Engineering, Yvette

Australia’s First Engineers




It is a time of great upheaval.  Across the world, First Nations people and others subjected to the oppression of systematic racism are making their voices heard.  Although I was cautious to avoid performative activism, I ultimately decided it was important to use my platform to amplify the messages of BIPOC and to share their stories, as I feared that silence could be interpreted as support of the status quo.

I live in Meeanjin (currently known as Brisbane), the traditional home of the Turrbul and Jagera nations.  Although I often complain about the humidity, I am very grateful to be able to call Meeanjin my home.

Today, I also wish to pay my respects and to spread knowledge of the great feats of some of Australia’s first engineers, the Gunditjmara people, the creators and custodians of the Budj Bim eel traps.

The eel traps at Budj Bim are an example of ancient aquaculture and hydraulic engineering which were officially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.  The site is located on a previously volcanic area in southwest Victoria and has been carbon dated to be 6600 years old.  This means that it pre-dates the Great Wall of China (by 4370 years), the Egyptian Pyramids (by ~2000 years) and Stonehenge (by 1580 years).


The eel traps are comprised of a network of weirs, dams and stone canals which manipulate the water levels in numerous lake basins.  The traps are used to corral eels into ponds as the water levels rise and fall, allowing eels to be kept in holding ponds so they could be kept alive and fresh and could be consumed when required for food.  This allowed the Gunditjmara people to manage their seasonal food supply and facilitated trade opportunities.  With the option for eels on the menu, all year round, it’s no surprise that this was a bustling settlement area as indicated by the remnants of close to 300 stone houses within the site boundary.  These house ruins are the only remaining ancient permanent dwellings built by Indigenous Australians, contributing to the status of this Budj Bim as a site of particular archeological and cultural significance.

More details of the Budj Bim eel traps and their UNESCO status are described by Gunditjmara Elders and experts in this video:

The ancient engineers of the Budj Bim eel traps have not always been awarded the credit they deserve.  In 1841, George Augustus Robinson the “Chief Protector of Aborigines“ undertook an expedition to the area.  In his letter from 9 July that year, he wrote that he had come upon: “an immense piece of ground trenched and banked, resembling the work of civilized man but which on inspection I found to be the work of the Aboriginal natives, purposefully constructed for catching eels.”  It wasn’t until the 1970s the further research into the workings of the dams and traps was instigated, culminating in computer modelling in the 2000s. You can read more about the engineering investigation of the eel traps in this article.

In addition to its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the site was given National Heritage recognition in 2004, was nominated as an Engineering Heritage National landmark in 2011 and Victorian Government has officially changed the name of Mt Eccles National Park (in which the site is located) to Budj Bim National Park

The Budj Bim eel traps have also been acknowledged for their significance and engineering merit in Wonders Never Cease: 100 Australian Engineering Achievements, a book produced by Engineers Australia.

This is ultimately a good news story for the Gunditjmara engineers but it does not mean that we should recede into complacency and pat ourselves on the back.  There is still injustice that we can address.

If you feel moved to do so, you might consider donating to one of these Indigenous educational institutions because as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Sonia Sotomayor, says:

"Until we get equality in education, we won’t have an equal society."
BMNACNFP Charity Org focusing on Education, Language and Employment services for community 
Children’s GroundAboriginal led org for the future of indigenous children
Literacy for Life FoundationAboriginal run literacy initiative
YalariIndigenous Children’s Education 
Aboriginal Literacy ProjectSeeks to transform the lives of Indigenous children by focusing on literacy and numeracy education.

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