Friday essay: how a long-lost list is helping us remap Darug place names and culture on Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury River



Darug women Leanne Watson, Rhiannon Wright and Jasmine Seymour at Dorumbolooa.
Avryl Whitney

Grace Karskens, UNSW; Erin Wilkins, Indigenous Knowledge; Jasmine Seymour, Indigenous Knowledge; Leanne Watson, Indigenous Knowledge, and Rhiannon Wright, Indigenous Knowledge

In 2017, I came across an extraordinary document in Sydney’s Mitchell Library: a handwritten list of 178 Aboriginal place names for Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury River, compiled in 1829 by a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend John McGarvie. I was stunned. I stared at the screen, hardly believing my eyes.

After years of research, my own and others, I thought most of the Aboriginal names for the river were lost forever, destroyed in the aftermath of invasion and dispossession. Yet, suddenly, this cache of riches.

A page from Rev McGarvie’s 1829 list of Aboriginal names for places on Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury River.
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

I could see McGarvie had taken a lot of care with this list, correcting spelling and adding pronunciation marks. The names appear in geographic order, so they also record where he and his Darug informant/s travelled along the riverbanks. Perhaps most important of all, McGarvie often included locational clues, like settlers’ farms, creeks and lagoons.

An extraordinary idea dawned on me: what if we could restore these names to their places on the river? And then: what if these beautiful, rolling words — like Bulyayorang and Marrengorra and Woollootottemba — came back into common usage?

Naming Country

Place names have enormous significance in Aboriginal society and culture. As in all societies, they signal the meanings people attach to places, they encode history and geography, they are way-finding devices and common knowledge. Place names are crucial elements of shared understandings of Country, history, culture, rights and responsibilities.

Often place names are parts of larger naming systems — they name places on Dreaming tracks reaching across Country. Singular names can also embed the stories of important events and landmarks involving Ancestral Beings in places and memory. Anthropologist and linguist Jim Wafer points out their use in songs, which are memory devices, or “audible maps … travelling song cycles that narrate mythical journeys”.

Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury River, flows through the heart of a vast arc of sandstone Country encircling Sydney and the shale-soil Cumberland Plain on the east coast of New South Wales. The river has a deep human history, one of the longest known in Australia.

Axe grinding grooves on Dyarubbin.
Joy Lai

The ancestors of Darug, Darkinyung and Gundungurra people have lived in this region for around 50,000 years. Their history, culture and spirituality are inseparable from their river Country. A mere two centuries ago, ex-convict settlers took land on the river and began growing patches of wheat and corn in the tall forests. Darug men and women resisted the invasion fiercely and sometimes successfully.

Between 1794 and 1816, Dyarubbin was the site of one of the longest frontier wars in Australian history. Invasion and colonisation kicked off a slow and cumulative process of violence, theft of Aboriginal children, dispossession and the ongoing annexation of the river lands.

Jasmine Seymour, Women of Dyarubbin.
Jasmine Seymour

Yet despite this sorry history, Dyarubbin’s people managed to remain on their Country, and they still live on the river today.

McGarvie’s list contrasts strikingly with the modern landscapes of the Hawkesbury and Western Sydney. Once, every place on this river and its tributaries had an Aboriginal name. Now only a handful survive on maps and in common usage.

With some important exceptions, the Traditional Owners, the Darug, rarely see themselves represented in key heritage sites, or in the everyday reminders and triggers of public memory – like place names.

Yet Western Sydney is now home to one of the biggest populations of Darug and other Aboriginal people in Australia. Could McGarvie’s list be a way to begin to shift the shape of our landscapes towards a recognition of Darug history and culture?

Living on Country

This idea stayed with me, so I contacted Darug knowledge-holders, artists and educators Leanne Watson, Erin Wilkins, Jasmine Seymour and Rhiannon Wright: the response was instant and enthusiastic. We designed the project together and were thrilled when it won the NSW State Library’s Coral Thomas Fellowship

The project’s Darug researchers want most of all to research, record and recover environmental and cultural knowledge and raise awareness of Darug presence and history in the wider community.

Because the Darug history of Dyarubbin is continuous, the project includes an oral history component, recording 20th century Darug voices and stories of the river.

Looking back, it seems uncanny that McGarvie’s list reappeared when it did — after all, we are in the midst of an extraordinary period of Aboriginal cultural renewal and language revitalisation.




