Cooks River

The beginning

If you trace your family back to the First Fleet then your family has been here for about 9 generations; a generation being 25 years in this case.

But scientific evidence of human occupation in Australia shows that First Nations people have been here for at least 2600 generations.

It also shows people have been in NSW for at least 1600 generations, and in our area for at least 420.

As a Society we acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land, but have tended to concentrate on the heritage of our area created since European occupation of Australia. While we cannot speak for the Gadigal or Wangal traditional owners or other Aboriginal people we do want to let others know of some of the very early Aboriginal heritage found in our area.

The oldest site, dated at 10,500 years ago, is a fireplace of charcoal that was found during a dig near Tempe House, Wolli Creek. Stone axes were also found here but archaeologists believe them to be much younger. So, this area was occupied over a long period of time.

Shell middens

The most obvious signs of occupation are shell middens and one can be found at Kendrick Park across Cooks River from Tempe House.  While this midden has been covered to protect it, there is a seating area which looks on to it. Middens are mounds of shells which have grown over time from people discarding shells after eating cockles, oysters and the like. It is believed that this midden was built up over centuries.

Midden in the background, Kendrick Park
Photo credit: Imogen Aanensen

That two sites have been found close by in this area of the river would imply that people found this a very good area for living over a long period of time.

Middens have also been found in other areas along Cooks River including at Undercliffe and Marrickville, but with so much disruption to the river and its banks it is likely that many have disappeared.

Besides middens and fires showing occupation there have also been finds of tools. Wooden tools don’t survive well in the soils of our area but stone tools do.

In 1961 a stone axe was found on ground now occupied by the Marrickville Golf Club.

Dugong discovery

Perhaps the most famous discovery of all was made in the 1890s in Sheas Creek, now the Alexandra Canal. While building the canal, workers found dugong bones with cutting marks on them and axes with ground edges. The cutting marks showed that the dugong had been cut up by Aboriginal people. The bones were dated to around 6000 years ago (240 generations). The skeleton of the dugong is held in the Australian Museum.

Dugong bones showing cut marks, from ‘Journal and proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales’, Vol 30, 1896, Plate XI, p 456
Source: Internet Archive [mobot31753002624135_0456.jpg]

While the river and the coast provided a good life, the area inland was also a good source of food and shelter.

Kangaroo ground

Watkin Tench, famed First Fleeter, produced a map of the Sydney area from the harbour to Cooks River and Botany Bay. In the area occupied by Marrickville, Petersham, Stanmore and others he wrote the ‘Kangoroo (sic) Ground’ implying that kangaroos were common there. It is believed that these grounds were actually created by Aboriginal people through burning to provide a good food source for kangaroos and then themselves. A stone axe was also found in Petersham in the 1920s.

Rock art

Perhaps the most exciting site in our general area is a sandstone cave in Undercliffe. Inside this cave are many pieces of rock art.

Incredibly there are 23 hand stencils, two with forearms and two foot stencils on the walls of the cave. There is also a large midden. Again, this is a site which has been occupied for a very long time. That it has survived for so long is a wonder and we should all be very focussed on ensuring that it and any other special places will survive into the future.

Rod Aanensen

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