, Yass, and Canberra were occupied by smaller groups of Ngunawal Aboriginal clans. Living primarily along the Ngunawal line, they fished and hunted in the waters and hinterlands of the area and harvested food from the surrounding bush. Moving throughout their country in accordance with the six seasons (Circle of Life), people only needed to spend about a few hours per day working to ensure their survival. Self-sufficient and harmonious, they had no need to travel far from their country, since the resources around them were so abundant.
These smaller Ngunawal clans would meet at Canberra from time to time for special corroborees, marriage, trade and most of all to unite the smaller clans to become one large Ngunawal clan.
Meetings of the Ngunawal were around a camp fire with the elders from the smaller clans to conduct language, customs, spirituality and most importantly, lore. After the Ngunawal held their meeting, they would invite and trade with other neighbouring clan groups such as the Yuin, Gundungurra and Woddi Woddi which were already well established.
Stone tools & artefacts
The tools used by the Ngunawal before and after the arrival of Europeans would have included a wide range of items. Stone tools were used predominantly in manufacturing ground edge axes and spear barbs rather than for extractive purposes.
Numerous wooden implements used by the Ngunawal in the clan area including spears (dyuin), shields (murga), fighting club (kudyeru), carrying dish (gunggun), canoes (mundang) and boomerangs (berra); the use of bone awls to
sew kangaroo and possum skin rugs together and shells ornaments
to remove flesh.
The use of digging sticks, which were most likely the main tool for food procurement used by Ngunawal women. Other tools made were ropes, nets for fishing, baskets and domestic utensils being glass and telegraph insulators.
Camp site selection
Most Ngunawal camps sites were close to a water source, on well-drained ground not on the water's edge; and located in defensible positions with access to firewood and bark for hut-making. Location out of the wind and food source was likely to have been the governing factor in the selection of a campsite.
Ngunawal people never camped on rivers but on nearby rises because of their fear of bunyips. One dreamtime story passed down over time has suggested that a bunyip existed at Devil's Pass (near Yass) and took a Ngunawal girl “Nada”. Historical references to the close proximity of campsites to European homesteads and blanket issue posts suggests that the placement of campsites was influenced by access to food and other resources. However, over time, it is likely that other factors may have increasingly influenced the selection of a campsite, such as employment and resource availability and European control over campsite location.
Traditional food sources
According to ethnohistorical evidence, a wide range of resources was obtained by the Ngunawal clans on the Limestone Plains which were rich in animal and bird life. The open plains surrounded by timbered country attracted kangaroos, wallabies, wallaroos, wombats, emus and a variety of other fauna, which were hunted by the men and older boys.
Scrub and reeds grew around the numerous lagoons, swamps and streams allowing favourable conditions for the proliferation of numerous types of aquatic birds. Smaller game and vegetable foods were obtained by the women and children including birds, lizards, possums, native cats, fish, mussels, bird eggs, yams, berries, grubs and grass seed.
Bogong moths are brown with a wing span of about four centimetres. They belong to the family Noctuidae. The wing pattern easily distinguishes the bogong moth from other closely related species. Their brown colouring provides camouflage while they are resting in the caves.
Each year as the weather warms in south east Australia, bogong moths (Agrotis infusa) prepare to migrate. Through spring they fly to the high country of the Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales and the Victorian Alps. They arrive in such numbers that they completely cover the floors of the caves, resting in thick clusters, each moth with its head under the wings of the one in front. They return to the plains to mate and lay their eggs on a food plant near the soil.
They have been doing this for thousands of years to escape the harsh summer environment in their winter breeding areas of the Darling Downs in Queensland, western slopes and plains in New South Wales and drier inland regions of Victoria. In autumn they make the return journey.
Adult bogongs feed on nectar and, during migration, are often seen feeding at dusk on flowers such as grevilleas. They prepare for summer by building fat reserves (up to 60 per cent of their bodyweight), during aestivation they usually do not feed but they may drink in dry weather. Food they eat when they return from the mountains allows them to reproduce. If nectar is not available they are unable to reproduce.
In a favourable year a female lays up to 2,000 eggs and the larvae grow slowly over winter.
The Ngunawal people were well aware that the moths congregate in these caves in summer, during the November to January period. Aborigines from different clans would gather to take advantage of a nutritious reliable food source on offer.
Dislodging the moths from the rock crevices with sticks or a smouldering piece of brushwood, the Aborigines knocked the moths into a catcher, such as those made of bark, kangaroo skin, or a net made of kurrajong fibre. The moths were gathered and cooked in sand and stirred in hot ashes (this singed off the wings and legs).
The moths were then sifted on a net to remove their heads, and were generally eaten like this, although sometimes they were ground into a paste and made into cakes. Moth meat is said to have a nutty taste, somewhat like walnuts.
First European contact
The first known European exploration in the region known as the Limestone Plains was recorded in 1820 by Charles Throsby, who had learnt of the existence of the Murrumbidgee River and Lake George from Aborigines on the Goulburn Plains. After finding Lake George, a party consisting of Throsby's nephew, Joseph Wilde and James Vaughan set out to find the Murrumbidgee River, and although the party did not find the Murrumbidgee, they did investigate the Molonglo and Queanbeyan Rivers. Throsby was determined to find the Murrumbidgee River, and was successful in doing so in 1821. He was followed by Captain Mark Currie in 1823 and Allan Cunningham in 1824.
Throsby and his party failed to observe any Aborigines on either expedition, but did report the sighting of "several native fires at a distance, the first I've seen since I left the new country" in the Canberra Region. Currie in 1823 encountered a group of Aborigines beyond Tuggeranong near the Murrumbidgee River, however, the group fled on the party's approach. With the help of a domesticated Aboriginal guide and the offering of gifts, he was able to learn of the country to the south. Cunningham met no Aborigines in 1824, though he did see fires in the vicinity of Lake George and noted burnt patches of land on the Tuggeranong Plains.
It is unlikely that the Ngunawal were largely affected by European exploration on the Limestone Plains. Most European exploration was undertaken during the summer, the Ngunawal were probably aware of these intruders, as suggested by their wide communication network with other Aboriginal groups, and may have attempted to avoid contact. It is also possible that the Ngunawal had already experienced some effects of European occupancy in Australia, in the form of disease and murder for instance, which may have preceded actual white settlement in the region.
The Ngunawal continued to make use of traditional food supplies until at least the mid-nineteenth century, gradually adopting European resources into their subsistence. As European occupation was initially relatively limited, the Ngunawal were probably able to utilise the tablelands and mountains in a traditional manner with only slight modifications. However, with the extension and intensification of pastoral activity, the depletion of traditional food supplies, disease and other factors, the Ngunawal appear to have become increasingly reliant on relationships with the European invaders. In time, the Ngunawal appear to have been absorbed into the colonial economy, working and living on various settlements in the region.