Read more:
The state of Australia’s Indigenous languages – and how we can help people speak them more often


It was obvious that McGarvie’s words could be more than a list of names: it could be the key to a bigger story about the Dyarubbin, the Darug history that was lost, submerged below what historian Tom Griffiths calls “the white noise of history making”.

But to do this, we needed to put the words in their wider context: we needed to see the river whole. So, besides reconnecting the list to Traditional Owners, the project explores Dyarubbin’s history, ecology, geography, archaeology and languages.

Early maps showing the old river farms helped us work out where the Darug place names belong and digitally map them. They also record long-lost landscapes of swamps, lagoons and creeks — important places for Aboriginal people that have since been modified or disappeared altogether.

Brown’s Lagoon Wilberforce 1844.
NSW State Archives and Records

The “Returns of Aboriginal Natives” are lists of Aboriginal people living in New South Wales in the 1830s, including the groups who lived on various parts of Dyarubbin and its tributaries. Reverend McGarvie’s diaries show he knew many of these Darug people.

The letters and journals of Hawkesbury settlers are thoroughly colonial-centred, yet they contain hints about the ways Darug people continued to live on their Country throughout the 19th century.

For example, they befriended some of the settlers, like the Hall family at Lilburndale, and cultivated these relationships over generations. The Hall family papers in the Mitchell Library hold some powerful and poignant traces: store receipts for goods Darug people were purchasing from them, and lists of the work they did at Lilburndale.

The archaeological record for this region is astonishingly rich. Dyarubbin and its tributary Gunanday (the Macdonald River) are part of a much larger archaeological zone, reaching from the Blue Mountains and the Wollemi in the west, up to the Hunter Valley and Lake Macquarie in the north. Many of the major recorded archaeological sites have sacred, spiritual and ceremonial significance, especially those located on high places.

Gunanday (the Macdonald River).
Joy Lai

Closer to the river, Paul Irish’s archaeological mapping has revealed how much Darug cultural landscape survives today, within the “settler” landscape.

From Richmond in the south to Higher Macdonald in the north, the river corridors alone are lined with more than 200 archaeological sites, including engravings, grinding grooves and rock shelters, some with scores or hundreds of images in ochre, white clay and charcaol.

Darug women Jasmine Seymour and Rhiannon Wright visit a painted rockshelter.
Joy Lai

Perhaps the most important aspect of the project are the field trips — getting out on Country, following in the footstep of McGarvie and his Darug friends, to see how all of this comes together. For Aboriginal people especially, visiting Country is a spiritual experience: they sense past and present converging, and the presence of their Ancestors.

Words for Country

What about the words on McGarvie’s list? What can they tell us? Linguist Jim Wafer and I worked with the Darug team members on a glossary, scouring dictionaries of seven local and adjacent Aboriginal languages for glosses, or meanings.

Many of these remain tentative; some words have two possible glosses. This project is, after all, only the beginning of what will hopefully be a much longer journey of discovery.

Nevertheless, McGarvie’s list has unlocked a wealth of information as well as intriguing and suggestive patterns — the place names open a marvellous word-window onto the Darug world of Dyarubbin in late 1820s.

They can be roughly grouped in four interrelated and often overlapping categories: the natural world of plants and creatures, geography and landforms, stone and earth, salt and fresh water; the social world of corroboree and contest grounds, camps and places to source materials for tools and implements; a metaphoric pattern — using words for parts of the body (mouth, arm, finger, eyes) for places on the river; and names with spiritual meanings, signifying sacred places.

Are there larger patterns in McGarvie’s list of place names? Here again, mapping the names, relocating them on Country, revealed something about how Darug people thought of Dyarubbin: as a series of zones, each which particular characteristics.

For example, on the west side of the river between Sackville and Wilberforce are 16 named lagoons or words meaning lagoons, including four different words which appear to signify different types of lagoons: Warretya, Warang, Warradé, Warrakia.

It was Warretya (lagoon) Country. Rich in birdlife, fish, turtles, eggs and edible plants, lagoons were very important places for Darug people, especially women, who harvested the edible roots and shoots of water plants such as cumbungi, water ribbon and common nardoo.

Aunty Edna Watson, Yellamundi.
Aunty Edna Watson

There were lagoons on the opposite side of the river, too, but here the series of place names around Cattai Creek tell us that this was Dugga (thick brush/rainforest) Country.

