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Woiwurrung language, English
Australian Aboriginal mythology
Related ethnic groups
Boonerwrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Taungurong, Wathaurong
see List of Indigenous Australian group names
Aborigines on Merri Creek by Charles Troedel

The Wurundjeri are Indigenous descendants of the people of the Indigenous Australian nation of the Wurundjeri language group, in the Kulin alliance. They occupied the Birrarung (Yarra River) Valley, which have been proved scientifically. It's tributaries are the present location of Melbourne. Before European settlement, they lived as all people of the Kulin nation lived, on the land, predominantly as hunters and gatherers, for tens of thousands of years. Seasonal changes in the weather, availability of foods and other factors would determine where campsites were located, many near the Birrarung and its tributaries.

Wurundjeri people spoke the Woiwurrung language. Wurundjeri refers to the people who occupy one tribal territory, while Woiwurrung refers to the language group shared by the other tribal territory groups and clans within the Woiwurrung territory. Some tribes in this territory are Gunung Willam Balluk, Kurung Jang Balluk, Marin Balluk and others. The Woiwurrung people's territory extended from north of the Great Dividing Range, east to Mount Baw Baw, south to Mordialloc Creek and west to Werribee River. Their lands bordered the Gunai/Kurnai people to the east in Gippsland, the Bunurong people to the south on the Mornington Peninsula, and the Dja Dja Wurrung and Taungurong to the north. Wurundjeri people take their name from the word wurun meaning Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) which is common along Birrarung, and djeri, a grub found in the tree.[1]

The Wurundjeri Tribe Land and Compensation Cultural Heritage Council was established in 1985 by some descendants of the Wurundjeri people. At that time more real Wurundjeri descendants were probably involved than claim to be now. [1]



Prehistory of Australia—The Shoreline of Tasmania and Victoria about 14,000 years ago as Sea Levels were rising showing some of the human archaeological sites

Wurundjeri is a common recent name for people who have lived in the Woi Wurrung area for up to 40,000 years, according to Gary Presland.[a] They lived by fishing, hunting and gathering, and made a good living from the rich food sources of Port Phillip both before and after its flooding about 7,000–10,000 years ago, and the surrounding grasslands.[3]

At the Keilor Archaeological Site a human hearth excavated in 1971 was radiocarbon-dated to about 31,000 years BP, making Keilor one of the earliest sites of human habitation in Australia.[4] A cranium found at the site has been dated at between 12,000[5] and 14,700 years BP.[4]

Archaeological sites in Tasmania and on the Bass Strait Islands have been dated to between 20,000 – 35,000 years ago, when sea levels were 130 metres below present level allowing Aboriginal people to move across the region of southern Victoria and on to the land bridge of the Bassian plain to Tasmania by at least 35,000 years ago.[6][7]

During the Ice Age about 20,000 years BP, the area now known as Port Phillip would have been dry land, and the Yarra and Werribee river would have joined to flow through the heads then south and south west through the Bassian plain before meeting the ocean to the west. Tasmania and the Bass Strait islands became separated from mainland Australia around 12,000 BP, when the sea level was approximately 50m below present levels.[6] Port Phillip was flooded by post-glacial rising sea levels between 8,000 and 6,000 years ago.[6]

Oral history and creation stories from the Wada wurrung, Woiwurrung and Bun wurrung languages describe the flooding of the bay. Hobsons Bay was once a kangaroo hunting ground. Creation stories describe how Bunjil was responsible for the formation of the bay,[8] or the bay was flooded when the Yarra river was created (Yarra Creation Story[9]).

