Sydney's Aboriginal Heritage


Aboriginal Sites: Southern Sydney


Forty years ago, there was a life-size carving of a whale on this rock platform. Thanks to wind and waves weathering the soft sandstone, the carving has eroded away completely.

La Perouse: A carving of a large sea creature, possibly a whale, and its calf, was once clearly visible on the rocks at the southern end of Frenchmans Bay. Identified as being 120 metres south west of the La Perouse monument, the whale is 10 metres long and the calf half that length. Little of the carving is visible today, thanks to wind, water and foot erosion, being located at a spot which has been frequented by fishermen and visitors for over a hundred years. A carving of a shark and two unidentified objects, possibly weapons or tools such as an axe, are known to have existed 180 metres away. On a boulder like rock 30 metres north east of the fish were two carvings of boomerangs, one with a reverse curve.



Undercliffe: The most important surviving artwork site in the environs of Cooks River at Undercliffe contains 23 white hand stencils, two of them with forearms. At the site there are also two foot stencils, which are rare in the Sydney region, and an extensive midden. The site is on private property and has no public access.

Rocky Point, Sans Souci: 3 fish and a short V line are still visible below the high water mark on rocks on the south-west side of the point. These engravings are well preserved but are often covered by sand and/or water.

Georges River: Rock art, axe grinding grooves and middens are common around the bays of the Georges River. Middens are still visible at Alfords Point, Connells Point, Lime Kiln Bay, the largest midden being on Jewfish Bay, Oatley Park.


Axe grinding grooves and waterhole

Sylvania: An Aboriginal Rock Shelter exists on a property on the Georges River waterfront. Located halfway up a sandstone cliff face, the midden contained shells of rock oysters, Sydney cockles and pink frilled murex. Human teeth and parts of two skeletons were found on the site in 1982. The teeth were 2 molars and one premolar which probably belonged to a teenager judging by how unworn they are. A basalt hand axe also found was not made of local stone so it must have been made by another group of Aboriginals from another area and then traded. It was a common practice for the local community to trade axe blanks from further down the coast, usually from around Batemans Bay. On the site there are also ashes and charcoal raked out of cooking fires. There are many places in the northward facing overhang where water drips from the roof of the shelter, even when there hasn't been rain for weeks. Under one such drip there is a sandstone 'bowl' where the Aborigines probably collected water at a rate of 1.5 litres an hour. There are rock shelves which appear to have been used to store things. They are smeared with clay to make them smooth, the finger marks are still visible. On the wall are several child's and adult's hand stencils made by blowing red ochre. Like the basalt axe, the ochre would have been brought in from elsewhere.


Dharawal state conservation area.

Dharawal state conservation area: The overhangs near the creeks of the Upper Nepean River in this locality are full of rock art that differs considerably from that found in the inner Sydney region. The art here appears more recent - some believe much of it was produced in the colonial era. The medium used is often charcoal rather than the more traditional red and white ochres, which indicates the art was more spontaneous and possible produced "on the run".


Charcoal drawings of kangaroos in rock shelter along Myuna Creek, Heathcote National Park

Heathcote: A rock shelf in a front yard in Short Street, Heathcote, contains a carving of a 2 metre long snake. There is much evidence of Aboriginal occupation in Heathcote National Park though most is not clearly identified to protect it from vandals. Of particular interest is a rock shelter used by Aborigines located beside the Bullawaring Track between Kingfisher Pool and Myuna Pools. The shelter, its roof blackened by the cooking fires of the Aborigines, once contained hand stencils on its walls but these have been obliterated by graffiti. Alongside the overhang is a rare surviving example of a scarred tree from which the bark has been cut away to form a shield (above). The shape of the shield is visible even though the tree is old and has been affected by bushfires.


Scarred tree, Heathcote National Park

Kurnell: Shell middens exist on the shores of Botany Bay near where Lt. James Cook came ashore in 1770. Elsewhere in the Kurnell section of Botany Bay National Park are middens, burial sites and at least two engravings of fish and footprints.

Lucas Heights: Spear sharpening grooves are visible on the rocks surrounding a creek bed in bushland opposite the entrance to the AAEC Research Establishment on New Illawarra Road. The area is believed to have been a "bora" where tribal meetings and ceremonies were held. More sites located in the area contain engravings of a wallaby with young in its pouch, and what is believed to be a koala, however public access is forbidden as they are within the Holsworthy Military Area.

