A timeline of Aboriginal occupation of the area encompassing UNSW consists of the following sequential phases:
  • Pre-contact
  • First contact and Invasion
  • Conciliation
  • Frontier Wars
  • Compulsory Racial Segregation
  • Assimilation
  • Self-determination
  • Post self-determination

It is important to note here that the Uluru Statement from the Heart resolutely refers to the arrival of the British as an invasion.

Sand dunes close up

Built on top of an ancient landscape

None of the stone raw materials for these implements are found in the sand dunes or sandstone outcrops of the coast, so we know that coastal Sydney people were trading with other groups in western Sydney, south in the Illawarra and much further away.


Around 1,500 years ago, coastal Sydney people began to use local materials for their tools, such as shell, bone and quartz from coastal sandstone. 

About 1,000 years ago, they began to make fish hooks from shell, which were mainly used by women. When Europeans arrived (fig.3), coastal Sydney people drew a clear distinction between themselves and those who lived further inland in western Sydney. 

Fig.3 J. Walker, 1791. A Map of the Hitherto
Fig.3 J. Walker, 1791. A Map of the Hitherto explored country contiguous to Port Jackson. The map was reproduced in Watkin Tench’s A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, State Library of NSW

Sydney’s Aboriginal people were divided into clan groups of around 25 to 60 people, who traced their lineage through their fathers back to a common ancestor. They shared totems and had primary rights to their clan estate. The precise area of these estates is not known. 

We know that the connections of each clan through marriage and ceremonial obligations linked them to areas far beyond their individual estate. There were many languages spoken by Aboriginal people across coastal Sydney.

Fig. 5 Landscape in 1870s. John Skinner Prout c.1874 -1876. View Near Botany Bay, State Library of Victoria
Fig. 5 Landscape in 1870s. John Skinner Prout c.1874 -1876. View Near Botany Bay, State Library of Victoria

La Perouse

Military garrisons were established to claim territory from local tribes who contested being alienated from their traditional lands. Grave sites were recently uncovered near UNSW during excavations for the Sydney Light Rail project illustrating the impact of colonisation on local clans.

The human population around the campus area grew enormously between the late 1800s and early 1900s as a tram line was extended to the new Kensington racecourse. Europeans settled most of the land previously occupied by local clans whose numbers had been decimated by smallpox and frontier conflicts.

From the early twentieth century, government policies restricted Aboriginal movement, and most coastal Sydney people came to live on the La Perouse Aboriginal mission (fig. 6). This was the period of segregation or otherwise known as ‘protection’.  

La Perouse Aboriginal Mission 1928
La Perouse Aboriginal Mission 1928

The people of La Perouse were among those who campaigned for Aboriginal civil rights in the 1930s, a period in which the Australian government sought to ‘assimilate’ Aboriginal people. This civil rights era culminated in the breakthrough gains of the 1960s and 1970s.

By then, UNSW had been established (fig. 7) and played a national role in the next phase of government law and policymaking, self-determination. Aboriginal self-determination saw Aboriginal people enrolling to study at UNSW (fig. 8), helping to set up the first Aboriginal Legal Service at Redfern, and later the Indigenous Law Centre.

Aerial photo showing the location of UNSW campus, 1930
Aerial photo showing the location of UNSW campus, 1930

Over the past 45 years the University has been home to a growing number of Aboriginal students, researchers and staff, and now houses the Nura Gili Indigenous Programs Unit (fig.9). All are carrying on a long, local tradition of Aboriginal teaching, learning and innovation into the future.


Read the history of Australia as told by the First Nations delegates at the Uluru Constitutional Convention in 2017.

Uluru Statement - Our Story