The Wurundjeri & Gunung Willam Balug Tribes mined diorite at Mount William stone axe quarry which was a source of the highly valued greenstone hatchet heads, which were highly prized and traded across a wide area as far as New South Wales and Adelaide. The mine provided a complex network of trading for economic and social exchange among the different Aboriginal nations in Victoria.[10][3] The Quarry had been in use for more than 1,500 years and covered 18 hectares including underground pits of several metres. In February 2008 the site was placed on the Australian National Heritage List for its cultural importance and archeological value.[11]

First contact[edit]

Sewn and incised possum-skin cloak of Wurundjeri origin (Melbourne Museum)

The Woi Wurrung tribes would have been aware of the Europeans, through the close relationship to the Bunwurrung people of the coast who came into contact with the Baudin expedition on the French ship Le Naturaliste during 1801, and then the British settlement at Sullivan Bay in 1803, near modern-day Sorrento, Victoria. William Buckley, a convict, escaped from this abortive settlement and lived for more than 30 years with the Wada wurrung people before approaching John Batman's party in 1835. He told George Langhorne in 1836:

I frequently entertained them (the Wada wurrung), when sitting around the campfires, with accounts of the English People, Houses, Ships – great guns etc. to which accounts they would listen with great attention – and express much astonishment.[12]

The Bunwurrung people, living primarily along the Port Philip and Western Port coast, were also subjected to raids on their camps by sealers from at least 1809 to as late as 1833, which were frequently violent with men being killed and the women being abducted and enslaved by sealers for sexual partners and taken to the Islands in Bass Strait where the sealers had their camps.[7] This would have impacted the economic and social ties binding the Woi Wurrung and Bunwurrung peoples.

James Fleming, one of the party of Charles Grimes in HMS Cumberland who explored the Maribyrnong River and the Yarra River as far as Dights Falls in February 1803 reported smallpox scars on several Aboriginal people he met, indicating that a smallpox epidemic had swept through the tribes around Port Philip before 1803 reducing the population.[13] Broome puts forward that two epidemics of smallpox decimated the population of the Kulin tribes by perhaps killing half each time in the 1790s and again around 1830.[14] The Wurundjeri incorporated these epidemics in their oral tradition as the Mindi, a rainbow serpent from the Northwest sent to destroy or afflict any people for bad deeds, hissing and spreading white particles from its mouth from which disease could be inhaled.

Any plague is supposed to be brought on by the Mindye or some of its little ones. I have no doubt that, in generations gone by, there has been an awful plague of cholera or black fever, and that the wind at the time, or some other appearance from the north-west has given rise to this strange being.[15]


1880s Artist impression of Batman's Treaty being signed

On 6 June 1835 John Batman met with eight elders of the Woi Wurrung people including Bebejan and Billibellary, the traditional owners of the lands around the Yarra River. The meeting took place on the bank of a small stream, likely to be the Merri Creek and treaty documents were signed along with exchanges of goods by both sides.[16] For a purchase price including tomahawks, knives, scissors, flannel jackets, red shirts and a yearly tribute of similar items, Batman obtained about 200,000 hectares (2,000 km2) around the Yarra River and Corio Bay. The total value of the goods has been estimated at about GBP 100 in the value of the day.[17] In return the Woiwurrung offered woven baskets of examples of their weaponry and two Possum-skin cloaks, a highly treasured item. After the treaty signing, a celebration took place with the Parramatta Aborigines with Batman's party dancing a corroboree.[18]

The treaty was significant as it was the first and only documented time when European settlers negotiated their presence and occupation of Aboriginal lands.[19] The Treaty was immediately repudiated by the colonial government in Sydney. The 1835 proclamation by Governor Richard Bourke implemented the doctrine of " terra nullius " upon which British settlement was based, reinforcing the concept that there was no land owner before British possession and that Aboriginal people could not sell or assign the land, and individuals could only acquire it through distribution by the Crown.[20]

Dispossession and conflict[edit]

Wurundjeri near Collins Street, Melbourne, 1839. Watercolour by W. Knight

Derrimut, an arweet of the Bunurong informed the early European settlers in October 1835 of an impending attack by "up-country people". The colonists armed themselves, and the attack was averted. Benbow from the Bunurong and Billibellary, from the Wurundjeri, also acted to protect the colonists in what is perceived as part of their duty of hospitality.[21]

In 1840, conflict erupted at the Battle of Yering, near present-day Yarra Glen, in which Border Police under the direction of Commissioner of Lands, Captain Henry Gisborne captured Wurundjeri leader Jaga Jaga, eliciting a violent confrontation involving 50 Wurundjeri clansmen where shots were exchanged.[22][23]