Waterfall: On the north side of Yanagong Street 70 metres west of Princes Highway on a small patch of rock level with the ground between the carriageway and the road fence are 2 kangaroos. 2.4 km north of Waterfall 700 metres north west of the Trig Station on the west side of Princes Highway on a large rock at the south west end of the saddle 60 metres west of the transmission line are 3 large mythical creatures crossed by kangaroo tracks. Adjoining them are bird tracks and a bird in flight. The site has views to Heathcote Creek.

Darkes Forest: 65 metres south west of Old Illawarra Road leading from Darkes Forest to Liverpool 100 metres west of where the road crosses Woronora River on flat topped rock outcrops are 6 figures - kangaroos and 6 human figures. 20 metres west are 2 similar human figures. 3.2 km north west of Darkes Forest post Office north east of the main road on a rocky outcrop on the southern side of the head of the creek in a marshy area are 2 men, footprints, and 10 metres south, a kangaroo.

Port Hacking
The area we now refer to as Port Hacking was known to the Dharawal People as Djeebahn, or Deeban. That Port Hacking must have been a favourite camping ground of the Aborigines is proved by the number of rock shelters, or, as they are locally styled, gunyahs , along its shores. In 1918 the worst tragedy in terms of human life in and around Port Hacking was reported due to the collapse of one of these shelters.


Jibbon Headland engraving

Sadly, the encroachment of suburbia has seen many of them destroyed by development or vandalism, or covered over by the landscaping of gardens. Some engravings, carvings, paintings, tool-making sites and midden sites remain, however, providing a source for research, and the passing of the story by story, song and dance. Middens can also be seen at many points along the shores of the Port Hacking River, including Little Moon and Great Moon Bays, Yowie Bay, Gymea Bay, Beauty Point and Greys Point. Middens reveal much of the Aboriginal life and history around Port Hacking. Flints, a skull and bone implements have been found by archaeologists during an excavation at numerous locations, such as Yowie Point. Spear sharpening grooves are visible on the rocks surrounding creeks in the area. Many overhangs on these shores still bear the stains of smoke from Aboriginal cooking fires.




Hand stencils in a rock shelter in the Cabbage Tree basin catchment. Photo: R.J. West

Cabbage Tree Creek: There is considerable evidence of Aboriginal occupation along the banks of this creek and The Basin. It is believed that the members of the Dharawal people lived here as late as the 1870s, making it one of the last areas in the Sydney region to have been occupied by the Aborigines in their pre-colonial lifestyle. This area was once rich in mddens, rock engravings and cave paintings, but many have been lost or are disappearing through vandalism, pollution or erosion by the elements. Axe grinding grooves and engravings of fish and animals are still visible. Numerous overhangs were used as campsites, as evidenced by their smoke-darkened roofs. Hand stencils are now rare but middens are plenteous on the shores of The Basin.

Burraneer Point, Burraneer: 17 sites have been recorded on the Burraneer Point, however most are now on private property and cannot be accessed. A fish is carved into a rock at the Recreation Reserve at the end of Woolooware Road South. The rock is not in its natural state, having been moved to its present location during construction of the reserve's car park.

A vertical rock art site with numerous well preserved engravings is located on Burraneer Point. Access by land to the site is not possible as it is on private property, however it is visible by boat and is pointed out to passengers on certain cruises of Port Hacking. Burrells Boatshed, near the Wahgunyah Cliffs on Gunnamatta Bay, was the site of many fine rock carvings which were destroyed when the boatshed was built in 1920.

Darook Park, Cronulla: Numerous rock carvings occur on private property overlooking the park. In the park itself, there are many rocks containing axe grinding grooves and numerous middens. An eel and a small animal (koala?) are carved on the sloping rear wall of a rock shelter on Gunnamatta Bay. Many overhangs on the shores of the bay are stained by the smoke from Aboriginal cooking fires.

Lilli Pilli Point: 3 groups of rock carvings and numerous middens have been recorded at numerous points around the Lilli Pilli peninsular, particularly the point which can be accessed by a walking track (they are not sign posted, however). Middens can also be seen at other points along the shores of the Port Hacking River, including Little Moon and Great Moon Bays, Yowie Bay, Gymea Bay, Beauty Point and Greys Point.

Gymea Bay: Rock shelters used by Aborigines are found around the shores of Gymea Bay. Flints, a skull and bone implements have been found by archaeologists during an excavation on Yowie Point.


Jibbon Head Aboriginal art site, Bundeena

Jibbon Headland: This Aboriginal engraving site on the Jibbon Headland near Bundeena is one of the best sites to visit if you want to see Aboriginal rock art. The engravings are visible from a platform just off the walking track from Bundeena to Marley Head and include numerous whales and sea creatures, wobbegong sharks, fish, a whale, boomerangs and shields carved into rock on Jibbon headland. The site is well signposted with descriptions and interpretations of the art.


