Stone hatchet with ground edges collected at the 'old stables' believed to be on the current site of ANU. Photo by Jason McCarthy, courtesy of the National Museum of Australia.

Stone hatchet with ground edges collected at the 'old stables' believed to be on the current site of ANU. Photo by Jason McCarthy, courtesy of the National Museum of Australia.

Before ANU was here…

For more than 21,000 years the land on which the ANU campus sits was used by local Aboriginal people and their connection to this country remains strong. AMY JARVIS and JACK DUNSTAN explore the cultural history of our campus.

Imagine a campus without buildings, without manicured gardens, paths, roads and signs. Imagine an open savannah grassland with eucalypt forests and a trickling creek leading to a river.

The backdrop is a grand mountain, but there is no telecommunications tower at its summit.

This is the landscape that local Aboriginal people lived in and managed for more than 21,000 years.

There is extensive physical evidence of the occupation and use of the Canberra region by Aboriginal people, with over 3,500 recorded sites including rock art, grinding grooves, ceremonial and camp sites, shelters, scarred trees as well as artefact scatters and arrangements.

Firsthand accounts of the cultural significance of this region, and in particular the Acton area, are told today by local Aboriginal elders and custodians including those from Ngunawal/Ngunnawal, Ngambri and Ngairu groups.

“We couldn't just go to Woolworths or Coles or Bunnings, we had no shops. We only had wood and stone to work with. We survived doing the simple things – living off country,” says Ngunawal elder, Tyronne Bell.

Without compasses or maps, landmarks like Black Mountain and the Sullivans Creek and Molonglo River (now Lake Burley Griffin) waterways were used as pathways to navigate across the landscape.

Ngunawal elder, Wally Bell, says these features also tell us much about how people lived in the area and what it may have looked like thousands of years ago.  

“This is a minor one (pathway), Sullivans Creek, but it connected up with the Molonglo River, and that in turn connected up with the Murrumbidgee,” he says.

Sullivans Creek was an important pathway that brought people to Black Mountain, a major ceremonial and meeting place.

Bell explains that different parts of the mountain were used for both men's business and women's business. It was also a place where different groups would meet, and have corroborees to talk about business, marriage and trade. 

Many of these sites are still maintained and continue to be used for the same purposes.

In his award winning book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia, Eminent Australian and ANU historian Bill Gammage writes about the use of this area by Indigenous Australians.

He says the native grasslands of Old Canberra House reveal many of the clues about how Indigenous people managed the area.

“This is a made landscape…not a natural landscape,” he says.

The land was shaped by regular ‘cool-burn’ fires to generate regrowth, attract animals for hunting, and create clearings of fertile soil to cultivate yams and other edible plants.

He says the area now known as South Oval was an important site for kangaroo harvesting, with land strategically cleared to trap kangaroos. 

“You could lure kangaroos by burning the grass and waiting a fortnight or so for the green growth to come up. Kangaroos can smell [the new grass]. Aboriginal people can be here and ambush them. If the kangaroos go in the forest they’re going to be slowed down, if they head for the creek they are going to be trapped against the water.”

Since becoming a University, the landscape at ANU has changed dramatically.

The dams built on the Molonglo River in the 1960s created Canberra’s centrepiece, Lake Burley Griffin, but also flooded precious Aboriginal rock art within the limestone caves below the Black Mountain peninsula.

Sullivans Creek no longer follows its original ‘pathway’ – it was realigned in the 1960s to make way for the construction of the Chifley Library.  

Later this year, thanks to a grant from the ACT Government, the ANU Aboriginal Heritage Trail will be launched.

The trail is a self-guided walk through important Aboriginal cultural sites around the campus including Sullivan's Creek and the Molonglo River. ANU Heritage worked closely with local Aboriginal groups to uncover some of the lesser known aspects of our history.