As early as 1843 Billibellary requested land for the Wurundjeri to settle. In August 1850 it is likely that the Woiwurrung requested land at Bulleen, but Thomas rejected their request as being too close to white settlement. In 1852 the Woiworrung gained 782 hectares along the Yarra at Warrandyte, while the Boonwurrung were allocated 340 hectares at Mordialloc Creek. These reserves were never staffed by whites and were not permanent camps, but acted as distribution depots where rations and blankets were distributed, with the intention being to keep the tribes away from the growing settlement of Melbourne.[24] The Aboriginal Protection Board revoked these two reserves in 1862 and 1863, considering them then too close to Melbourne.[25]

Social impact[edit]

Tullamareena escaping from a Melbourne gaol around 1838

The Woi Wurrung and Bunwurrong people bore the brunt of the effects of British settlement in the Foundation of Melbourne from 1835 onwards, with the population declining rapidly. In the 27 years following the foundation of Melbourne, the population of Woiworung and Bunurong language groups was reduced from 207 to 28 people. Many people were killed by diseases, including venereal disease, introduced by the Europeans. The birth rate also drastically declined for Woi Wurrung and Bunurong with only five births between 1838 and 1848, while there were 52 deaths for the same period.[26] There is some white conjecture that infanticide was taking place. William Thomas remarked in 1844 that "Infanticide I am persuaded is most awfully on the increase though it cannot be detected—their argument has some reason 'No good pickaninnys now no country'".[b][27] There is, however, no record of infanticide taking place pre-white settlement. Even Thomas says "it cannot be detected", so it's as likely that conditions were so poor for Aboriginal people after white settlement that women were not conceiving or babies were dying in increasing numbers.

Native Police Corps[edit]

On the instructions of Charles La Trobe a Native Police Corps was established and underwritten by the government in 1842 in the hope of civilising the Aboriginal men. It was based at Narre Warren, but later moved to Merri Creek and continued in operation until disbanded in January 1853. As senior Wurundjeri elder, Billibellary's cooperation for the proposal was important for its success, and after deliberation he backed the initiative and even proposed himself for enlistment, but resigned after about a year when he found that it was to be used to capture and even kill other natives. He did his best from then to undermine the Corps and as a result many native troopers deserted and few remained longer than three or four years. Participation in the police corps failed to stop troopers participating in tribal ceremonies, gatherings and rituals.[28][29]


In 1863 the surviving members of the Wurundjeri and other Woiwurrung tribes and speakers were given "permissive occupancy" of Coranderrk Station, near Healesville and forcibly resettled. Despite numerous petitions, letters, and delegations to the Colonial and Federal Government, the grant of this land in compensation for the country lost was refused. Coranderrk was closed in 1924 and its occupants bar 5 refusing to leave Country were again moved to Lake Tyers in Gippsland.

Wurundjeri today[edit]

All remaining Wurundjeri people are descendants of Bebejan, through his daughter Annie Borate (Boorat), and in turn, her son Robert Wandin (Wandoon). Bebejan was a Ngurungaeta of the Wurundjeri people and was present at John Batman's "treaty" signing in 1835.[30] Joy Murphy Wandin, a Wurundjeri Elder, explains the importance of preserving Wurundjeri culture:

In the recent past, Wurundjeri culture was undermined by people being forbidden to "talk culture" and language. Another loss was the loss of children taken from families. Now, some knowledge of the past must be found and collected from documents. By finding and doing this, Wurundjeri will bring their past to the present and recreate a place of belonging. A "keeping place" should be to keep things for future generations of our people, not a showcase for all, not a resource to earn dollars. I work towards maintaining the Wurundjeri culture for Wurundjeri people into the future.[c]

In 1985, the Wurundjeri Tribe Land Compensation and Cultural Heritage Council was established to fulfill statutory roles under Commonwealth and Victorian legislation and to assist in raising awareness of Wurundjeri culture and history within the wider community.[31]

