Aboriginal culture is more than artefacts and sites, it’s a living culture, linked to the whole environment – plants, animals and landscapes.
The New South Wales landscape is made up of living stories as well as connections to the past. Heritage places can include natural resources, objects, customs and traditions (and their contexts) that individuals and communities have inherited from the past and wish to conserve for current and future generations.
Aboriginal people have lived in the area known as NSW for at least 45,000 years. Many places around the state show the presence of Aboriginal occupation prior to 1788, and are significant to Aboriginal communities today. They are important to Aboriginal people for social, cultural, spiritual, historical, and commemorative reasons. Aboriginal people have deep spiritual and emotional ties to Country.
There are over 35,000 known Aboriginal sites in NSW. They range from large shell middens on the coast, to small surface scatters of stone artefacts on the inland semi-arid plains. Other important heritage sites include rock art, burial places, ceremonial sites, grinding grooves, quarries and modified trees. Natural elements of the environment, including what some may typically think of as ‘natural resources’, such as river, plants, fish, soil types, wildlife and the landscape also have cultural meanings and values. Some of the places which Aboriginal people often have strong memories of and attachments to are those which relate to the post-1788 period, such as former fringe camps and Aboriginal Reserve Settlements.
Aboriginal values are inherent in all landscapes, including but not limited to: towns and cities, popular beaches, along river banks and tracks, open plains and dense forests.
The landscape and waterways are associated with stories and cultural knowledge that is still passed on today.
Aboriginal communities strive to manage Aboriginal heritage in the context of the entire landscape, rather than focusing on individual archaeological or historic ‘sites’. A ‘cultural landscape’ approach offers an opportunity to move away from a focus on objects and sites as ends in themselves, toward managing the material record and people’s cultural associations in their historical and broader landscape context. The idea of cultural landscapes is that all parts of the landscape are alive with cultural meaning, that all landscapes contain the imprint of human use, and that human and ecological history is interconnected. A cultural landscape approach to heritage management recognises that Aboriginal heritage sites are connected to each other across the landscape by past and present uses and meanings.
Aboriginal people in NSW recognise the cultural values of biodiversity and the environment. Plants, animals and ecosystems form an integral part of attachment to the land and the sea. Plants and animals are valued as part of ‘Country’ and may also act as totems.
The continued use of natural resources as foods and medicines is known as ‘cultural resource use’. This practice allows Aboriginal communities to pass on cultural knowledge, to use and maintain places of cultural value, and to benefit their wellbeing. The health of waterways and the land is central to Aboriginal heritage.
Aboriginal people across NSW are increasingly working with government and the private sector to ensure they can preserve their own heritage. In addition to participation in development and planning processes, this process can provide Aboriginal people access to land to not only continue involvement and consultation in the conservation of the natural environment, but also to conserve and protect the values within that landscape. Strategies are being developed that bridge the gap between ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ heritage.
Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water