Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Eel Farming      

In southwestern Victoria there was a large area covered by small rivers, swamps and wetlands, that in the winter wet season became a huge area of marshes. These marshes were the feeding area for a 1 m-long Australian eel (Anguilla australis occidentalis). In spring the eels moved along the rivers from the sea to their feeding grounds, returning to the sea to breed in autumn.

To exploit this abundant seasonal food source, the Aboriginal People constructed an elaborate system of traps and even canals that were on a scale that could be considered to be engineering. Among the sites where these structures were built of stone and still remain are Ettrick (Mainsbridge Weir site), Lake Condah, Toolondo and Mt William.

A detailed study of the trap network has been carried out at Lake Condah, the publication they produced is Aboriginal Engineering of the Western Districts of Victoria. The study found many stone races (above ground canals), canals, and stone walls, up 1 m high by 1 m wide made from black volcanic rocks that are common in the area. These walls were often more than 50 m long. Channels had been dug into the basalt bedrock that were up to 1 m deep and extended for up to 300 m.

Apertures were built into the walls for the placement of eel pots or eel nets, and traps were built across the stone races and canals. Eel pots were made of bark strips or plaited rushes, they had a hoop of willow at the mouth. They tapered to a narrow exit where the eels could be grabbed as they emerged from the trap.

The system of traps were built on a number of levels to take advantage of different water levels in the lake, and were designed to operate whether the water was rising or falling.

At Mt William and Toolondo there was a system of water control that connected 2 lakes in 2 different drainage basins that were connected by 400 m-long channels dug out through the low divide between the 2 basins with digging sticks, allowing the water to flow in either direction. The system not only allowed the eels to occupy a larger area, and the channels were places where they were easy to catch, but it was designed in such a way that it coped with extra water during floods and retained water like dams in drought.

Later research that included computer simulation concluded that the eel trap systems were in fact part of a huge area of modified land, up to 100 km2, where there were a number of weirs, channels and dams, that were probably a giant aquaculture project, growing eels that were smoked and traded along the trade routs. The oldest dates recorded for the area is at least 8000 years ago. So aquaculture has been practiced in the area for at least 8,000 years. Near a lot of the eel traps were burnt-out hollow trees. Soil samples from the base of these "smoking trees" were found to contain traces of eel fat.

Associated with the eel business were permanent or semi-permanent houses, with a stone base.

The local Aboriginal People, the Gunditjmara, are unsurprised by the discovery, they say they still use the traps, and still weave the eel traps. It seems no one thought to ask them, they say they have always known that their ancestors were not nomadic. The only thing they didn't know was just how old the traps were.

A number of references in literature, such as the journals of explorers and a number of other people that were written in the 19th century, describe stone structures, as well as structures from other materials or combinations of the various materials, built by the Aboriginal inhabitants at various places around Australia.

George Augustus Robinson

The country at Kilgower is but slightly elevated above the sea. Kilgower is on the [blank] or Port Fairy River ... He ... took me to a very fine and large weir and went through, with several other of the natives, the process of taking eels and the particular spot where he himself stood and took them. I measured this weir with a tape, 200 feet, five feet high. It was turned back at each end. The eel pots are placed over the holes and the fisher stands behind the uere.roc or weir and lays hold of the small end of the arrabine or eel pot, And when the eel makes its appearance he bites it on the head and puts it on the lingeer or small stick with a knob at the end, thus or, if near the bank, he throws them out. The fishing is carried on in the rainy season. Arrabeen or eel pot made of bark or plaited rushes with a ... round mouth and having a small end to prevent the eel from rapidly getting away.

These yere.roc or weirs are built with some attention to the principles of mechanics. Those erected on a rocky bottom have the stocks inserted into a groove made by removing the small stones so as to form a groove. The weir is kept in a strait line. The small stones are laid against the bottom of the stick. The upright sticks are supported by transverse sticks, resting on forked sticks as shown above. These sticks are three, four or five inches in diameter. Some of the smaller weirs are in the form of a segment or circle. The convex side against the current. Robinson 30/4/1841 in Clark, 2000b: 157-158 in the Report to Aboriginal Affairs Victoria).

James Dawson - possible first hand description

The small fish, 'tarrapatt,' and others of similar description, are caught in a rivulet which runs into Lake Colangulac, near Camperdown, by damming it up with stones, and placing a basket in a gap in the dam. The women and children go up the stream and drive the fish down ... Eels are prized by the Aboriginal People as an article of food above all other fish. They are captured in great numbers by building stone barriers across rapid streams, and diverting the current through an opening into a funnel-mouthed basket pipe, three or four feet long, two inches in diameter, and closed at the lower end. When streams extend over marshes in time of flood, clay embankments two or three feet high, and sometimes three to four hundred yards in length, are built across them, and the current is confined to narrow openings in which the pipe baskets were placed...Lake Boloke is the most celebrated place in the Western District for the fine quality and abundance of its eels; and, when the autumn rains induce these fish to leave the lake and go down the river to the sea, the Aboriginal People gather there from great distances. Each tribe has allotted to it a portion of the stream, now known as Salt Creek; and the usual barrier is built by each family...For a month or two the banks of Salt Creek presented the appearance of a village all the way  from Turreen Turreen, the outlet of the lake, to its junction with the Hopkins (Dawson, 1881, in the Report to Aboriginal Affairs Victoria).