Wurundjeri elders often attend events with visitors present where they give the traditional welcome to country greeting in the Woiwurrung language:

Wominjeka yearmenn koondee-bik Wurundjeri-Ballak, which simply means, Welcome to the land of the Wurundjeri people[32][33]

Structure, borders and land use[edit]

A basic map of the Woiwurrung language group in the context of other Kulin nations

Communities consisted of six or more (depending on the extent of the territory) land-owning groups called clans that spoke a related language and were connected through cultural and mutual interests, totems, trading initiatives and marriage ties. Access to land and resources, such as the Birrarung, by other clans, was sometimes restricted depending on the state of the resource in question. For example; if a river or creek had been fished regularly throughout the fishing season and fish supplies were down, fishing was limited or stopped entirely by the clan who owned that resource until fish were given a chance to recover. During this time other resources were utilised for food. This ensured the sustained use of the resources available to them. As with most other Kulin territories, penalties such as spearings were enforced upon trespassers. Today, traditional clan locations, language groups and borders are no longer in use and descendants of Woi Wurrung Tribes including the Wurundjeri tribe people live within modern day society.

Tribes / Clans[edit]

It is generally considered that before European settlement, six separate clans existed:

  • Wurundjeri-balluk & Wurundjeri-willam: Yarra Valley, Yarra River catchment area to Heidelberg
  • Bulluk-willam: south of the Yarra Valley extending down to Dandenong, Cranbourne, Koo-wee-rup Swamp
  • Gunnung-willam-balluk: east of the Great Dividing Ranges and north to Lancefield
  • Kurung-jang-balluk: Melton to Werribee River to Sunbury
  • Marin-balluk (Boi-berrit): land west of the Maribyrnong River, Sunshine and Sunbury
  • Kurnaje-berreing: the land between the Maribyrnong and Yarra Rivers


When foreign people passed through or were invited onto Woi Wurrung lands the ceremony of Tanderrum – freedom of the bush – would be performed. This allowed safe passage and temporary access and use of land and resources by foreign people. It was a diplomatic rite involving the landholder's hospitality and a ritual exchange of gifts.


The Wurundjeri people were part of the Woiwurrung language group; each clan spoke a slight variation of the Woiwurrung language. Some basic terms include;

  • bulluk, balluk: swamp
  • Nira: cave
  • willam, wilam, Illam, yilam: hut, camp, bark
  • gunung, gunnung: river
  • ngamudji: red colours during sunset, white man
  • The Jindyworobak Movement claim to have taken their name from a Woiwurrung phrase jindi worobak meaning to annex or join.


The Woi Wurrung people shared the same belief system as other Kulin nation territories, based on a creative epoch known as the Dreamtime which stretches back into a remote era in history when the creator ancestors known as the First Peoples travelled across the land, creating and naming as they went. Indigenous Australia's oral tradition and religious values are based upon reverence for the land and a belief in this Dreamtime. The Dreaming is at once both the ancient time of creation and the present day reality of Dreaming. There were a great many different groups, each with their own individual culture, belief structure, and language. These cultures overlapped to a greater or lesser extent, and evolved over time. The two moiety totems of the Woi Wurrung people are Bunjil the Eaglehawk and Waang the Crow.

Dreamtime stories[edit]

  • Bunjil & Pallian Creation Story: Bunjil is the Creator spirit of the Kulin People.
  • Birrarung Creation Story: formation of the Birrarung River.[9]
  • Mindi: Mindi is a rainbow serpent from the northwest who spreads disease to those who have been bad, but cannot act without Bunjil's permission.[15]


William Thomas, a Protector of Aborigines in Victoria witnessed Woi Wurrung people playing the game of Marn grook in 1841, according to Robert Brough-Smyth, in The Aborigines of Victoria, (1878):

The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played. One makes a ball of possum skin, somewhat elastic, but firm and strong. The players of this game do not throw the ball as a white man might do, but drop it and at the same time kicks it with his foot. The tallest men have the best chances in this game. Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it. This continues for hours and the natives never seem to tire of the exercise.

