Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps (Baiame’s Nguunhu)

The Aboriginal fish traps at Brewarrina are regarded by the Ngemba custodians as highly significant. The site is also shared with the neighbouring groups: Morowori, Baranbinja, Ualaria, Weilwan, Kamilaroi, Kula and Naualko (Rando, 2007). The site is a complex arrangement of stone fish traps, channels and rock walls, which cover 400 m of the bed of the river. In 2009 the Brewarrina Shire Council described the Brewarrina Aboriginal fish traps as an:

… elaborate network of rock weirs and pools stretches for around half a kilometre along the Barwon Riverbed from the town weir as built by the Ngemba people to catch fish as they swam upstream… [...] the area is still a significant place for Aboriginal people today. Prior to European settlement the Ngemba people maintained the fisheries and rebuilt them, depending on the natural flows of the River. Stones were removed from the river to allow paddle steamers to cross and later during the 1920’s rocks were removed and used for building foundations and road construction. […] Despite serious degradation, the fisheries are still used today by the local community to catch a feed of fish.(2009:1).  

The site of the fish trap is highly significant to the Aboriginal community of Western NEW South Wales as a result of its traditional, spiritual, symbolic and cultural associations. The development of a highly skilled fishing technique, that involves a thorough understanding of engineering works (dry stone walls), river hydrology and fish biology, as well as a distinctive way of life that isn’t practiced any longer, and exceptional interest. An opportunity to demonstrate to the wider community aspects of history of the Aboriginal people, who occupied Western New South Wales going back to prehistoric times, is provided by the traps. The site of the traps also has natural significance to Landscape evolution in Australia, as the outcrop of bedrock the traps are built on provides a rare geological exposure which reveals evidence of past landscape history. Many groups that have a link to the site also value it as cultural meeting place and an important location where the community elders can pass knowledge, language and songs and stories to the younger generation.

Ngemba people and water research

The Ngemba Old Mission Billabong indigenous Protected Area has many sites within its boundaries which are of great cultural significance to the Ngemba people (Jackson et al., 2010). It was found by the study carried out by Jackson et al. that before the development of the Brewarrina Weir, natural billabongs would have supplemented the water supply from the river during dry times. The filtering role of the billabong on the quality of the water was also valued by the Ngemba people. A participant in the research explained the cultural and social significance of being able to care for the billabong, ensuring it is ‘function naturally’ as was done by the ancestors of the Ngemba people to Jackson (Jackson et al., 2010). The importance of contemporary restoration work was highlighted by the same participant, as it is a means of getting the younger people to engage in meaningful work that also fulfils cultural obligations. The report considered the WCMA (2008) Wetland Management Plan for the Old Mission billabong.

A report was compiled on the traditional uses by the Aboriginal people of the Barwon River Wetlands (Woodfield, 2000). In this report subsistence practice, which include fishing, hunting, and gathering, is described that were undertaken in this region, and also details events such as corrobborees and initiation ceremonies. Some of the impacts by European colonisation on the river, the Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish traps, and the flow of the river, concerning water extraction for irrigation, and the effect of the reduced access of Aboriginal people to water and water places.

An essay (Goodall, 2002), The River Runs Backwards investigates the strong relationship between language, personal responsibility and identification with river landscapes of the black soil plains of the Darling region. There is another publication that refers to the importance of the River and the Brewarrina Aboriginal fishtraps, Darling – Brewarrina to Bourke: Talking-Fish-making Connections with the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin (Frawley et al., 2011).

Ngemba Water Values         

Ngemba Water Needs

Ngemba water needs have been interpreted as the desire of the Ngemba people to protect their values and knowledge, and to carry on their cultural practices at each site. Consideration of drinking water or commercial needs is not included in these discussions.

Cultural Values

A variety of examples were used by Ngemba research participants to illustrate why they place high value on the Ngemba Old Mission Billabong, the River and the Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps. Current generations are linked to their ancestors and the past, prior to colonisation, mission days, by these locations; they are places where the Elders shared knowledge and important stories; the Ngemba people derive their identity from these places; and they provide the opportunity for current generations to connect with country.

Connection to the past

It was described the by Ngemba participants that the Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps is a feature that connects them to past generations. As well as showing historical innovation, the traps are recognised as a place where Ngemba people used to meet with other Aboriginal groups to trade. An Ngemba Elder expressed pride the community has in the Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps, saying “when you go down you can see the shapes and know that’s where they used to go and do their thing, especially when the water was low” (Ngemba, 3.2).

Sources & Further reading

  1. Maclean K, Bark RH, Moggridge B, Jackson S, Pollino, C. (2012). Ngemba Water Values and Interests

Ngemba Old Mission Billabong and Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps (Baiame’s Nguunhu). CSIRO, Australia.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated:
Journey Back Through Time
Experience Australia
Aboriginal Australia
National Parks
Photo Galleries
Site Map
                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading