Aboriginal people lived in and around Brisbane and Moreton Bay for at least 22,000 years. The population was somewhere between 5,000 and 12,000, of which perhaps 700 to 1,000 regularly resided in what we now call the southern suburbs of Brisbane.
Plains of grassy forests – ironbark, bloodwood, apple, stringybark etc. – dominated the region, offering Indigenous occupants much game (kangaroo, wallaby, possum). Not surprisingly, this meant that many parts of the southside were reserved by Aboriginal people as hunting grounds – for instance, the area between White’s Hill, Mt Petrie and Belmont.
Creek drainage basins dissected the forests with marshy waterholes where good supplies of fish, crayfish, waterfowl and edible aquatic plants could be procured. Vine forests and rainforests grew in small pockets close to the Brisbane River such as Fairfield, West End and Norman Park, adding stores of medicines and fibres. Thus apart from extensive hunting grounds, the southside provided wood, bark, reeds and rushes. Spears, baskets and necklaces were common southside crafts.
The entire Brisbane valley saw much concourse of peoples using the river and its surrounding flats to travel to and from gatherings and ceremonies on the coast and in the highlands. This continual flux, and the nature of Aboriginal society (which had clan, language, totemic, class/ moiety networks and sub-divisions – each with its own boundaries and obligations) meant that the association of Indigenous groups with Brisbane’s southside was complex. Early settlers named groups according to frequent places of residence: Oxley Creek blacks, Bulimba blacks, South Brisbane blacks. Today, scholars and Indigenous families prefer to abide by language groupings (e.g. Yaggera, Yaggarapul or Turrbal), though some think local divisions such as Coopooroo, Chepara and Yerongpan better reflect the day-to-day groupings.
Four major camping grounds lay around the study areas: Woolloongabba/ South Brisbane; Norman Park near Norman Creek; Holland Park (below Mount Gravatt) and Oxley Creek/ Rocky Water Holes. Smaller camps are recalled at Camp Hill, Fairfield and Sunnybank.
By 1827, the Indigenous people of Brisbane’s southside were regularly raiding South Brisbane crops to starve out the fledgling colony. From then till the 1870s, roads – between South Brisbane and Logan River, and South Brisbane and Cleveland (former Aboriginal pathways) became pivotal to most Indigenous-settler contact – whether as trade, transport or armed attacks. From the 1850s, local Aboriginal people took up selling fish or bark to settlers, or worked for the district’s early timber-getters. Others found jobs assisting with stock or domestic duties on the emerging farms – for instance, at Cooper’s Plains and Holland Park.