The game was a favourite of the Woi Wurrung clans and two teams were sometimes based on the traditional totemic moeties of Bunjil (eagle) and Waang (crow) of the Kulin people. Robert Brough-Smyth saw the game played at Coranderrk Mission Station, where ngurungaeta William Barak discouraged the playing of imported games like cricket and encouraged the traditional native game of marn grook.[34] There is some debate about whether the game influenced or was the origin of Australian Rules Football.[35]

As late as 1862 the Woi Wurrung Aboriginal people were "often seen in their possum skin coats, armed with spears, and retreating mainly to the unsold hill north of Collingwood where they camped with their dogs, played football with a possum-skin ball and fought with other Aborigines", according to researchers McFarlane and Roberts, reported on in the Herald Sun.[36]

Places of significance[edit]

Bolin Bolin Billabong in Bulleen, a reach in the river cut off around 1100AD
Scarred tree in Fitzroy Gardens, the scar is left after a canoe has been cut out of the trunk

There are a number of significant sites, in particular those found near the Yarra & Maribyrnong Rivers and the Merri Creek where corroborees were held between clans and perhaps neighbouring territories to share in music and dance, exchange news and trade. Other places of significance for the Wurundjeri people include:

Wurundjeri people[edit]

William Barak at Coranderrk

Notable Wurundjeri people at the time of British settlement included:

Other notable Wurundjeri people include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Presland: "There is some evidence to show that people were living in the Maribyrnong River valley, near present day Keilor, about 40,000 years ago."[2]
  2. ^ William Thomas, Quarterly Report, 30 November 1844, quoted in Rowley 1970, p. 60
  3. ^ Joy Murphy Wandin quoted in Ellender & Christiansen 2001, p. 121


  1. ^ Ellender & Christiansen 2001, p. 35.
  2. ^ Presland 1997, p. 1.
  3. ^ a b Presland 1994.
  4. ^ a b Presland.
  5. ^ Brown.
  6. ^ a b c Steyne 2001.
  7. ^ a b Rhodes 2003, p. 23.
  8. ^ Rhodes 2003.
  9. ^ a b Hunter 2004–2005.
  10. ^ McBryde 1984, p. 44.
  11. ^ a b National Heritage List.
  12. ^ Langhorne 2002.
  13. ^ Fleming 2002.
  14. ^ Broome 2005, pp. 7–9.
  15. ^ a b Thomas 1898.
  16. ^ Batmania.
  17. ^ Web 2005.
  18. ^ Ellender & Christiansen 2001, pp. 18–23.
  19. ^ Broome 2005, pp. 10–14.
  20. ^ National Archives of Australia, p. I.
  21. ^ Clark 2005.
  22. ^ Gannaway 2007.
  23. ^ Ellender & Christiansen 2001, pp. 65–67.
  24. ^ Broome 2005, pp. 106–7.
  25. ^ Broome 2005, p. 126.
  26. ^ Presland 1994, pp. 104–105.
  27. ^ Broome 2005, p. 92.
  28. ^ Wiencke 1984.
  29. ^ Ellender & Christiansen 2001, pp. 87–92.
  30. ^ VAHC 2008.
  31. ^ Abbotsford Convent Muse 2007.
  32. ^ Wandin 2000.
  33. ^ Flanagan 2003.
  34. ^ Ellender & Christiansen 2001, p. 45.
  35. ^ Hinds 2002.
  36. ^ Thompson 2007.
  37. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 8–9.
  38. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 76–77.
  39. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 80–81.
  40. ^ Toscano 2008.
  41. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 14–17.
  42. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 90–91.
  43. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 18–19.
  44. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 86–87.
  45. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 20–21.
  46. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 98–99.
  47. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 6–7,24–27.
  48. ^ McBryde 1984.
  49. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 28–31.
  50. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 22–23.
  51. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 32–37.
  52. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 60–61.
  53. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 62–63.
  54. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 64–69.
  55. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 70–71.
  56. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 92–97.
  57. ^ Eidelson 2000, pp. 113–114.