After a decades-long campaign by the Gunditjmara people, the Budj Bim eel traps have become the first Australian UNESCO World Heritage site to be listed exclusively for its Aboriginal cultural values.
The eel traps at Budj Bim comprise a vast network of weirs, dams and stone canals to manipulate water levels in various lake basins. Some of the channels are hundreds of metres long and were dug out of basalt lava flow.
These structures force eels and other aquatic life into traps as water levels rise and fall. The canals also appear to have been used to create holding ponds to keep eels fresh until they were needed for food. Not only did this provide the region’s Gunditjmara people with a year-round food supply, it was also important for trade.
The site also features the remnants of almost 300 stone houses – the only remaining permanent settlement built by an Indigenous community in Australia.
Located in southwest Victoria, Budj Bim has been carbon dated to 6600 years old, meaning it predates more internationally well-known examples of ancient engineering like the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge.
Aboriginal activist Burnum Burnum said these traps are a prime example of how complex and varied the Aboriginal economy was at the time.
“Gradually it is dawning on the outside world that life in the traditional Aboriginal way involved a great deal of knowledge and skill,” he wrote.
Budj Bim is managed by the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation. Gunditjmara Elder Denise Lovett called this a very special day for the community.
“This landscape, which we have cared for over thousands of years, is so important to Gunditjmara People,” she said.
“The decision also recognises Budj Bim’s significance to all of humanity. We are so proud to now be able to share our achievements and story with the world.”
Gunditjmara Elder Denis Rose agreed, saying the ingenuity of their ancestors “shows in the aquaculture systems that are still operational to this day”.
Traditional owners had been petitioning for the site to receive World Heritage Listing for some time, and hope to restore the site to what it would have looked like before European colonisation.
Tae Rak (also known as Lake Condah) was drained in the mid-20th century to create land for grazing, and so water can only be seen in the channels during very high floods. The site has also been damaged by vandals and livestock over the years.
The Victorian Government has committed $5.7 million for preserving Aboriginal heritage in the state, and restoring Budj Bim is a large part of that. It’s expected that Budj Bim’s World Heritage listing will now turn the world’s attention to this millennia-old site.
The announcement was made at a ceremony this past Saturday in Baku, Azerbaijan. In recommending Budj Bim for World Heritage listing, the International Council on Monuments and Sites acknowledged the Gunditjmara People’s involvement and leadership in nominating the site for inclusion on the World Heritage List.
Budj Bim has also been recognised by peak body Engineers Australia as one of the country’s top engineering achievements. Engineers Australia CEO Peter McIntyre said the UNESCO World Heritage listing is welcome news, and highlights the important contributions of Australia’s first engineers.
“Budj Bim is an extraordinary feat of engineering by the Gunditjmara people. For thousands of years, engineers have been using the tools available to them to improve lives and build communities,” he said.
Budj Bim is now Australia’s 20th property on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Other sites include Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef and the Sydney Opera House.
A version of this story first appeared on create digital as ‘6000-year-old Aboriginal engineering feat named to World Heritage list’.