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The First People

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Artist accompanying unidentified European explorers sketched this interpretation of the Aboriginal People they encountered. In an area of southwestern Australia where boat transport was little used, the artist has taken liberties. Courtesy of West Australian Newspapers uncredited images from archival and contemporary sources.

Before 1829

For at least 50,000 years Aboriginal people have lived in Western Australia. In the southwest, the Noongar peoples carefully managed and lived off the land. They used fire as a tool to clear dense undergrowth and promote new growth of the plants and to assist in the capture of animals. They used traps to capture fish. They dealt with their environment kindly, respecting what it could provide for them and never taking more than it could withstand.

The land of the Noongar nation stretches from approximately Geraldton/Moora on the west coast to Esperance on the south coast. Of all the Aboriginal peoples in Western Australia, the Noongar people are probably the group most affected by early settlement.

The first recorded European contact began in the early 1600s. The Dutch, the French, the Portuguese and the British all visited our coastline. Most found Western Australia a harsh and forbidding place and were content to leave it to the Indigenous people.

Willem De Vlamingh the Dutch explorer visited the coast in December 1696 and remained until January 1697. He had travelled down the coast from the north and commented: 'In the north the land is barren and miserable; in the south, the land is fat.' - Willem De Vlamingh on his expedition to the Western Australian coast in 1696.

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Vlamingh's second-in-command, Gerritt Collaert, skipper of the Nijptangh sent half of his expedition party to find the mouth of the Swan while he proceeded to meet them overland from Cottesloe. The task was safely accomplished on January 7, 1697. At the mouth the men found two black swans, which the amazed sailors knocked over with a boathook. No one had ever seen black swans before. Collaert, therefore, was the finder of the river we know today as the Swan. Vlamingh named the Swan River and his expedition took the live swans to Batavia, now Jakarta in Indonesia.


However, he sailed on believing the land to be unsuitable as a Dutch settlement.

Aboriginal Rock Art
The rock painting is believed to be either the Dutch East India Ship Zuytdorp (1711) or the SS Xantho (1872). Courtesy WA Maritime Museum.

These early encounters were fleeting, with little effect on Aboriginal society. However, as a result of shipwrecks, contact did take place and the evidence is seen in the rock art. For the Aboriginal people, rock art represents their history and mythology as well as a direct tie to their ancestors. At intervals they reengraved and repainted the art. Even the earliest foreign contacts are part of the rock art subject matter. The rock painting is believed to be either the Dutch East India Ship Zuytdorp (1711) or the SS Xantho (1872). Courtesy WA Maritime Museum.


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In Aboriginal Dreaming, WA's black swan emblem was originally white. The story tells of two white swans that stole the boomerangs of eagles and as punishment, the eagles plucked out the swan's white feathers and left the birds to die in the desert. The blood stained their bills red. Black crows, feeling sorry for the swans, plucked out their own feathers to disguise them so that the eagles would not threaten them again.
Source: The West Australian


Department of Indigenous Affairs

Acknowledgement of Country

The Government of Western Australia acknowledges the traditional custodians throughout Western Australia and their continuing connection to the land, waters and community. We pay our respects to all members of the Aboriginal communities and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present.