Ancient aboriginal settlement one step closer to World Heritage listing

By Gemma Chilton 20 January 2017
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One of the earliest known aquaculture systems on Earth, in south-western Victoria, is one step closer to becoming Australia’s 20th World Heritage site.

ONE OF THE world’s oldest aquaculture sites, an ancient Aboriginal farming settlement that predates Stonehenge and the Pyramids, has been formally nominated for inclusion on Australia’s World Heritage Tentative List.

Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, in Lake Condah, south-western Victoria, dates back at least 6600 years, and shows how a large, settled Aboriginal community systematically farmed and smoked eels for food and trade, challenging the view of Australia’s Aboriginal people as all nomadic hunter-gatherers.

If successful, Budj Bim (also known by its European name, Mt Eccles) would become Australia’s 20th World Heritage site along with the likes of Fraser island and Kakadu National Park, and the first Australian place to be World Heritage listed solely for Indigenous cultural values. 

“We’re really pleased as a community and as Traditional Owners about the announcement,” said Denis Rose, project manager for the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation. Today’s announcement is the first step in formal nomination for UNESCO World Heritage listing, and Denis said it comes after a long struggle for recognition.

lake condah

Looking to the south-east over Lake Condah, in south-western Victoria. (Image: Tyson Lovett-Murray/Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation)

The landscape around Lake Condah was shaped around 30,000 years ago when a volcanic eruption created lava flows that changed the drainage pattern in the area, forming large wetlands. The Aboriginal community then developed the landscape through the construction of an ingenious system of channels, fishtraps and weirs for raising and trapping eels, for food and trade. 

The aquaculture system is one of the oldest constructions on Earth, and remnants can still be seen today, along with the remains of hundreds of ancient stone huts around Lake Condah.

The richness of life in Lake Condah – eels, waterbirds, fish and other bushfoods, as well as the abundance of stones for building materials from the lava flow, and a permanent fresh water supply made the site ideal for permanent habitation.

Budj Bim was used by traditional owners for millennia – right up until and beyond colonial settlement, when European farming practices eventually saw the drainage of Lake Condah. However, today local people still engage in traditional practices at the site, said Denis, including trapping eels using traditional traps.

Following today’s announcement, the Victorian Government will now work with the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and the Federal Government to prepare a formal World Heritage nomination.

“The Gunditjmara Aboriginal people should be congratulated for their tireless advocacy and ongoing commitment for recognition of the international significance of this remarkable site,” said Josh Frydenberg, the Minister for Environment and Energy, in the statement released today.