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The Australian National University

Australia's First Astronomers

Emu in the sky (Barnaby Norris)


Emu in the sky (Barnaby Norris)

Mt Stromlo and the surrounding areas were inhabited by the Ngunawal people for more than 20,000 years. The Ngunawal peoples, consists of a number of different clans bounded by the broad language groups of Wiradjuri (to the west of Yass), Ngarigo (south-east of Canberra), Walgalu, Gundungurra (to the north) and Yuin (on the coast). The Ngunawal people are identified on Tindale's map of Aboriginal Tribes of Australia (1974). This widely recognised and authoritative languages map is a representation of the language groups, or tribes, who inhabited Australia at the time of the new settlement in 1788.

Within the Ngunawal people there are known to be seven clans who lived in fairly specific localities. There is an obvious link between clan names and the modern names of the areas today. The Maloongoola lived in the Molonglo area, the Biyaligee, in the area of Pialligo, the Namitch or Namwitch lived in the area we know as Namadgi, the Cumbeyan lived in the Queanbeyan area, the Kanberri lived in the Belconnen area, the Toogoranoongh lived in Tuggeranong and the Yarr lived in the Yass area.

Scientific evidence demonstrates that the Ngunawal people have lived here for more than 21,000 years, perhaps from the time when the extreme cold of the last Ice Age eased. This is arguably one of the longest periods of continual habitation anywhere on earth. The Ngunawal people have developed a way of living and managing the natural resources of the land which has enabled this phenomenon.

The meaning of Canberra (original spelling Koyanberra) is meeting place. The Canberra region is generally understood to have been a meeting place for different Aboriginal clans, suggesting that there was a reliable food and water supply. To access areas of significance such as Mount Majura and Mount Ainslie, Black Mountain and the major meeting ground at the current site of (new) Parliament House, significant pathways were formed as people moved from place to place through transitional cultural boundaries following river and creek corridors and the ridges and spurs of hills and mountains. Pathways were the means of access across the region and Mt Stromlo was used as a physical and visual link to major spiritual and gathering places.

The arrival of European settlers to the region in the 1820s disrupted the traditional lifestyles of the local Aboriginal people. Limited access to land and resources and the spread of diseases severely impacted the local population. While there is some physical evidence of Aboriginal occupation on the lower slopes of the mountain, the disturbance since the construction of the Observatory has all but destroyed any artefacts at the top. There is however a strong cultural connection to this place, and to the sky, especially at night.

Aboriginal people have been scanning the Southern night sky for thousands of years and have used the positions of the stars as a kind of calendar, indicating the seasons and availability of certain foods. Constellations are also important to the dreaming stories of many Aboriginal cultures.

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