Massive Riverflat forest once lined all of Dyarubbin’s alluvial reaches; in sheltered gullies this forest graded into rainforest. Other place names in this area suggest the tree species which grew in these forests: Boolo, coachwood, Tamangoa, place of Port Jackson figs, Karowerry, native plum tree, Booldoorra, soft corkwood. And there are places named for implements, like clubs (Kanogilba, Berambo), and fish spears (Mating), which may have been fashioned from the fine, hard timbers of some of these trees.

These Dugga place names suggest something significant about Dyarubbin’s human and ecological history, too. The settler invasion is often assumed to have completely destroyed earlier landscapes, converting the bush to cleared, farmed fields. But these tree and forest names suggest that parts of the great forests survived for over three decades, and that Darug people went on using them.

Perhaps most significant and evocative are the place names which signal sacred zones on Dyarubbin. There are two different words meaning “rainbow”: Dorumbolooa and Gunanday.

The great Eel Being

Both are located in places with dramatic cliffs and sharp river bends. These words are probably linked with Gurangatty, the great Eel Being, who is associated with rainbows, and who created the river and its valley in the Dreaming, leaving awesome chasms and sinuous bends in his wake. McGarvie’s list reconnects us with the sacred river.

Leanne Watson, Big Eel.
Leanne Watson

Such words remind us of something obvious, and profound. If Aboriginal people are to be at the centre of their own stories, we need to look beyond European history and landscapes, beyond European knowledge and ways of thinking, and towards an Aboriginal sense of Country — the belief that people, animals, Law and Country are inseparable, that the land is animate and inspirited, that it is a historical actor.

Leanne Watson’s painting Waterholes, inspired by the project, expresses this sense of Country. Her painting represents the beautiful lagoons around Ebenezer near Wilberforce and all the nourishment and materials they offered people. Now we can name some of those lagoons: Boollangay, Marrumboollo, Kallangang.

Leanne Watson, Waterholes.
Leanne Watson

What now? Two exhibitions are planned for 2021: one at the State Library of NSW, and the other at Hawkesbury Regional Gallery. Staff at NSW Spatial Services/the NSW Geographic Names Board have generously offered their skills and time to create a digital Story Map, which will allow readers to virtually explore Darug Dyarubbin.

A series of illustrated essays, or “story cycle”, to be published on the online Dictionary of Sydney at the State Library of New South Wales, will present more in-depth narratives. Ultimately, we plan to launch dual naming projects, which will restore these names to Dyarubbin Country.

These are truth-telling projects: they will tell the story of invasion, dispossession and frontier war. But they will also explore Darug history, culture, places and names, and the way Dyarubbin and its surrounding high lands still throb with spiritual meaning and power, and the “ancient sovereignty” of Aboriginal people.The Conversation

Grace Karskens, Emeritus Professor of History, UNSW; Erin Wilkins, Aboriginal Cultural Educator, trainer and facilitator, Indigenous Knowledge; Jasmine Seymour, Artist, writer, illustrator, primary school teacher, Indigenous Knowledge; Leanne Watson, Artist, educator, book illustrator, Indigenous Knowledge, and Rhiannon Wright, Aboriginal Education Officer, Indigenous Knowledge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I’ve always wondered: who calls cyclones their names?


Richard Wardle, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This is an article from I’ve Always Wondered, a series where readers send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. Send your question to alwayswondered@theconversation.edu.au


Who calls cyclones their names? – Guy Mullin, Mozambique.

In the Australian region, the Bureau of Meteorology gives tropical cyclones their name. You can write to the Bureau of Meteorology to suggest a cyclone name, but it is likely to be more than a 50-year wait.

Tropical cyclones are named so we can easily highlight them to the community, and to reduce confusion if more than one cyclone happens at the same time. The practice of naming tropical cyclones (or storms) began years ago to help in the quick identification of storms in warning messages. Humans find names far easier to remember than numbers and technical terms.

Aerial views of flooded areas following Cyclone Idai in March 2019.
EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND



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Clement Wragge began naming cyclones in 1887

Tropical Cyclone Oma captured by NASA international space station.
NASA Johnson/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Now, people ask us all the time how we come up with the names for tropical cyclones. It started in 1887 when Queensland’s chief weather man Clement Wragge began naming tropical cyclones after the Greek alphabet, fabulous beasts, and politicians who annoyed him.

