The bark from this tree at the west end of the playground would have been used for a child’s      canoe.

We have many reminders here at Rathmines of the presence of the Awabakal people.  Local  Awabakal people have told us that Rathmines was a gathering place for the clans.  It was ideal    because it offered a beautiful flat area with plenty of food from the land and the lake to support a  gathering.  There is a very large midden on Styles Point which shows occupation over a lot of  years.  There are 3 scarred trees in the playground ( and others in the area ).


“Aborigines of the Hunter Region” produced by the Department of Education, Hunter Region; Hunter Social Studies Association & Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs NSW, 198?.


Awabakal means people of Awaba.  In ritual language Awaba meant Lake Macquarie.  Their land was recognised as extending from the Hunter River in the north to the southern end of Lake Macquarie or the Tuggerah Lakes.  It extended to the Sugarloaf Ranges and the Watagan mountains in the west. The Awabakal were a lighter-skinned people than the people of the Northern Territory tribes.  They were very tall, the men often reaching 7 feet ( 210 cms ) and the women 6 feet ( 180 cms ).

They lived on fishing and gathering of shellfish, as well as hunting animals and collecting fruits and tubers.

The bark from this tree ( found at the Rosemary Row entrance of the school ) was most probably used for a shield.


There were four Awabakal clans.  The land shown in the map was considered as theirs to look for food and materials for tools and weapons
Pambalong (or Swamps District)
Ash Island
Lake Macquarie

The clans respected territorial boundaries, but came together for social and ceremonial occasions.

Each group would be a family.  There were very strict marriage laws to prevent in-breeding.

The tribes and clans had a lot of connections through trade and ceremonies.  Most adults were bi-lingual or multi-lingual.

They were a very spiritual and moral people.  There was a high level of honesty and respect for their elders.  They doted on their children.  Although they had chiefs or heads amongst their men and women, important decisions were made by all adult members.

The number of Awabakal people was reduced after 1837 because of diseases, like smallpox and influenza, and massacres as relations between Aboriginal Australians and the European colonists deteriorated.

 Hunter Region Tribes

Awabakal relationship with their land

Europeans assumed that nobody owned the land when they came to Australia because they could not see fences or evidence of farming.  They thought the Aboriginal people wandered all over the land.  This was far from the truth.  Aboriginal peoples “farmed” their land through fire & conservation techniques, like moving regularly from one area to another before the resources were depleted.  They had very definite boundaries respected by the surrounding tribes and clans.  Every landmark had a name reflecting where food or water could be found, or where to find materials for weapons or tools.  These names also reflected their spiritual connection to their land.  They could not understand why you would want someone else’s land to which you had no spiritual connection.

The neighbouring tribes were the Wonorua, Darkinung, Worimi & Geawegal.  Each of these tribes knew exactly where their land ended and another tribe’s land began.  They would not enter or use another clan or tribe’s territory without permission.

All of this information was given by the leaders of the Awabakals when the Europeans first arrived.    There was Biraban of the Awaba clan, Gorman (Bo-win-bah), Coleman (Kua-mun) and Boatman of the Pambalong, Wallungull and Cobbawn Wogi of the Ash Island clan, Ben of the Kurnurngbong, Cobbera of the Tumpoeahba or Sugarloaf clan and Desmond of the Newcastle clan.  The Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld developed a relationship with the local Awabakals and recorded their words and traditions. He realised that the Awabakal people were dying out and tried to record everything while he could.  He could not have done this without Biraban who is recognised as the greatest English speaking Aboriginal scholar of the 19th century.

Europeans could not understand the role of women in Awabakal society.  They assumed that only men could have authority.  Aboriginal men would not talk about “womens’ business” because of traditional law and so often it was not recorded.  In reality, women had more freedom and importance than Europeans knew.

These pictures can be seen at :  They are Lycett paintings of the Awabakal people in the early 1800s – note Nobbys Island in the background on the right.


 Biraban (c. 1819 – 1846)

Biraban was born at Bahtahnah (Belmont).  His name meant Eaglehawk.  He was taken as a child to act as a servant to an officer at the military barracks in Sydney.  It was here he was given the name Johnny McGill and learnt to speak English fluently.

He was taken to Port Macquarie in 1821 where he became a tracker of escaped convicts for Francis Allman when the new penal settlement was established.

He returned to Lake Macquarie where he was recognised as a leader of the Awabakal people.  He had been initiated through 14 different ceremonies and had a great deal of influence with his tribe.  He was a very intelligent man who tried to keep good relations between his people and the settlers.

He quickly became firm friends with Rev Threlkeld when he became his assistant.  Threlkeld instructed Biraban in Christianity and Biraban instructed Threlkeld in Awabakal language and tribal customs.

They worked together every day until they had written down the Awabakal language and translated St Luke’s Gospel.  Governor Darling honoured Biraban at the annual Aboriginal conference at Parramatta in 1830 by giving him a brass plate with “Barabahn, or MacGil, Chief of the Tribe at Bartabah, on Lake Macquarie the Tribe at Bartabah; a Reward for his assistance in reducing his Native Tongue to a written Language”.

Biraban also helped Threlkeld to interpret for fellow Aborigines in court.  Judges Burton and Willis were impressed with his ability, but he could not be sworn in his own right.

“Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899”. Macquarie University : Mr Threlkeld acting as interpreter for Awabakals on trial & speaking on their behalf.

A lot of people could not understand why he continued to be loyal to his tribal customs while embracing Christianity.

Threlkeld described Biraban as ‘a very valiant athletic man’. The United States explorers Backhouse and Walker said that he was ‘about the middle size, of a dark-chocolate colour, with fine glossy black hair and whiskers, a good forehead, eyes not deeply set, a nose that might be described as aquiline, although depressed and broad at the base’. In 1842 Leichhardt described him as a noble savage.

Threlkeld described Biraban’s wife,Patty, as ‘pleasing in her person’, ‘kind and affectionate in her disposition’ and shrewd and intelligent. They showed how happy they were together by ‘reciprocally rouging each other’s cheek with pigment of their own preparing, and imparting fairness to their sable skin on the neck and forehead with the purest pipeclay, until their countenances beamed with rapturous delight at each other’s charms’. Patty died before Biraban.

Biraban often disappeared to get rum in Newcastle, but always returned.  He tried to protect the settlers and asked Governor Gipps when he considered forming an Aboriginal Police Corps if he could “Make me the head of them, and not a bushranger shall escape my tribe”.

Biraban died soon after the mission closed in 1842. Threlkeld recorded a generous tribute in his introduction to A Key to the Structure of the Aboriginal Language (1850).

He was undoubtedly an outstanding Aboriginal of his time, trying to assimilate himself into European culture while keeping his tribal identity.

smhmay1846   Sydney Morning Herald May 1846

Awabakal Dreaming Stories can be found at :

The following songs were taken from the collection of Percy A. Haslam at Newcastle University :



Tokoi-ro oowalin

Kore-la ngarabin

Wonnai-baran korien korun yikora

Ngu-koong-baran kullai tirriki kotillin

Tibbin-tara wiyalin

Boot-ikiang korien berekabin yikora

Kolbee kio-yoong koba kowaul

Kore-baran koroong kolang oowalin

Ngu-koong baran b~kto bo~-ma.lin. .

Wonnai baran koppm yantm katbatllm

Ngu-koong bahto boa-mah

Kore baran tura makero-lo mankullan

Kuri yantin takillin

Katan ta-ba koi-yoong wi wi

Hail! Dawn is shining glory doing

The sun shining (blazing with warmth)

Night moving

Man stirring

Children restless

Women fire-wood thinking

Birds singing

Animals awakening (sleeping not)

Camp noise grows

Men bush towards moving

Women water gathering

Children they hungry, all shouting

Women water collected

Men spear fish, return

People all eating

Camp quiet again

Literal translation by Perce Haslam

Awabaka llanguage, New South Wales


Women’s rondo

Kilaben Bay song

(Awabakallanguage, Lake Macquarie, New South Wales)

Ela! Ngorokan-ta killi-bin-bin katan

Pannal-la bulliko kul-kulin


Kore wonnung kef


Kore wonnung kef


Ah, it is so!

Where is the man?

Man is away!

Where is the man?

Ah, it is so!

6500-year-old heritage junked

The Newcastle Morning Herald, 21 May, 2011 04:00 AM

AUSTRALIA’S largest KFC restaurant stands above one of the

country’s most significant Aboriginal heritage sites in Newcastle

West, a new archaeological report has revealed.

The former Palais night spot site contains carbon-dated evidence of Aboriginal occupation dating back

between 6716 and 6502 years – the oldest evidence of human settlement in Newcastle.


But the final excavation report, which rates the site as having ‘‘high to exceptional cultural and scientific

significance’’ was only completed this month, even though the KFC building was built about a year ago.

‘‘Are we just documenting these sites so we can destroy them later?’’ University of Newcastle Coal

River Working Party chairman Gionni DiGravio said yesterday.

‘‘Aboriginal archaeology is not given any importance, which I find amazing. This material is as

significant as anything you would find in Europe.’’

The Hunter Street site was excavated following the demolition of the Palais in 2008.

Items found at the site include more than 5700 stone tools and campsite remains.

‘‘Few open sites in the local, regional or national contexts retain a large

artefactual assemblage within a well-dated chronological soil profile,’’

the report says.  The Newcastle Herald has previously reported that the

site also contains a treasure trove of colonial-era artefacts.

The $2.5 million development was approved on the basis that it met all necessary heritage assessments.

‘‘We have been engaging with the Awabakal people for over a year in regards to the site and how to

honour the people and the artefacts,’’ a KFC Australia spokesman said yesterday.

But Awabakal clan descendants said yesterday the report highlighted the lack of rigour in the state

government’s assessment of Aboriginal heritage.

‘‘There’s not much you can do about it now, but where are the regulations that protect culture and

heritage?’’ Shane Frost said.

‘‘No one would have guessed that amount of cultural heritage items

would be found there.’’

Kerrie Brauer said the approval was disappointing.

‘‘It doesn’t give us much confidence with future developments in

Newcastle,’’ she said.  ‘‘The medical centre next door didn’t have an investigation because they said

there was nothing there.’’

The KFC Australia spokesman said a representation of the indigenous connection to the site would be

incorporated into the restaurant.  ‘‘We are working towards having a graphic representation of the

Awabakal people in the restaurant as well as donating recovered artefacts to a university.’’