Portrait of a Place: Swimming Yesterday

Documenting the spiritual and cultural significance of the Brewarrina Fish Traps—one of Australia’s most ancient sites


The community living in Brewarrina, a rural town located in New South Wales, has an origin myth about the fish traps that sit in the Barwon River. Legend has it that the complex arrangement of stones—considered one of Australia’s oldest Aboriginal heritage sites—were formed when ancestral creator god Baiami threw a fishing net across the river. His two sons then built the stone wall traps according to the shape of the rope on the water.

To find out more about the origin myth and the fish traps’ importance in modern life director Damian Kane met with Brad Steadman, a Brewarrina local who has a deep understanding of indigenous languages and practices, and whose knowledge informs this revealing documentary.

“For thousands of years before British settlement, people from across the land gathered in large numbers at the fish traps”

“The people of Brewarrina proudly call their fish traps the oldest man-made structure in the world,” says Kane. “For thousands of years before British settlement, people from across the land gathered in large numbers at the fish traps, not only for subsistence but for cultural and spiritual reasons.”

The river is the lifeblood of town elders like Steadman who lament how drought and colonial infrastructure projects have ruined the condition of the river and subsequently the lives of those around it. Now neglected and overrun with reeds, the fish traps are an overlooked reminder of the ancient genius of pre-colonial communities, as well as evidence of their advanced knowledge of river hydrology and fish ecology.

“Today, the fish traps sit in an irrigation-ravaged Barwon as a surviving piece of both the country’s ancient past and recent abuse,” says Kane. But despite over 160 years of destruction and loss of cultural management, in 2005 the government finally recognized the traps as a national heritage site in need of environmental protection and biodiversity conservation.

Steadman, and others from his community, continue to teach visitors from home and abroad about Australia’s rich cultural and spiritual history in a way that honors the memory of their ancestors and safeguards a future for their children. August 17, 2020


Marley Hansen


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