First Australians



The Eastern Kulin nation of aborigines are thought to have lived in the Melbourne, Port Phillip and Central Victoria areas for around 40,000 years prior to European contact.  The Kulin clans were connected via significant commonalities in their languages, common spiritual / Dreaming figures, frequent intermarriage and trading.  The Kulin word 'wurrung' means 'mouth / lips', that is - language.

The First Australians who lived in the Yarra Flats area around what is now Heidelberg, were the Wurundjeri balluk clan. The Wurundjeri balluk were one of the Woi Wurrung clan group  - which were part of the broader Eastern Kulin nation.

Clans identified with and lived in particular areas of land - which was their "country".  The Wurundjeri balluk clan country extended along the Yarra river from about Heidelberg, upto the source of the Yarra. (Shown as 4a on the Eastern Kulin Language groups map.)

Eastern Kulin Language Types

Picture Credit: This map is copied from the book First People (1) page 14. The caption in First People for this map is 'Eastern Kulin language areas and clans. The historical record contains many alternative renderings of language group names. These maps, along with the names, come from the work of Ian Clark.'   The Picture Credit in First People is given as: 'Map showing Eastern Kulin language area and clans. Reproduced from Aboriginal languages and clans '(3) by Ian D Clark.'


In 1835, when ongoing European contact was made with the aboriginal clans of Port Phillip Bay and surrounding areas, Billibellary and Bebejan were the clan-heads for the Wurundjeri-balluk who were present at the time of Batman's 'treaty' being made. Barak - Bebejan's  11 year-old son was also present that day. Billibellary and Bebejan were brothers.

Billibellary's clan occupied the area north of the Yarra from the Maribyrnong River to Darebin Creek. Bebejan's clan occupied the area about Heidelberg and to the source of the Yarra. 

On a number of occasions Billibellary offered timely advice to William Thomas, Assistant Protector of Aborigines.

In 1863 an Aboriginal settlement, involving a number of different clans, was established at Coranderrk near Healesville. This followed the effective removal of most Aboriginal people from the Melbourne area.  Billibellary's son, Simon Wonga, assumed leadership of the community after the death of his father in 1846. He was dedicated and effective and was recognised as a great orator in his own language. He died in 1875 and his cousin, William Barak, became leader at Coranderrk. Barak was a great leader of his people and also a gifted storyteller, singer and artist. He died in his early eighties in 1903. Eventually in 1924, Coranderrk was closed and all remaining Aboriginals moved to the Lake Tyers Aboriginal settlement.

Text Credit: The above text is largely taken from Still Glides the Stream (4) Pages 21 to 25 Chapter 3 'The Traditional Custodians'


 Picture Credit: This image is copied from the book First People (1)  The Picture Credit in First People for Billibellary is given as: 'Billibellary. Pencil Drawing on card by William Thomas. Brough Smyth Papers, State Library of Victoria'



 Picture Credit:  This image is copied from the book First People (1)  ThePicture Credit in First People for Barak is given as: 'William Barak, aged 33. Photograph by Carl Walter. Pictures Collection. State Library of Victoria'


Connections between Kulin clans were maintained and strengthened by regular meetings (as frequently as twice per year) - where disputes were settled,  trading done and celebrations held - including nightly corroborees. Corroborees were public performances which told stories, where the males danced and the females provided rhythm with clapping hands and sticks and drumming.

One of the significant places along the Yarra for the Woi Wurrung was the large wetland complex they called Bolin - which is the the Bolin Bolin billabong in Bulleen.  

The Woi Wurrung clans moved annually from the lower reaches of the Yarra, where they spent the warmer months;  to the Dandenongs area, where they spent the cooler months as there was more shelter available. At the time they were moving upstream, they knew that mature eels were moving downstream - to breed in salt water. This abundant source of food would support large multi-clan gatherings and for hundreds of generations as many as 200 people spent upto four weeks at a time at the Bolin wetlands.

(Main source for the above text is First People (1) - The Eastern Kulin of Melbourne, Port Phillip & Central Victoria.)



Picture Credit: This image is copied from the book The Place for a Village (2) p 209. The caption in the source book for this image is  'A photograph by Antoine Fauchery of 'Blackfellow painted for corroboree', taken in 1858. The white body markings were applied by using kaolin clay.'   Picture Credit in The Place for a Village is 'Aboriginal man ornamented for a corroboroee, 1858, photograph by R. Daintree. Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria. )


The text below is taken directly from the First People (1)- pages 67 & 68.

'Eels were caught in various ways at Bolin and in many other swamps and lagoons around the land of the Eastern Kulin. Sometimes they were speared, using a wooden spear tipped with the peduncle or stalk of the grass tree.  ….(some) hunters held two spears in their hands while they sought out the eels with their feet. The eel was jabbed and removed from the water with one spear and then killed with the other. They also could simply be captured by hand. The best way to locate the eels in the wetland was to wade into the water, where they could be felt with the feet or seen. At this time of year eels were plentiful; two men could catch as much as twenty kilograms in a short time without having to go far.'

Fishing for Crayfish

Picture Credit: This image is copied from the book First People (1) page 56. The caption in First People for this map is 'Freshwater crayfish were one of the many resources gathered by Koories in the appropriate season, using a variety of means. In this case the method involves men wading up to their necks in water, sensing the presence of their prey with feet. One man holds a bag in his mouth, to free his hands for capturing the crayfish '   Picture Credit in First People given as:  'Natives catching crayfish, c. 1865. Wood engraving from a sketch by W. A. Cawthorne. Pictures Collection. State Library of Victoria


Sources / References:

  1. Presland, Gary (2010) First People - The Eastern Kulin of Melbourne, Port Phillip & Central Victoria  (Melbourne: Museum Victoria Publishing)
  2. Presland, Gary (2008) The Place for a Village - how nature has shaped the city of Melbourne. (Melbourne: Museum Victoria Publishing)
  3. Clark, I. D. (1990) Aboriginal languages and clans: an historical atlas of western and central Victoria, 1800-1900 (Melbourne: Monash Publications in Geography 37)
  4. Lacey, Geoff (2004) Still Glides the Stream (The natural history of the Yarra from Heidelberg to Yarra Bend)
    (Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd)
  5. Search for Wurundjeri on Wikipaedia
  6. Heidelberg Historical Society website
  7. The Encyclopaedia of Melbourne Online - section Aboriginal Melbourne
    The Encyclopaedia of Melbourne Online - section Woi Wurrung
    The Encyclopaedia of Melbourne Online - section Kulin

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