Aboriginal women gathered a rich variety of seafood from the coves and mudflats of the Harbour rim - rock oysters (badangi), mud oysters (dayinya), Sydney cockles (gadyan), mussels (dalgal), turbans, pippies, prawns, crabs (yera), lobsters (magurang) and freshwater mussels. Yabbies and turtles were fished from freshwater creeks above the tidal limit. Discarded shells were piled up as middens, many of which can still be seen today. Sydney’s rich marine life provided food and resources for decoration and tool making. Sharp fish bones or teeth and stingray spines were attached to spears with gum.


From June to October, pods of Humpback whales migrate along the eastern coastline of Australia to warmer northern waters. In spring they return to the Antarctic. Governor Phillip reported a young whale cast ashore near Botany Bay in 1788 was cut into pieces and ‘laid upon the fire only long enough to scorch the outside’. Dolphins (baruwaluwu) and seals (darawan or wanyawar) were also hunted.


Turtles were rarely seen around Sydney. On Christmas Day 1789, the Aboriginal leader Bennelong dined with Governor Phillip and his officers on a turtle brought from Lord Howe Island by HMS Supply.


Short-finned freshwater eels (Anguilla australis) and the grey moray eel (gaan) were once plentiful in the Parramatta River and the inland fresh lagoons west of Port Jackson.

Eels are often represented in stone engraving sites found in Hawkesbury sandstone, some marked with horizontal lines across their bodies.

In Autumn each year, the ‘woods’ (inland) people would camp at lagoons where, wrote Judge Advocate Lieutenant David Collins: ‘they subsist on eels which they procure by laying hollow pieces of timber into the water, into which the eels creep, and are easily taken’.

Shipworm Grub

The edible white grub called the shipworm lived in decayed and waterlogged branches of mangrove, she-oak and other fallen timber. It was considered a delicacy, especially by the Gabrogal people, who lived on the Cooks River around Cabramatta and Prospect Creeks.


The earliest evidence of Aboriginal life in the Sydney area was uncovered in 1896. Archaeologists found a 6000-year-old dugong skull and ribs while excavating at Alexandria Canal which runs from St. Peters to the Cooks River at Botany Bay.

Cut marks and scars on the bones showed that like tribes further north, Aboriginal people killed and butchered dugong for food. Two ground-edged stone mugu or axe heads were found nearby.


Aboriginal men would sit on the banks of creeks, wooden spears poised, carefully watching for platypus to surface and patiently waiting for an opportunity to strike. ‘This they do with much dexterity, and frequently succeed in catching them’ said John Hunter, later Governor and Admiral (1737-1821).


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