George Augustus Robinson - early site descriptions

[Mt William Region]

passed several dieks dug by the natives for draining several small lagoons into the large ones for the purpose of catching eels, etc. These channels were from a foot to 18 inches deep and from one to 300 yards in length (Robinson, 8/7/1841 in Clark 2000b in the Report to Aboriginal Affairs Victoria).

[near Mt William]

At the confluence of this creek with the marsh observed an immense piece of ground trenched and banked...which on inspection I found to be the work of the Aboriginal natives, purposefully constructed for catching eels... These trenches are hundreds of yards in length. I measured in one place in one continuous trepple line for the distance of 500 yards. These treble watercourses led to other ramified and extensive trenches of a most tortuous form. An area of at least 15 acres was thus traced over...These works must have been executed at great cost of labour...the only means of artificial power being the lever...This lever is a stick chisel, sharpened at one end, by which force they threw up clods of soil and thus formed the trenches, smoothing the water channel with their hands. The soil displaced went to form the embankment...This description of work is called by the natives cro.cup.per, i.e. Bennewongham [said so].

The plan or design of these ramifications was extremely perplexing and I found it difficult to commit [to] paper, in the way I could have wished, all its various form and curious curvilinear windings and angles of every size and shape and parallels, etc. At intervals small apertures left and where they placed their arabeen or eel pots. These gaps were supported by pieces of the bark of trees and sticks. In single measurement there must have been some thousands of yards of this trenching and banking. The whole of the water from this mountain rivulet is made to pass through this trenching ere it reaches the marsh; it is hardly possible for a single fish to escape. I observed a short distance higher up, minor trenching was done through which part of the water ran it course to the more extensive works. Some of these banks were two feet in height, the most of them a foot and the hollow a foot deep by 10 or 11 inches wide. The main branches were wider.

Around these entrenchments were a number of large ovens or mounds for baking, there were at least a dozen in the immediate neighborhood (Robinson, 9/7/1841 in Clark 2000b in the Report to Aboriginal Affairs Victoria).

Alexander Ingram - early site description

At the south-western portion of Lake Condah is situated one of the largest and most remarkable Aboriginal fisheries in the western district of Victoria. The position has been very well chosen, as the small bay is the lowest point on the western side of the lake. Owing to the peculiar formation (open trap scoriae) along the eastern, southern and part of the western sides of the lake, the water sinks very rapidly and becomes very low during summer months, but as it receives the drainage of a large extent of country the water rises very quickly during winter, and first flows into the scoriae at the point named, which has been facilitated to some extent by the channels formed by the Aboriginal People for trapping eels, trout, etc. These channels have been made by removing loose stones and portions of the more solid rocks between the ridges and lowest places, also by constructing low wing walls to concentrate the streams. At suitable places are erected stone barricades with timber built in to as to form openings from 1ft. to 2ft. wide; behind these openings were secured long narrow bag nets made of strong rushes...There are also numerous smaller fisheries constructed in suitable places in small bays and outlets where the water sinks into the trap scoriae down along the margin of the valley of Darlot's Creek. Across this valley, at suitable places, were erected large barricades constructed with strong forked stakes, horizontal spars, and vertical stakes strengthened with piles of stones; openings were also left in these (Ingram in Worsnop, 1897: 104-105 in the Report to Aboriginal Affairs Victoria).

George August Robinson

Led our horses into the stony rises: masses of larve, steep stone - horse could barely walk - plenty ash hills, round sharp layers, plenty huts of dirt and others built of stones...At the native camp they had oven baking roots...Stone houses...stone weirs...Mt Napier bore north and Mt Eels WNW (Robinson, 20/3/1842 in Clark 2000c: 42 in in the Report to Aboriginal Affairs Victoria).

Sources & Further reading

  1. Flood, Josephine, 2004, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications.
  2. Aboriginal stone structures in southwestern Victoria - Report to Aboriginal Affairs Victoria.


  1. Aboriginal People may have farmed eels, built huts
  2. Fish Traps and Drainage Systems
  3. Secrets of the stones
  4. Coutts, P. J. F. (Peter J. F), Aboriginal Engineers of the Western Districts, Victoria, Records of the Victorian Archaeological Survey; No.7
  5. Brewarrina Fish traps
  6. The Archaeology and Socioeconomy of the Gunditjmara: A Landscape Analysis from Southwest Victoria, Australia
  7. Gunditj Mirring Partnership project


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 30/09/2011


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