Summary: Canoelands is one of the most significant Aboriginal sites around Sydney, and would have been of great importance in the ritual and mythology of the local tribe. The site includes cave art in different pigments dating over six periods, rock engravings and axe grinding grooves.

One of the most impressive Aboriginal heritage sites around Sydney, the Canoelands Aboriginal Site (Canoelands 1) was protected in in the late 1950s by a steel grill that runs the length of the shelter. The shelter is 20m long and about three metres high, with the front of the ceiling blackened by bushfire smoke (the shelter was not used by the Aboriginal people as a camp, but was of ritual importance). Above the shelter are rock engravings, and axe grinding grooves.

AWAT6278 LR Canoelands Aboriginal Site

Shelter art

The artwork in the shelter was documented in detail by McCarthy in 1961, and later researched by Jo McDonald in 1987. The stencils were done with a water-mixed paint, while the other figures were drawn with dry pigment (and are therefore considered to be drawings, rather than paintings).

Canoelands Aboriginal Site

The gallery has over 100 motifs, including 70 paintings (numbered in the sketch below) and 55 stencils of hands, boomerangs, crescents and one club.

Shelter Canoelands1 Canoelands Aboriginal Site
AWAT6234 Pano LR Canoelands Aboriginal Site

The artwork was described in six periods.

1. Stencil Period

The figures include 26 white, 19 red and one yellow hand stencils, most of which are opened left hands. There are also five stencilled boomerangs (most of them being long and shallow curved types) as well as two hafted ground-edge axe stencils.

2. Red and White Stencil Period

Part of a large kangaroo (22) and the complete figure of a short, broad man (30). Both are about a metre in length and were thought to represent a hunting episode.

There’s also woman (60) and a faint human figure (69) at the northern end of the shelter, and another partially shaded kangaroo with no tail (65). These are all fairly hard to see, being covered by more recent figures.

3. Black and White Period

The majority of figures (black and white outlines and silhouettes) relate to this period, which were described as mostly single and unrelated motifs. They include a range of figures including:

  • white outline: feet, a mammal, part of a wallaby, an emu-lilke bird, koala, club, human figures
  • white barred: upper part of a man
  • white stripes: foot, koala, three human figures, (one with rayed head-dress), echidna, bird, kangaroo
  • black stripes: two eels
  • black silhouette: human figure, possum, three men
  • black and white outline: rock wallaby
  • black silhouette with white outline: a “beautifully drawn little mammal” (18) like a rock wallaby
  • black and white stripes: a short man with a very long penis decorated with white lines (25) was described as “a figure of considerable power and strength, obviously more than of simple human significance”
  • red and black: a kangaroo which appears to be a red silhouette with a black outline, but is very faded.

4. Polychrome Period

A large anthropomorph (32) who is 2.4m in height is the only figure drawn in this style, and is significant as the first four-colour polychrome drawing recorded in the Central Coast area. The figure is covered with white and bright-red stripes with a double black and yellow outline on its head, arms and right side of the body. The deity or “sky hero” figure is holding a large boomerang or club.

AWAT6220 LR Canoelands Aboriginal Site

5. Bora Ground Period

One of the most distinctive designs is drawn across the full length of the gallery and across a number of the figures (5). It is about 12m in length.

AWAT6234 Pano 2 LR Canoelands Aboriginal Site

At both ends is a large oval, and at the southern end it turns back on itself.

AWAT6244 LR Canoelands Aboriginal Site

At the northern end of below some boomerang and hand stencils from a previous period is another figure of this type (68).

AWAT6226 LR 1 Canoelands Aboriginal Site

These designs are thought to represent bora initiation grounds, which consist of two cleared and circular spaces – one for assembly and corroborees, and the other for tooth avulsions and secret rites. This indicates that this shelter was a site of the greatest possible importance in the ritual and mythology of the local tribe.

6. Post-white Period

Stencils of a boomerang (33) and a hand were made in a series of circular daubs with a rough brush or stick; they are unlike any other stencils known in the 1960s and were the last figures added to the gallery. They are thought to have been added after white settlement and indicate that “the site was functioning in the life of the Aborigines living at the beginning of white occupation and for some time afterwards”.

AWAT6246 LR Canoelands Aboriginal Site

Rock engravings

Above the shelter on an extensive rock surface are a group of five figures, including a koala, an oval, two human figures engaged in sexual intercourse and a kangaroo. These are very weathed.

Axe Grinding Grooves

At one of the rock platform is a creek with a series of natural rock holes; around them are many axe grinding grooves.

AWAT6264 LR Canoelands Aboriginal Site

Twenty six axe grinding grooves can be seen around the rock holes.

Getting to Canoelands Aboriginal Site

The Canoelands Aboriginal site is within Marramarra National Park, but there is no publicly accessible trail to the site.

Subscribe via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to Hiking the World, and receive notifications of new posts by email. (A hike is added every 1-2 weeks, on average.)

Join 1,187 other subscribers


Chris B · June 25, 2022 at 5:14 pm

Hey Oliver,
Wow, this looks amazing. I’ve been trying to find this place for years. Is it difficult to access?

    oliverd :-) · June 27, 2022 at 12:58 pm

    Very easy if you have NPWS permission to reach the site the most direct way (which we didn’t!)… so a more challenging 2-hour return walk across a valley to access it without entering private land.

Leave a Reply

Aboriginal Sites by National Park

Over 40 sites have been recorded within the park; many were located along the river bank and were flooded by the building of the weir in 1938.