Phillip Island & District Historical Society

The Bunurong People

Last updated on 03-Aug-21

This information was compiled by Christine Grayden with the assistance of the library at the Koorie Heritage Centre, 2010. This information was on display in the society's museum and has been read and edited by several Aboriginal people. Constructive comments on this essay are welcome. Please see the contacts page.


The Bunurong people are part of the Kulin Nation along with the Djadjawurung (Jaara people), Taungurong, Woiworung (Wurundjeri people) and Wathawong. Among the members of the Kulin Nations, many aspects of their daily lives, beliefs, dreamtime and kinship patterns were similar. They swapped girls to be brides to strengthen the ties. Twice a year they held joint meetings on the site of what is now the Melbourne Central Business District. At those times the Bunurong would camp at what is now the site of Government House in the Botanic Gardens. These were times for ceremonies, corroboree, exchanging of gifts, trading in greenstone (for axes) and possum skins, arranging marriages and settling disputes.


The Creator for the Bunurong is Bunjil, the eagle. Bunjil divided the Bunurong into two moieties: Bunjil and Waa the Raven – the protector of the waterways. Members of different moieties married but still visited family from the other moiety. Extended family beliefs meant that uncles were regarded as fathers and their children as brothers and sisters.

The Bunurong consisted of six clans:


Yalukit-willam: occupied the thin coastal strip from Werribee to Williamstown around to Mordialloc Creek


Mayone-bulluk: occupied the area at the top of the Mornington Peninsula and the head of Westernport


Yowenjerre: the eastern-most side of Bunurong land


Burinyung Balluk: unknown territory


Yallock-Bullock: from Bass River on the eastern side of Westernport


The traditional lifestyle of the Bunurong was dictated by the seasons. They had an intimate understanding of the life cycles of the plants and animals of their country. The Bunurong had a highly varied diet which included:

Insects: grubs, ants and their pupae, earth worms, Bogong moths, locusts, green caterpillars, honey

Plants: Murnong (daisy yam); Grass tree flowers, young shoots and inner leaves; rhizomes of bracken; roots and young shoots of bulrush; water ribbons; tubers of native orchids; fruit, seeds, gum and foliage of Black Wattle; mistletoe; apple-berry; kangaroo apple; mangrove; pigface;  Birdwood; currant bush; cherry ballart; boobialla; mushrooms.


Animals: frogs, skink, goanna, kangaroo; bandicoot; wombat; native companion; cockatoo; pigeon; quail; parrots and eggs (cooked)

However, young people could only eat certain foods with the permission of the elders, especially possum, glider, echidna, emu, bustard, duck, swan, turtle, lizard or large fish.

It was the responsibility of the head man or Arweet to ensure that the clan’s country was cared for properly and the plants and animals were not over-harvested. Other important people were doctors, warriors, interpreters of signs and dreams and charmers who could summon or dismiss rain.

It is possible that the Bunurong have been in Victoria for 40,000 years.


The Yallock-Bulluk and Millowl (Phillip Island)


The Yallock-Bulluk visited Phillip Island most summers. Penguins and mutton bird (Short-tailed Shearwater) eggs and young were harvested from November to March. Shellfish were gathered. Bones from the yellow-footed phascogale (marsupial mouse) and rufous-bellied wallaby have been found in Phillip Island middens, along with pieces of emu eggshell.

At one site a workshop for implements exists alongside a kitchen midden. 

Ochre and clay is found in various places on Phillip Island and may have also been used by the Yallock Bullock people.

They are believed to have travelled from the mainland to Phillip and French Islands in six foot long, six-person canoes made from a curved piece of bark cut from a suitable tree. The bark was too stiff to bend so was plugged at the ends using clay.

Churchill Island, is believed to have been a sacred site for the Yalluk Bullock people. Unfortunately we do not know what the other sacred sites were for the Bunurong on Phillip Island.


There are many Bunurong middens on Phillip Island. They are protected by law and it is now illegal to interfere with them or take anything from them.


The Dispossession of the Bunurong


The dispossession of the Bunurong people occurred very quickly – within 40 years. At the time of the commencement of European exploration in Western Port, the Bunurong people had suffered extensively through two events:


1. A plague of smallpox, previously unknown in Aboriginal Australia, swept down from New South Wales in the 1790s. It is believed to have halved the Victorian Aboriginal population.

2. The Bunurong had been at war with the neighbouring Braiakolung and Brataolung people, the most westerly of the Kurnai peoples. This also reduced their numbers.


European people arrived in Western Port from 1798, and a successive wave of events from then contributed to the dispossession of the Bunurong people.

Firstly, sealers are believed to have taken Bunurong women, according to the explorer Hovel. This would have caused huge dislocation to the daily lives of the clans and the ceremonial and intermarriage lives of all of the people. While some of the women were treated reasonably well by the sealers, many of the sealers were hard men and ex-convicts, and one of the women has left a vivid description of how she was subjected to virtual slavery, rape and brutality. The sealing industry operated through Bass Strait, including Seal Rocks on Phillip Island, from 1801 to 1830.


Secondly, from the 1830s, hundreds of tons of black wattle bark was stripped by wattle bark (“mimosa”) collectors and shipped out from San Remo to be used in the tanning trade. The black wattle was a staple food, fibre and medicine tree for the Bunurong, and the decimation of the black wattle forests robbed the people of a central part of their lives. While we know little of relations between wattle bark collectors and the Bunurong we do know of at least one instance where Bunurong men were killed by wattle bark collectors as the Bunurong slept. At one stage an official was sent in to the area in the 1830s to investigate massacres of Bunurong happening in Western Port.


Thirdly, many members of various Aboriginal groups congregated in Melbourne after European settlement in the 1830s. There they were provided with some rations, such as flour and tobacco, and encountered venereal disease such as syphilis. They were also encouraged to wear European style clothing, which did not dry out quickly once wet and which therefore contributed to the Aboriginal people getting pneumonia. Deprived of traditional and effective medicine sources, and having no immunity against the new diseases, the Aboriginal people quickly succumbed in large numbers. The colonists gave them alcohol which caused violence that frequently led to death. The milling together of many different groups of Aboriginal people, some of whom were traditional enemies, also contributed to violence amongst them.


Finally, much of the land around Western Port was taken up by colonists by the 1840s, depriving the remaining Bunurong of their traditional lands and food sources.

The language of the Bunurong is known as Boonwurrung