For over 25,000 years the southern ACT catchment area has been home to the Ngunawal people. Their country stretches from Queanbeyan and Yass to practically Wagga Wagga where it borders the vast open lands of the Wiradjuri people. Other groups known to be active in the region include the Walgalu, Gundungurra, Yuin, and Ngarigo peoples. Evidence of Ngunawal activity within the southern ACT catchment includes various axe-grinding grooves (at least 80 in the Tuggeranong area), campsites, rock shelters, rock paintings, stone artefact scatters, ring trees and scar trees.
Radiocarbon dating from the Birrigai Rock Shelter near Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve place Ngunawal occupation as far back as the last Ice Age, 25,000 years ago. Aboriginal people believe their ancestors were here well before this time. Within the past few hundred years the frequency of Aboriginal occupation in the area has increased.
This change is demonstrated through a marked increase in charcoal and artefacts found within the upper levels of the soil, reflecting a possible disturbance in the traditional patterns of Aboriginal occupancy and movement since the arrival of European settlers. Generally the movement of Aboriginal communities is influenced by seasonal changes in the search for food and shelter. During the summer months, people gathered in great numbers in the Tuggeranong Valley for the annual arrival of the Bogong moths in the nearby Brindabella Range.
The moths were collected in their thousands to be roasted in sand or ashes and eaten whole. During this time the tribes were able get together for initiation ceremonies, marriages, ceremonial dancing, exchange of food and the resolution of disputes. It was here that the oral traditions were maintained and the cultural connections with landscape were passed from generation to generation, tribe to tribe.
When Europeans first settled within the Canberra region during the early 1820s there was still a large number of Ngunnawal people living in the area, and although initially there was limited contact between settlers and Aborigines, within 20 years European settlement began to disrupt Aboriginal patterns of land use and movement across the country. Many Aboriginal families were eventually drawn to the farms and townships by the opportunity to work or receive handouts of food and blankets. Increased contact with Europeans caused many Aboriginals to die, including from European-brought diseases like influenza, smallpox and tuberculosis and soon Aboriginal populations began to decline.
By the latter part of the 19th century those Aboriginals remaining were either dispersed to the local settlements or relocated to distant Aboriginal reserves.
Today the Ngunawal community remains active in restoring their connections to their dispossessed custodial lands and cultural heritage. In 2001, the ACT government entered into a cooperative agreement with the Ngunawal community over the management of the ACT’s Namadgi National Park. This agreement recognised the Ngunawal cultural association with the park’s lands, and their role as custodians of their traditional lands and responsibilities to their ancestors and descendants for the protection of their sites.