Caring for Country: First Peoples looking after the land

Sunset at Reeds lookout in the Central Grampians.
Cultural heritage is the legacy of Victoria’s Aboriginal societies. It can include the physical evidence of past occupation and cultural practices, visible through places and objects like shell middens, rock markings, artefacts, and culturally modified trees.

Cultural heritage is also reflected in the intangible cultural values passed from generation to generation – the practices, expressions, knowledge, and skills developed and refined over thousands of years that connect Aboriginal people to one another, their Ancestors and Country.

Sione Ikafunga, Cultural Landscapes Advisor, Managing Country Together at Parks Victoria, explains it beautifully.

"Some people may think when we're referring to cultural heritage protection, it's an artefact or a scar tree or middens. Well, it's all of that and so much more. It's native trees, plants, wildlife, water, fire, all these untouched landscapes across Australia are a cultural place … and I have been blessed that I have a voice given to me from my Elders past and present, and to help protect and preserve our cultural values," says Sione.

"Long before 1788 there were land managers, the best of land managers and I want to preserve what we've got left."
Midden s are shell deposits that have built up over time, often as the result of Aboriginal people gathering and eating shellfish and molluscs.

Middens are shell deposits that have built up over time, often as the result of Aboriginal people gathering and eating shellfish and molluscs - Credit Parks Victoria

Large midden in exposed dune

A large midden in an exposed coastal dune - Credit Parks Victoria

Imagine your family, your Ancestors coming together in the same place for thousands of generations, gathering and eating shellfish and molluscs around a cooking fire. The shells from this seafood like mussels, limpets and turban are piled high in a cooking fire.

These shell deposits are called middens and they are just one material example of how First Nations’ peoples lived and managed their Country sustainably for more than 60,000 years.

Victoria’s network of parks and reserves form the core of Aboriginal cultural landscapes which have been modified over many thousands of years of occupation.

The landscapes we see today are influenced by the skills, knowledge, and activities of the Aboriginal land managers, the first land managers.

Stone arrangements are rare and extremely significant Aboriginal cultural heritage places

Evidence of the ingenuity of the First Peoples and the way they managed this vast continent since time immemorial can be found in parks throughout Victoria. 

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, in the heart of Gunditjmara Country in south-western Victoria has one of the world’s most extensive and oldest aquaculture systems.

At least 6,600 years ago Gunditjmara people first constructed these extensive, sophisticated aquaculture systems along the Budj Bim lava flow, and many of these systems are still in use today.

The date of the Budj Bim fish traps and channel systems make this sustainable engineering feat at least 2,500 years older than the great Khufu pyramid in Giza, Egypt and at least 2,000 years older than Stone Henge.

The Gunditjmara people engineered the effective system to trap, store and harvest kooyang - short-finned eel. Weirs, holding and growing ponds, and stone channels, some of which are hundreds of metres long, were dug out of basalt lava flow from the now dormant Budj Bim volcano.

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is a unique, world heritage listed place that shows how Gunditjmara people worked with the natural resources and environment of the south west region of Victoria to establish a permanent place of human society over the past 30,000 years and beyond.

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape consists of three locations; Tae Rak (Lake Condah), Kurtonitj and the Tyrendarra, which are declared Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs). 

Budj Bim Cultural Landscape on Gunditjmara Country

Budj Bim Cultural Landscape

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is a unique place with universal heritage values that demonstrate how Gunditjmara people worked with the natural resources and environment of the Victorian south west region to establish a permanent place of human society over the past 30,000 years and beyond.

Budj Bim is a cultural landscape on Gunditjmara Country in Victoria's south west.

Budj Bim

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is located within Gunditjmara Country in south-eastern Australia, and comprises of three components; Budj Bim - Northern Component, Kurtonitj - Central Component and Tyrendarra Southern Component. Each component contains extensive evidence of the Gunditjmara’s aquaculture system.


The sustainable land management practices of the First Peoples can be found even in the most intensively developed regions. In many cases the imprint of thousands of generations of Aboriginal land use, engineering and design is so harmonious it can be mistaken for natural formations.

Rockwells are a way of sustainably collecting water. They can naturally form in rocks and were further modified by Aboriginal people to expand the holes to collect and store water.

