Archaeological work along the south coast of NSW has uncovered Aboriginal sites dated up to 20,000 years ago, although work around the Moruya area has not revealed sites older than 4,000 years. That, however, cannot be taken as an indication of late settlement of the area – the archaeologists believe that earlier sites along the coastal plain were covered by silt. One of the oldest and more important sites in the area was found at Broulee.
The main tribe of Aboriginal people, ranging along the coast from Cape Howe to the Shoalhaven, was the Yuin tribe. The branch of that tribe in and around the Moruya area was the Bugelli-Manji clan. When white settlement commenced at Moruya the people living at Mullenderee – the flats beside today’s Princes Highway on the north bank of the river – referred to themselves as the Burgurgo or Pergoga people. The spelling varies in the documentation left from that time.
The numbers of Aboriginal people living in the area before white settlement is difficult to ascertain. In 1833, five years after the arrival of the first local settler, a formal return of the Aboriginals who had been present at a property of four square miles at Mullenderee on 8 October recorded 66 people – 25 men, 19 women and 22 children. The usual places of abode of those people were recorded and included Broulee, Moruya (the south bank of the river), Kiora, Araluen and Bergalia. A later report, in 1845, dealt with the Aboriginal population of the Broulee Police District which ran from St. Georges Basin to the north bank of the Moruya River. It was estimated that about 250 Aboriginal people were living in that area at the time. The writer of the report estimated that about twice that number had been living in the area 5 to 10 years earlier, and suggested that the dramatic reduction of their numbers had been due to cutaneous and venereal diseases.
There is one informal report, probably at least second-hand but from a reasonably credible source, which was published in 1888 and suggested that over 1,000 Aboriginals had been seen camped around the Moruya Lagoon on some earlier occasion. They may well have gathered from quite a wide area in order to attend a special meeting.
The livelihood of the local people depended more on fish and shellfish than red-blooded meat. Their shelters were rough and possum skin cloaks were the usual source of warmth and protection in winter. Physically they were very able, and there are first-hand accounts of the boys practising their spear throwing on rough bark discs bowled erratically along the ground. They achieved great skill. It seems much more than likely the young Yuin men had the same remarkable eye/hand coordination and uncanny ability to link up with team mates we have seen in many other Aboriginals on football grounds and in the boxing ring.
The family unit was the main social building block, though the concept of ‘family’ was flexible. Groups of families were controlled and directed by a headman. The eminent anthropologist A.W.Howitt says the term used by the Yuin for the 12 headman was the ‘Gommera’. Just how the Gommera came to assume his position is not entirely clear but it does seem he needed to be respected as a hunter and a warrior. He was wise, he had magical powers and he had spiritual connections.
The Gommera also presided over justice. Howitt, writing in 1883, had this to say:-
Among the Yuin there was the same practice of expiatory ordeals as among the other tribes I have quoted and the old men prefer this to armed parties being sent out to exact blood-revenge in a feud. The kindred of the deceased frequently revenged themselves by lying in wait for the suspected person, and killing him when out hunting alone. This naturally led to reprisals, and thus to complications such as those which caused the great blood-feud in the Kurnai tribe.
An instance is known to me of an expiatory meeting in the Yuin tribe in consequence of a Moruya man being killed by a man from Bodalla, but I am not aware whether by violence or by magic.
The Bodalla Gommera sent a Jirri (messenger) to the Bodalla man, telling him he must come to a certain place and stand out. Meanwhile the men of Moruya were preparing their spears and heating their boomerangs in hot ashes to make them tough. At the time fixed, the man appeared, armed with two shields. As he was charged with killing someone, he had to stand out alone; but if he had been only charged with injuring him, or with having used Joias, that is, magical charm, without actually killing the person, he would have been allowed to have a friend to help him. His friends with their Gommera stood at one side, a little out of spear range, while the Moruya men and their Gommera were at one side of the friends of the dead man.
It having been arranged how many of the fathers and brothers (own or tribal) of the dead man should attack the defendant, the Gommera then told them what to do, and they went forward towards the Bodalla man, who stood alone expecting them. At about 30 yards distance from him they halted for a while to give him time to prepare himself for defence, then standing in a line facing him, they threw their boomerangs and then their spears at him. He being wounded, his Gommera shouted out ‘Jin ail’, that is, ‘Enough!’ and they ceased. There was no further action in this matter, for blood had been taken.
Of particular interest to the Broulee area are the transcripts of the interviews Janet Mathews recorded in 1965 when speaking with three well respected local Aboriginal men – David Carpenter, Herbert Chapman and Percy Davis. The three men stated that the tribe or clan or family that lived on Broulee Island was different to the one at Moruya. Percy Davis, whose tribal name was Narramurrao, was the last link with the language of the Yuin people. It went with him when he died at Moruya in 1968.
Today, the Eurobodalla Shire Council recognises and has extensive and active dealings with six Aboriginal Land Councils – Batemans Bay, Bodalla, Cobowra, Merrimans, Mogo and Wagonga. An indication of the work being undertaken, and a detailed account of the available literature on Aboriginal history in the Shire, may be found in the Eurobodalla Aboriginal Heritage Study.