Maianbar engraving

Maianbar: Numerous engravings are visible on a rock platform with panoramic views of Port Hacking. This one depicts a 4.8 metres long killer whale.

WARNING: These sites contain irreplaceable examples of the art of the indigenous peoples of the Sydney region. The engraving and rock paintings found at these sites are a reminder of a people who once lived in the Sydney region and as such are valuable part of their history and the history of Sydney that will be lost forever if it not treated with respect. Please do not deface or add to the art, as it is part of our heritage. All such sites protected by law, and to deface, modify or remove them in part or in whole is a criminal offence.

Protecting Aboriginal Art Sites
It is believed that over 6,000 drawings, most of which are carved into sandstone rock faces, once existed throughout what is now the Sydney metropolitan area, but many have been destroyed, bulldozed or blasted out of existence to make way for farms, bridges and later, suburbs. In most cases, those clearing the land or responsible for it did not know about the art's existence, nor did they have any inkling as to its value as either the last remaining evidence of a new vanished culture, its spiritual and religious importance to the survivors of that culture or as a part of Sydney's heritage. As there has been no one to maintain them for over 2 centuries, many of the examples of rock art which have managed to escape the onslaught of the bulldozer and pick axe have suffered the onslaught of wind, sand and sea erosion, being walked on, driven on and vandalised.

To protect what is left, the Government has wisely brought all Aboriginal sites in New South Wales under the protection the National Parks & Wildlife Act 1974. Under the act, it is illegal to disturb, damage, deface or destroy any relic, a relic being defined as any deposit, object or material evidence relating to indigenous & non European habitation of New South Wales (not being handicraft made for sale). By definition, this includes middens, habitation sites, rock carvings, rock paintings, scarred trees, stencils, stone arrangements, stone implements and tools. Though they have been given legislative protection, there is little known about the best way to manage Aboriginal sites. To western eyes, the ideal would be to turn the maintenance of sites over to the Aboriginal people. This sounds good in theory, however, under Aboriginal law, only select people are permitted to maintain the art at these sites. Where those select people cannot be found, or if there are no survivors from a particular tribe, no one can touch the art created by and for that tribe. Even so, the art is considered sacred to the Aborigines, so there is reluctance among the Aboriginal communities to maintain the art if it is to turned into something to make money from by showing it to tourists.

Consequently, the authorities have adopted a policy of keeping the public in the dark about the location of much of Sydney's Aboriginal sites. The thinking behind it seems to be "what the people don't know about the people can't damage". As the damage caused in the past has occurred mainly as a result of ignorance, some would argue that education of the public is a better way to deal with the problem than maintaining their ignorance. When the public do come across it, and can be vandalised, even unintentionally, as it has no relevance, hence no value to them.


Jibbon Head Aboriginal art site, Bundeena

Below are links to a few of the thousands of sites in and around Sydney which have been recorded as containing evidence of occupation by the indigenous people of the Sydney region. In the main, those listed offer easy access to visitors, are often sign posted and/or contain explanations as to what they represent.

The list includes sites which have been obliterated through the ravages of time, road and building construction etc. Though no evidence of their existence can be seen today, they are recorded here as they represent the types of sites which existed in their respective locations. For the same reason, some sites which are on private or government property have been listed, however there is no access to these sites. Attempts should not be made to view them other than from the roadside as they are on private property which, if entered without permission, is trespassing. Please respect the privacy of the owners of the properties.



Sydney's Aboriginal Heritage

About Aboriginal Culture
It is believed that the Aborigines of Australia first arrived on the continent some 25,000 years ago from southeast Asia, either by canoes, or by the now submerged Saul Shelf which once joined Australia to mainland Asia. At the time of the arrival of the first white explorers, the Aboriginal population was in the vicinity of 300,000. Each tribe had its own language, with dialects of a common language being common where a tribal area was vast.
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  • Clans and Bands of the Sydney Region
    The "tribal" names by which the Sydney district Aborigines are known refer more to the localities where the language or language group was spoken rather than ancestry. Around Sydney there were three main groups - Dharug, Kuringgai and Dharawal - each comprising of a number of smaller units called clans or hordes who claimed a common ancestry had their own land area with its sacred sites.
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    • Aboriginal Sites

      What Is An Aboriginal Site?
      It is believed that over 6,000 drawings, most of which are carved into sandstone rock faces, once existed throughout what is now the Sydney metropolitan area, but many have been destroyed, bulldozed or blasted out of existence to make way for farms, bridges and later, suburbs.
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