Up on Big Rock, in Wurdi Youang, the You Yangs Regional Park there are no nearby fresh water sources, so the Wadawurrung people collected and stored drinking water by chiseling out rock wells to collect rainwater.

The largest rock well at Big Rock is usually filled with water all year round, and there was once a rock that was placed over the well to keep the drinking water fresh and protect it from nearby animals.

Rockwell, You Yangs Ragional Park, Wadawurrung Country


Rockwell, You Yangs Regional Park, Wadawurrung Country

Rockwell with lid

Rockwell with lid.

Quarries - a source of stone to manufacture tools

Aboriginal people quarried different types of stone, each with its own special value and use. Stone tools were made from greenstone, silcrete, quartz, quartzite, basalt and chert. Pigments were made from quarried ochre, and grinding tools were made from sandstone.

Quarries can be small, consisting of a boulder that has had stone flakes removed from it, leaving behind ‘scars’ on the rock surface. 

Other quarries cover large areas with rocky outcrops and remnants of unfinished tools and stone flakes, that were bi-products of the mining process.

Mount William stone quarry in Wurundjeri Country has been the source of Greenstone axes traded as far away as Northern Territory. The National Heritage Listed Place has been utilised as a quarry for at least 1,500 years, right up until about the 1840’s.

Scars on a rock shelter where stone has been quarried


Scars on a rock shelter where stone has been quarried.

Flaked stone tools

Flaked stone tools are found everywhere across Victoria and were made in many forms from many types of stone.

These tools were used for everything that tools and knives are used for today, including cutting plants, food and meat, scraping of bark or animal skins, engraving, chopping, carving and chiselling.

Flaked stone tools are created by striking a ‘hammer’ stone on a suitable stone nodule to chip or flake-off a piece. This piece was then usually shaped by finer flaking, known as ‘pressure flaking’, into tools such as scrapers, blades or spear points.

Traditional methods of tool production were used by Aboriginal people with newly introduced raw materials, like glass, after the arrival of Europeans.

The thick bases of bottles were flaked and worked into tools, which have been found in many parts of Victoria and across Australia. Metal items like horseshoes were heated and reworked to form spear points and knives. In many parts of Australia, Aboriginal people still make and use stone tools for use in everyday activities. 

Axe-grinding Grooves

Axe-grinding grooves are almost always found along the edges of rivers, creeks, lakes, and swamps, or near dry or drained water bodies.

They are created when Aboriginal people shape and sharpen stone axes along a cutting edge by grinding them against course stone platforms or outcrops, often sandstone. This is a process which wears away at the stone, creating elongated indentations.

Creating and refining the shape of a sharp cutting edge on a roughly shaped piece of stone can take many hours of work by skilled stone craftspeople.

Ground Edge Axes

The oldest known ground-edge stone axe in the world was re-discovered by archaeologists in 2014 at Carpenter’s Gap in the Kimberley, the northern most region of Western Australia. Dated at 44-49,000 years old, it is estimated to be 10,000 years older than the previous oldest axe of its type, also found in Australia.

The cutting edges of stone axe-heads were shaped and sharpened with great skill through grinding on other abrasive stone, such as sandstone.

Ground-edge axes were highly valued, widely traded and have great cultural and spiritual significance. The stone quarries from which the stone for axes was mined are places of spiritual significance, adding to the cultural value and importance of the axe.

Aboriginal people made Axe blanks by striking large flakes of stone from rocky outcrops, and then shaping them.

Aboriginal people made Axe blanks by striking large flakes of stone from rocky outcrops, and then shaping them.

Ground edge axes were highly valued, and were shaped and sharpened with great skill.

Ground edge axes were highly valued, and were shaped and sharpened with great skill.

What to do if you find something

All Aboriginal cultural heritage is protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (Vic.) (the Act). If you come across any Aboriginal cultural heritage, Section 24 of the Act requires that the discovery of Aboriginal cultural heritage places or objects be reported to the First Peoples – State Relations as soon as practicable. It is an offence under Section 27 of the Act, to harm Aboriginal cultural heritage and under Section 28 to do an act that harms or is likely to harm Aboriginal cultural heritage.

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