After Wragge retired in 1908, the naming of cyclones and storms occurred much less frequently, with only a handful of countries informally naming cyclones. It was almost 60 years later that the Bureau formalised the practice, with Western Australia’s Tropical Cyclone Bessie being the first Australian cyclone to be officially named on January 6, 1964.

Other countries quickly began using female names to identify the storms and cyclones that affected them.

Naming cyclones helps people quickly identify storms in warning messages. Cameras outside the NASAA international space station capture Hurricane Florence in 2018.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr, CC BY-SA



Read more:
I’ve Always Wondered: How do we know what lies at the heart of Pluto?


How cyclone names are chosen

While the world was giving female names to cyclones and storms, International Women’s Year in 1975 saw Bill Morrison, the then Australian science minister, recognise that both sexes should bear the shame of the devastation caused by cyclones. He ordered cyclones to carry both male and female names, a world first.

These days the Bureau is responsible for naming tropical cyclones in the Australian region, with the names coming from an alphabetical list suggested by the Australian public. These names alternate between male and female. The Bureau of Meteorology receives many requests from the public to name tropical cyclones after themselves, friends, and even pets.

The Bureau cannot grant all these requests, as they far outnumber the tropical cyclones that occur in the Australian region.

Trees on the side of the road at Mission Beach, North Queensland, in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi, 2011. Cyclone Yasi formed in Fiji and maintained the name from that region’s weather agency.
Michael Dawes/flickr, CC BY-NC



Read more:
Curious Kids: What causes windy weather?


Cyclone Oma was named in Fiji

Cyclone names are reused, but when a tropical cyclone severely impacts the coast, or is deadly, like Debbie in 2017 and Tracy in 1974, the name is permanently retired for reasons of sensitivity.

If a listed name comes up that matches the name of a well-known person, or someone in the news for a sensitive or controversial reason, the name is skipped to avoid any offence or confusion.

When a cyclone forms in another region, say near Fiji or in the Indian Ocean, and then travels into the Australian region, the original name given by that region’s weather agency is kept, such as 2019’s Cyclone Oma, which came from Fiji.

Tropical cyclone Bessie was the first Australian cyclone to be officially named by the Bureau of Meteorology.

A list of cyclone names around the world can be found here.The Conversation

Richard Wardle, Weather Services Manager, Queensland, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why so many Australian species are yet to be named


David Yeates, CSIRO

Turns out that in Australia, you are probably closer than you think to hundreds or thousands of species that don’t have names. They are scientifically and culturally anonymous Australians.

If you live in a capital city, these unnamed Aussies are in your state or territory museum, and if you live in a regional area, they are living in your local nature reserve.

Why is this the case? Australia is acknowledged as a “megadiverse” nation, with a particularly large slice of the world’s biodiversity. Our natural environments span from tropical forest to alpine meadow, and from some of the driest deserts to mangrove swamps.

Because almost all of our species only live on this continent, it is up to us to study them. Here is the catch – because this is a large continent with relatively few people, there are also few dollars to fund such discovery research.

Of the estimated 500,000 Australian species, half are insects and only perhaps 20% to 30% of these have been named, so there are at least 100,000 unnamed Australian insect species. These unknown elements of biodiversity represent an almost completely untapped opportunity and resource.

What’s in a name?

So what’s in a name and why does it matter, all this naming in the name of science? Is it just a pointless, egotistical quest for scientific immortality?

No, turns out that it’s important, and often quite challenging. When they are minted, species names are carefully crafted so that they do not duplicate other species’ names.

The Chrysolophus spectabilis weevil.
CSIRO/Rolf Oberprieler, Author provided

For example, one of the first Australian insects to be given a scientific name was the metallic green weevil discovered during James Cook’s first voyage, Chrysolopus spectabilis, also known as the Botany Bay Weevil.

The Danish zoologist Johan Christian Fabricius gave it that name in 1775, and no other animal can now have the name. Type that name into Google, and you will retrieve all sorts of information on it, including beautiful pictures, maps of its distribution, plants that it feeds on.

Worldwide, we have named more that 1.5 million species over the past 250 years, so finding a unique name also can take some careful sleuthing in online databases, such as the Australian Faunal Directory.

