This piece first appeared in The White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.297 of 29th January 2009
“Come on! You’ll be fine. You know a bit about history and stuff.” Some acquaintances had invited me to a trivia night. I tried to explain that I was no good at trivia and I would only be a liability. Sure enough, I was unable to make any contribution of value to the questions about which members of which rock group did what to whom in which hotel room. However, then came a question when all eyes turned to me.
“Who were the first inhabitants of Melbourne?” “We told you there’d be something for you. What’s the answer?” “It might be a trick question” I explained. “The name Melbourne was proclaimed soon after European settlement so the answer might be Batman’s and Fawkner’s parties and a few others because technically there was no Melbourne before that.” “They don’t do trick questions” said my colleague, a little annoyed. “What they mean is ‘who were the first inhabitants of the district now known as Melbourne?’” “Well, that’s easy.” I said. “We don’t know.” “What do you mean ‘we don’t know’? We can’t give that as an answer."
I tried to explain as briefly as I could. Some time starting over 40,000 years ago, successive waves of Australoid peoples made their way down the east coast of Australia. Skeletons have been found near the Murray with receding foreheads and quite different from later arrivals. Did they make it to Melbourne and were they the first inhabitants? We don’t know. Dominant and warlike groups probably killed off or drove out weaker ones who occupied prime land. William Buckley tells us how this struggle was still going on by the time of European arrival. Did the original inhabitants of Melbourne put down roots and drive off invaders? We don’t know. 10,000 years ago, Melbourne was not prime land. It was cold and the Yarra was in a deep gully lined with temperate rainforest. The prime land was probably about two-thirds of the way down the bay. Of course it wasn’t a bay then but a plain. The Yarra flowed roughly down the route of the Port Melbourne light rail, out onto the plain and eventually met up with Maribyrnong & Barwon Rivers. There was a large freshwater lake near what we now know as The Heads. This was probably the prime land – a flat plain suitable for fire farming and attracting kangaroos, a fresh water lake for water birds and the nearby ocean for shellfish (on the Point Lonsdale side) and if you didn’t like it there you could walk to Tasmania (on the Point Nepean side). As the waters rose did the dominant group who occupied the prime land get pushed up the bay and did they displace or kill off the previous inhabitants of the Melbourne area? We don’t know.
My companions were clearly restless. “You can’t put down ‘we don’t know’ as an answer – come on, give us something!” “Well, by the time of European contact there were a number of language groups of Aboriginal people who we believe had been in the region for many centuries. Whether they were the original inhabitants.. .” “Yes - we don’t know!” chorused my exasperated companions. “Just give us a simple answer we can write down.” “Alright, ‘Aboriginal people’.” The scribe grudgingly wrote it in the space provided.
The answers were read out and when they came to that particular question, several tables rose and cheered themselves for getting the correct answer – “Wurundgeri”. The night continued in much the same manner, and my similar attempts to answer other questions clearly marked me as a ‘passenger’ on the team. Still, by the end of the night considerable wine had been consumed and people were good natured about my poor contribution. I was even invited to join them next time. I told them I wasn’t very good at this sort of thing.
“Come along anyway,” they said. “You might learn something.”