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by David Andrew Roberts

The discipline of social anthropology that burgeoned in Europe from the mid-nineteenth century has paid particular attention to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. The culture and language of the Lake Macquarie/Newcastle region has formed a key component of that work, thanks partially to the rich body of ethno-historical evidence and to the fortunate survival of Awabakal people and culture well into the twentieth century. The following is an overview of the earliest contributions that are of relevance to the Aboriginal peoples of the Newcastle-Lake Macquarie region.

Among the earliest pioneer anthropological work relating to this region was that contributed by Alfred W. Howitt on the "Geawe-gal" or "Geawegal" people of the Singleton/Maitland district. Howitt's work was based largely on information gathered from George William Rusden, clerk to the Legislative Council of Victoria and son of the first chaplain at Maitland, who spoke the language (Howitt 1904; Fison and Howitt 1880: 279-84). In the Journal of the Anthropological Institute in 1896, Robert Hamilton Matthews published a key paper on the Keeparra initiation ceremony of the north-coast Aborigines, based on observations made on the Manning River. The article included a diagram of a ceremonial ground and discussion of the Dhalgai ceremony (Matthews 1896). Matthews had earlier documented and drawn Aboriginal rock paintings on Bulgar Creek, near Singleton (Matthews 1893). Robert Miller in 1886 wrote on the Wonnaruah people of Hunter River in an essay that asserted broad similarities in language and culture between Aborigines on the Hunter River and the Hawkesbury region (Millar 1886). At about the same time, Reverend Dr. John Fraser of Maitland offered papers to the Royal Society of New South Wales, and compiled his landmark linguistic study of the language he termed Awabakal (Fraser 1892).

In two short essays for the Science journal in 1898, J.W. Fawcett outlined the "customs and dialect of the Wonnah-Ruah tribe", discussing the collection and preparation of food, weapons and implements, infanticide, initiation and marriage laws, and featuring a vocabulary of around 200 words (Fawcett 1898a; Fawcett 1898b). A decade later, Bernard McKiernan published "Some notes on the Aborigines of the lower Hunter River", describing clothing, body decoration, social organisation and marriage customs (McKiernan 1911). They were followed by A.P. Elkin whose field work in this region in 1931 resulted in his "Notes on the social organization of the Worimi", which discussed regional clan and kinship systems, totems, ceremonies, language, and the powers of the "Karadji" or clever man (Elkin 1932).

In the first half of the twentieth century, the principal student of Aboriginal culture, past and present, was the ethnologist, Walter John Enright of Maitland and Dungog, who for over fifty years pursued his studies, particularly in the Port Stephens region, benefiting from "confidential relations" with Worimi peoples. "So secretive were they" Enright wrote, "and so apprehensive of having what was sacred to them ridiculed, information was never volunteered, and when sought it was only given to those whom they thought respected their beliefs". (Enright 1936: 86) Enright's first essay on the Port Stephens Aborigines, researched with the assistance of R.H. Matthews, was published by the Royal Society of NSW in 1899, detailing the use of the bullroarer and describing body decorations, messengers and food taboos associated with the Keeparra ceremonies (Enright 1899). Enright published more than twenty works in respected journals such as Mankind, Oceania, Science of Man, and the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales. His notes and essays canvass a wide variety of topics including Aboriginal social organisation, initiation and mortuary ceremonies, language and placenames, tribal boundaries, trading routes, bora-grounds, stone arrangements, "axe factory" sites, rock paintings and carvings. Enright also took a strong interest in Aboriginal technology and material culture, documenting a great range of items and devices, including stone implements, dilly bags, canoes and paddles, fish traps, and some sacred ceremonial objects.


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Citation: D.A. Roberts, H.M. Carey and V. Grieves, Awaba: A Database of Historical Materials Relating to the Aborigines of the Newcastle-Lake Macquarie Region, University of Newcastle, 2002
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Last Updated: 23 January, 2003
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