Gunditjmara Social System
At the dawn of time, it was the Ancestral Beings - part human, part beast - who brought what was previously barren land to life. At the end of the Dreaming journeys, the Ancestral Being left aspects of themselves behind transformed into part of the landscape.
To the Gunditjmara people, Budj Bim’s domed hill represents the forehead of one such Being, with the lava that spat out as the head burst through the earth forming his teeth.
In the Dhauwurd wurrung language, budj bim means “high head,” and tung att means “teeth belonging to it”, referring to the scattered red scoria... In the absence of law men, Budj Bim’s site is guarded by the gneering, or weeping she-oaks, that stand like sentinels close to the summit. When the wind blows, you can hear the trees whispering softly to you.
Territory, Language and Social Structure
In the 19th century Gunditjmara Country covered a large area extending approximately 150 kilometres from east- to-west and up to 100 kilometres inland from the coast. They were speakers of a distinctive language (Dhauwurd wurrung) with four to five different dialects.
The Gunditjmara people comprised around 60 family-based clans spaced around 10-to-20 kilometres apart; and focused on resource rich areas along the coast and along inland creeks, lakes and swamps.
Interactions between Gunditjmara clans tended to be on a coastal-inland (north-south) axis more than an east-west axis. Movement of individuals between clan groups and clan territories took place for a range of social (including marriage) and economic (reciprocal access to resources, for example) reasons. Families possessed an ‘exclusive right’ to particular tracts of land and associated resources through inheritance enforced by strict rules against trespassing.
Today, the Gunditjmara continue to associate and identify families with clan groups and territories.
The story of the Gunditjmara people is intimately related to the volcanic eruption of the Budj Bim volcano (Mount Eccles) from around 30,000 years ago, when an ancestral creation-being revealed himself in the landscape.
The link between the eruption of the volcano and the development of the Budj Bim story demonstrates the process through which ancestral beings reveal themselves in the landscape and become an intrinsic part of the culture of a people.
The Gunditjmara participated in an elaborate system of inter-and intra-regional gatherings.
Intra-regional gatherings were between various Gunditjmara clans with attendees sometimes numbering in the hundreds.
Inter-regional gatherings (referred to as ‘great meetings’ by ethnographer James Dawson) were attended by hundreds and up to a thousand people from different groups across south-west Victoria. These gatherings were for a broad range of social, political, economic, trade/exchange and ceremonial reasons. They were scheduled to coincide with seasonal and localised abundances of food resources, such as the kooyang season in autumn and winter.
One such inter-regional gathering was hosted by the Gunditjmara and took place at the ‘great swamp’, which is most likely Condah Swamp, located to the immediate north of Tae Rak (Lake Condah).
Hereditary chiefs were a feature of Gunditjmara society; an expression of high population densities, the associated complex organisational structures required to regulate various scales of interactions between people and resources, to manage inter- regional gatherings, and operate large-scale kooyang facilities.
The heads of lineages in Gunditjmara society were termed ‘Wung’it’ and ‘Gnern neetch’ which translated as ‘chief’. Although chiefs were generally not a feature of Australian Aboriginal societies, anthropologists and archaeologists with expertise in Gunditjmara ethnography agree that the Gunditjmara possessed an atypical social organisational structure for Australia and did indeed have hereditary male chiefs who were heads of corporate lineages and managers of clan assets (that is, resources and associated infrastructure such as kooyang aquaculture facilities), and who exercised considerable social, political, and economic power.
The Gunditjmara, like other Aboriginal groups in southwest Victoria, were polygamous - with chiefs having up to 10 wives. Chiefs supported multiple wives through “wealth, based on the surplus food resources they produced, primarily from the substantial eel harvest.
Heads of corporate groups, Wung’it and Gnern neetch, were certainly powerful individuals, who had a considerable degree of control over the resources of their group, and in this region, the surpluses produced through kooyang aquaculture made these groups wealthy. Much prestige was accrued by Gunditjmara chiefs, who hosted gatherings supported by eel surpluses - made possible by kooyang aquaculture.
Gunditjmara Settlement System
The settlement system of the Gunditjmara immediately prior to British colonisation features stone-based domestic structures, often clustered; suggesting a degree of sedentism that is atypical for Aboriginal Australia. To a large extent, these atypical patterns reflect the high natural productivity of the region, especially wetlands and associated aquaculture facilities, which were artificially augmented by the sophisticated manipulation of local waterways and a landscape-scale system of kooyang (eel) aquaculture. Many stone house structures are located in close proximity to kooyang aquaculture facilities.
Stone House Structures
Within the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, over 300 stone house structures have been documented.
Stone houses were built with a low wall of basalt blocks of two-to-three courses (approximately 50 centimetres high) at the base, and U-shaped or C-shaped with a diameter of three-to- four metres. It is generally agreed that these stone structures are the bases of domed houses; with the stones used to support a wooden structure which was covered with branches and other vegetation as a ‘thatch’ and at times sealed (or surfaced) with clay. Most 19th century ethnographic sources associate these circular stone structures with domestic occupation and refer to them as ‘stone houses’, ‘shelters’, ‘wuurns’ (‘dwellings’ and ‘habitations’) and ‘mia-mia’ (huts).
Excavations have revealed features such as charcoal concentrations in the form of hearths and ground ovens (cooking features), and a range of artefacts such as flaked implements (scrapers, for example) made from flint or bottle glass. Bone fragments are rare in most stone houses. Some houses also contain a range of other objects obtained from Europeans, such as clay tobacco pipes and iron nails. As such, it is apparent that some stone houses were constructed and used after the arrival of European colonists.
Many stone houses occur in clusters, giving rise to questions of contemporaneity and the possibility of villages.
Seasonality and Sedentism
While permanent occupation of stone houses has entered popular discourse; all available ethnographic and archaeological evidence points to short-term (possibly seasonal) occupation.
Archaeologist Harry Lourandos concluded that "Whilst the ‘villages’ formed part of a permanent network of base camps between which the population redistributed itself throughout the year, the landscape was deliberately manipulated and engineered by the Gunditjmara as a ‘landform for all seasons’.
Large- scale network of kooyang aquaculture facilities artificially increased food availability to support relatively permanent and sedentary occupation of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape by the Gunditjmara, therefore there were no large scale seasonal movements of people beyond inter-regional gatherings".
“Coastal areas were more productive in spring and early summer, and would have supported higher population densities during these seasons.” It is also probable that the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape supported higher population densities during the kooyang migration periods associated with autumn (the start of adult kooyang downstream migration), winter and spring rains.
Invasion, Defiance and Endurance
The continuity of connection to Country is a notable feature of early-colonial era Gunditjmara history. This connection was characterised by active opposition to the process of colonisation - initially through violent conflict, and subsequently via political and legal means.
Visit the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape to learn all about the Gunditjmara people, our history and culture.
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