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For a very long time before Centennial Park featured a purpose-built waterplay area and ‘wild’ garden for children, it was a source of food for the local people. But in 1811 Governor Macquarie proclaimed 490 acres to the south of South Head Road as common grazing land, and the area that was to become the Centennial Parklands (Centennial Park, Moore Park and Queens Park) was cut off from its previous users.

A report by Val Attenbrow, assessing the evidence for the use of the area by Aboriginal people prior to colonisation[1], finds that the parklands would have provided many types of food and other resources. There were ‘plants that provided fruits, berries, seeds, tubers, nectar as well as leafy vegetables. They also provided wood, bark and fibres used to make tools, weapons and other pieces of equipment.’ It gives examples such as banksia, collected for nectar; melaleuca, ‘used as a wrap/blanket on which children were laid and in which babies were carried’; and grass trees (Xanthorrhoea) – the stems were used for spear shafts, the resin was used as an adhesive to make tools, to patch canoes or baskets, and to fasten objects into people’s hair, and the fronds were used in headdresses in ceremonies. (page 9)

Animals that would have been hunted in the heath and wooded areas of the parklands include ‘kangaroos, wallabies, possums, gliders, echidnas, bandicoots, fruit bats … birds, snakes, goannas and other lizards’. The freshwater wetlands would have been habitat for many types of fish as well as eels, tortoises, frogs and shellfish. Waterbirds would have been present in good numbers, and their eggs could have been eaten as well. Additionally, ‘emus are not on the current list of birds that inhabit the Parklands, [but] they would have been there in the past.’ (page 10)

I suppose the children of those times played in the water, hid from their parents and grandparents and balanced on logs, just as ours do today.

The local Aboriginal people would have used resources from a wider area than the parklands, so the report includes archaeological evidence from the surrounding area, the eastern Sydney peninsula. One find was at Sheas Creek at St Peters, where dugong bones were discovered when the creek was being turned into the Alexandra Canal. The report says:

Cut marks and scars on the bones suggest the animal was butchered and thus killed for food. Two ground-edged hatchet heads found in these deposits at the same time come from ca 70 m away from the dugong bones and whether they were deposited at the same time is not clear. The dugong bone has recently been dated to around 6000 years BP.[2]

The dugong is a sea creature, ‘a large grey brown bulbous animal with a flattened, fluked tail … no dorsal fin, paddle like flippers and distinctive head shape.’[3] They are mammals and can grow to 400 kilograms by grazing on sea meadows. They are thought to have inspired the idea of a mermaid, but you would have to say it was a mermaid with a very unfortunate face with their huge droopy noses and tiny eyes.

I keep thinking about that dugong. At that time, 6000 years ago, the coastline would have been roughly where it is now (18 000 years ago it was 12 km from the present coastline and the sea level was 140 metres below the present level) but that’s still a few kilometres from the spot where the bones were found. Why would you carry a dugong all that way? The creek itself was shallow, surrounded by swamps, so maybe the dugong got trapped there, having travelled up the Cooks River, making it easy prey. These days, when the Alexandra Canal is described as ‘the most severely contaminated canal in the southern hemisphere’[4], and the Cooks River has the unenviable title of ‘Australia’s most polluted river’[5], a dugong would die before it got anywhere near the bridge over Ricketty Street.

[1] https://www.centennialparklands.com.au/getmedia/e32ae90a-e730-4c28-82c4-4b17e9e3c5e1/Appendix_S_-_Pre-colonial_Archaeology_report_Val_Attenbrow.pdf.aspx

[2] Pre-colonial Aboriginal land and resource use in Centennial, Moore and Queens Parks, Val Attenbrow 2002, p22.

[3] https://australianmuseum.net.au/learn/animals/mammals/dugong/

[4] https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/from_sheas_creek_to_alexandra_canal

[5] https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/cooks-river-20190110-h19wqs.html