Mt Stromlo and the surrounding areas were inhabited by the Ngunawal people for more than 20,000 years. The Ngunawal peoples, consists of a number of different clans bounded by the broad language groups of Wiradjuri (to the west of Yass), Ngarigo (south-east of Canberra), Walgalu, Gundungurra (to the north) and Yuin (on the coast). The Ngunawal people are identified on Tindale's map of Aboriginal Tribes of Australia (1974). This widely recognised and authoritative languages map is a representation of the language groups, or tribes, who inhabited Australia at the time of the new settlement in 1788.
Within the Ngunawal people there are known to be seven clans who lived in fairly specific localities. There is an obvious link between clan names and the modern names of the areas today. The Maloongoola lived in the Molonglo area, the Biyaligee, in the area of Pialligo, the Namitch or Namwitch lived in the area we know as Namadgi, the Cumbeyan lived in the Queanbeyan area, the Kanberri lived in the Belconnen area, the Toogoranoongh lived in Tuggeranong and the Yarr lived in the Yass area.
Scientific evidence demonstrates that the Ngunawal people have lived here for more than 21,000 years, perhaps from the time when the extreme cold of the last Ice Age eased. This is arguably one of the longest periods of continual habitation anywhere on earth. The Ngunawal people have developed a way of living and managing the natural resources of the land which has enabled this phenomenon.
The meaning of Canberra (original spelling Koyanberra) is meeting place. The Canberra region is generally understood to have been a meeting place for different Aboriginal clans, suggesting that there was a reliable food and water supply. To access areas of significance such as Mount Majura and Mount Ainslie, Black Mountain and the major meeting ground at the current site of (new) Parliament House, significant pathways were formed as people moved from place to place through transitional cultural boundaries following river and creek corridors and the ridges and spurs of hills and mountains. Pathways were the means of access across the region and Mt Stromlo was used as a physical and visual link to major spiritual and gathering places.
The arrival of European settlers to the region in the 1820s disrupted the traditional lifestyles of the local Aboriginal people. Limited access to land and resources and the spread of diseases severely impacted the local population. While there is some physical evidence of Aboriginal occupation on the lower slopes of the mountain, the disturbance since the construction of the Observatory has all but destroyed any artefacts at the top. There is however a strong cultural connection to this place, and to the sky, especially at night.
Aboriginal people have been scanning the Southern night sky for thousands of years and have used the positions of the stars as a kind of calendar, indicating the seasons and availability of certain foods. Constellations are also important to the dreaming stories of many Aboriginal cultures.
Why The Emu Can't Fly (A Ngunawal Dreamtime story)
Many thousands of years ago when the world was covered with ice, creatures were big and fearsome even the birds were big. Most of the birds had wings but were too heavy to fly. All the animals had dark brown leather-like skin.
Mother Earth changed and melted the ice making the earth green and beautiful, but the birds didn't change. They remained the same drab colour. They didn't blend into the magnificent forests and plains.
So the Great Spirit Ngadyund Burorage decided to do something about it and called the other spirits together. They watched the birds frolicking about their domain and their habitats. At last after a long meeting they decided what to do. Ngadyund Burorage called the birds from the forests and plains for a meeting and told them that on a certain day, so many sun (winyu) ups and sun downs away, to meet him at this place at the same time and he would have a surprise for them. Then he disappeared.
The birds left and went about their business. The emus (arang) returned to the plains, investigating anything that caught their eye. They went further and further away forgetting about the important meeting with Ngadyund Burorage.
One day there were frolicking about when they heard a voice calling to them saying "aren't you going to the meeting?" Looking about they couldn't see where the voice was coming from. The eagle hawk (mulleun) told them to look up to the sky. There the eagle hawk flew with his beautiful soft brown feathers.
The eagle hawk told them that Ngadyund Burorage had given him his beautiful feathers and made him fly. The emus then realised they had forgotten it was the day of the meeting that Ngadyund Burorage had told them about. Without another word the emus left for the meeting hoping that they too would receive beautiful feathers that would make them fly.
When they arrived at the meeting place, they were amazed at the different coloured birds in the trees and on the ground. Ngadyund Burorage was just finishing off a Rosella (bunduluk) when the emus approached him. It was late in the afternoon and Ngadyund Burorage was very tired. He told them that they might be too late because he was too tired to create many more feathers.
The male emu pleaded with him to give them soft feathers like the other birds. Ngadyund Burorage worked very hard to give the male emu enough feathers to fly. He made the male emu into a magnificent bird with long wings. The spirit asked the emu to fly and he did, all the other birds applauded and called out as he gracefully landed next to his partner. Ngadyund Burorage started working on the male emu's partner but couldn't make enough feathers to finish her off. He asked the male emu if he would sacrifice some of his new feathers for his partner.
The male emu looked at how magnificent he looked and then looked at this partner who still had leather-like skin. He reluctantly agreed to give her some of his feathers. Ngadyund Burorage took some of the feathers from the male emu's wings and made them smaller and finished the female emu off to look like him. They both looked magnificent now but because their wings were made smaller, were unable to fly.
Ngadyund Burorage felt sorry for the birds because they were unable to fly, so he made their legs bigger and stronger than any other birds so they could run as fast as they would be able to fly.
The emu became one of the fastest birds alive. That is why the emu can be seen at night running flat out across the stars (dyurra).