Sydney Harbour’s lush environment provided everything its first peoples needed – shelter, nutritious foods, water and soft sandstone on which they carved and painted images. Take a look at their world.

Landscapes of the Harbour

Aboriginal people lived as hunter-fisher-gatherers in a bountiful saltwater environment – a landscape of bush, sandstone cliffs, bays and coves, ocean beaches, rocky headlands, mangrove swamps, creeks and tidal lagoons.

It was a landscape rich in cultural meaning. Every natural feature, every named place, had a story about the ancestral beings who created and shaped it.

Cultural beliefs were recorded in engravings of hundreds of totemic figures and events in sandstone throughout the Sydney Basin, many of which can still be seen today.

When the First Fleet came ashore at Sydney Cove in January 1788, the British had no idea they were establishing a colony in a landscape created and controlled by fire.

Aboriginal people regard burning as ‘looking after’ Country. Regular fires thinned out the eucalypt forests, kept the undergrowth sparse and promoted the growth of plant foods and grasses. A perfect habitat for grazing animals like wallabies and kangaroos.

Many native trees and plants use fire to regenerate, spreading seed in fertile ashes to sprout again after rains. Sydney Harbour provided the perfect environmental backdrop for a sustainable traditional lifestyle that continued for tens of thousands of years.

Entrance to Port Jackson

Lycett, Joseph

State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, d1_08392

Harbour landscape

©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

A View of Dawes Battery and the Entrance of Sydney Cove, c.1817-1818

Engraved by W. Preston from an Original Drawing by Capt. Wallis

State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

DISCOVERY TRAIL HIGHLIGHTS

Uncover the world of Aboriginal Australians by exploring these key sites