Budj Bim: an Aboriginal cultural heritage landscape

Law, song, and a Meriam Moon Dance

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples maintain complex oral traditions, which include song and dance, that serve as oral texts, containing important information about traditional Laws.

Budj Bim: an Aboriginal cultural heritage landscape

The management of the Budj Bim landscape in southwest Victoria people by its traditional owners, the Gunditjmara people, in collaboration with the Victorian Government and other parties, demonstrates several features of modern protection systems of landscapes, environments and cultural heritage.

Budj Bim, a volcanic landscape with relatively recent volcanic activity, situated in Gunditjmara country is rich with cultural features, including the remnants of ancient stone houses in village arrangements and an elaborate aquaculture system. The Gunditjmara people have developed and used environmental management strategies over thousands of years, and the modern context of collaborative management of the area is an outstanding example of Indigenous environmental knowledge, practices and innovations. Students can compare the Budj Bim example with other examples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s approach to custodial responsibility and environmental management.1

Budj Bim is one of the most striking examples of the cultural and ecological role of water in Aboriginal communities. The Gunditjmara peoples are known to have engineered the Budj Bim landscape to farm and harvest eels in channels for over 6,000 years.

The Gunditj Mirring Corporation has developed a Master Plan for the Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape, and nominated it for World Heritage Listing. The cultural importance of Budj Bim is stated in the Vision of the Master Plan in the following way:

The Budj Bim landscape is a unique place with universal heritage values that demonstrates how Gunditjmara people worked with the natural resources and environment of the Victorian south west region to establish a permanent place of human society over the past 30,000 years and beyond2.

This unit will assist students to learn about how the Gunditjmara peoples modified the landscape for their advantage, and how it continues to benefit their health and well-being in the long term. This study also provides a positive example of people and governments working together to achieve significant social and cultural outcomes for all Australians.

Good practice in heritage landscape protection: the confluence of Aboriginal traditional and current management to protect and preserve Budj Bim

Budj Bim is the home of the Gunditjmara people, who have managed this remarkable environment for thousands of years. Geologically, the ancient Budj Bim landscape was created by a spectacular volcanic eruption around 27,000 years ago3 from Budj Bim (formerly Mt Eccles) and associated volcanic lava flows. The landscape allowed Gunditjmara law men to stand on the top of Budj Bim and see the path of the creator beings from the Serra Range and Mt Abrupt (Grampians), to Mt Napier and south to the Cape Bridgewater coast and Deen Maar (Lady Julia Percy Island), the final resting place of the spirits of Gunditjmara people.

At the community level, the following quote provides a real sense of the connection of the Gunditjmara people with country, and the ongoing respect they have for their ancestors and all that was provided for them.

“In the Dreaming, the ancestral creators gave the Gunditjmara people the resources to live a settled lifestyle. They diverted the waterways, and gave us the stones and rocks to help us build the aquaculture systems. They gave us the wetlands where the reeds grew so that we could make the eel baskets, and they gave us the food-enriched landscape for us to survive.4

Evidence of landscape engineering and management to support significant populations include the remnants of circular stone dwellings, weirs, channels and eel traps. Budj Bim is considered to be one of Australia’s and the world’s earliest and largest aquaculture systems.  Five eel trap systems have been recorded around the edge of Lake Condah, one of which has been carbon dated to 6,600 years old5, which predates the Egyptian pyramids by two thousand years. The permanent supply of freshwater ensured a reliable and abundant food supply, including eels, fish and water plants. Mature eels were harvested with woven baskets placed in the weir.

Historical and archaeological evidence demonstrates that not only were the eels farmed but they were preserved by smoking and therefore adding value to their harvest as a valuable trading item. This economic value further supported a permanent settlement of people to flourish in the area.

The Gunditjmara people are currently involved in the active management, protection and preservation of Budj Bim6 in partnership with the Victorian Government’s Budj Bim Connections program7. Together with the Budj Bim Master Plan, these programs are an excellent example of a successful contemporary joint management approach to maintaining a culturally priceless area. This will ensure the ongoing connection of the Gunditjmara people with their ancestors and their country, and will also assist all Australians in understanding the incredibly rich history of their country.

Classroom activity - Humanities and Social Sciences (Geography) Year 10

Students will investigate the cultural connections of the Budj Bim people to country, their development and use of environmental management strategies over thousands of years, and the modern context of collaborative management of the area.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ approaches to custodial responsibility and environmental management in different regions of Australia (ACHGK072)
  • The application of geographical concepts and methods to the management of the environmental change being investigated (ACHGK074)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 10 Humanities and Social Sciences (Geography):

  • identify, analyse and explain significant interconnections between people, places and environments and explain changes that result from these interconnections and their consequences

Classroom activities

Individually or in small groups, students can research in detail several aspects of the cultural connections of the Budj Bim people to country, their development and use of environmental management strategies over thousands of years, and the modern context of collaborative management of the area.  Students can also compare the Budj Bim example with other examples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s approach to custodial responsibility and environmental management.

  • Students will research and find maps that detail the extent of the Budj Bim National Heritage Area, and locate significant features such as Budj Bim, the eel traps and other significant sites of human occupation around the shores of Lake Condah.
  • Students will research Gunditjmara stories that reference Budj Bim, to determine if there is evidence of volcanic activity preserved in their creation stories or other stories.
  • Students will research the evidence which details the activities of farming, harvesting, preserving and trading the eel resources. And consider what environmental and ecological knowledge would be required to successfully develop the aquaculture activities They should include references to aspects such as the effect of the weirs on water levels and extent of the retained water, and the life cycle of the eels.
  • Students will describe how the use of the aquatic farming activities at Budj Bim could have influenced the development of the Gunditjmara communities in the Budj Bim region.
  • Students will describe the current environmental practises employed by Gunditjmara at Budj Bim and compare with the pre-colonisation practices identified in their research.
  • Students will investigate the process of applying for World Heritage status.
  • Research other examples of environmental management practises used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This could include examples of the use of fire to manage access through country, to encourage vegetation regrowth and assist with harvesting and hunting.
  • Investigate a current day example of environmental management techniques used to protect a culturally significant area in another region of Australian mainland or the Torres Strait islands – a good example is weed management on the Crocodile Islands8

Students will present these investigations as written work and/or as classroom presentations.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.