This is because species names are used as globally unique passwords to information. You can use the species name to search for information on the species in books, and online resources such as the Atlas of Living Australia.

If a species doesn’t have a name, any information on it is impossible to find. Conversely, if we gave every species the name Bob, information on any particular Bob would be impossible to separate out.

The research to figure out if a species is new can be very challenging. Some species physically look almost exactly the same as other species (they are called sibling species). And this can have real-world consequences.

I estimate that distinguishing a Queensland fruit fly (scientific name Bactrocera tryoni), a major fruit pest, from one of its many closely related but harmless sibling fruit fly species, would be impossible for all but a few well-trained entomologists.

The biosecurity factor

But being able to accurately distinguish these species matters a lot in the real world when it comes to biosecurity and developing international trade.

It is almost always the case that species that are siblings in an anatomical sense are also very difficult to distinguish genetically; they very often have the same DNA barcode sequences, or overlapping sets of DNA sequences.

CSIRO postdoctoral fellow Dr Bryan Lessard is part of the team involved with naming new species.
CSIRO/Alan Landford, Author provided

Government quarantine services often contract our scientists to develop protocols for distinguishing quarantine threats from harmless local species.

If you live in Canberra, you are very close to swarms of unnamed species in CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection. We manage a collection of more than 12 million specimens, almost all of them from Australia.

Not surprisingly, it is the largest collection of Australian insects in the world.

We have the vast majority of named Australian insect species in the collection, plus tens of thousands of unnamed species. The collection is like a vast hard drive of Australia’s biodiversity.

Our researchers continue the task of describing and understanding Australia’s insect species using more and more sophisticated techniques.

Unnamed species belong to a wide range of groups such as mosquitoes that bite humans, and innocent native beetles that look just like major timber and grain pests native to our overseas trading partners.

Often species wait in the collection for decades before study. A PhD student and I are in the process of naming an entire new lineage of flower pollinating insects in the collection, from specimens found in a remote corner of Western Australia 35 years ago.

One of a new lineage of flies about to be formally named.
Xuankun Li (CSIRO and ANU), Author provided

We decide if a species is new by comparing it closely with all its named relatives, siblings and others. Hence the need to have a comprehensive set (a collection) in one physical or virtual place.

Because there are so many insect species, there are too many to compile a book or website with every species photographed and listed. Even if we did, it would have too many pages of very similar-looking species to flick through to make the comparisons.

So we use various identification tools to help us work out if a newly collected species already has a name, or needs one.

I name that critter…

Traditionally, we have used anatomical keys (What bug is that?), that guide the user to an identification by making a series of carefully selected physical observations and comparisons.

But more recently, we’ve been using vast databases of molecular sequence barcodes, analogous to the white pages for biodiversity, to help us decide whether the species is new or not.

The number of genetic mutations shared among populations are increasingly used as evidence of species status.

We are also experimenting with image recognition software to help us. A little bit like a criminal investigation, the best result is when all lines of evidence point in the same direction, telling us that the species is new.

Federal government and private industry joint initiatives, such as Bush Blitz, are providing valuable information on the species in our national parks and other reserves, but we have a long way to go.

While we continue to grapple with the task of keeping trade routes open and managing and conserving our biodiversity for future generations and opportunities, remember the salient point here: most of Australia’s species are unnamed, and we know next to nothing about them.

If we have information on where these unnamed species occur, what features they have, or what they do in the environment, we cannot easily retrieve and analyse it. Hence we cannot readily distinguish native species from important overseas pests.

We also don’t have the information needed to make a choice about where to invest our conservation resources optimally. Efforts to build trade and conserve our biodiversity are compromised until we know more about Australian species. This compromise is a risk we don’t need to take.

The census is coming

We are on the eve of the 2016 Australian census. What a great nation-building goal it would be to initiate a species census.

It would give us the confidence that we had a good handle on our biodiversity – what it is, where it occurs, how well we are conserving it and what properties make it beneficial or harmful to us.

In terms of Australia’s federal budget (somewhere around A$450-billion dollars), the annual resources required for such a species census would be a drop in the ocean.

Are we responsible stewards of this ancient and fascinating land, or are we renting a share house? And can we really say that we know what it is to be Australian when we don’t know the names and addresses of most Australians?

The Conversation

David Yeates, Director of the Australian National Insect Collection, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.