History of the River

The Parramatta River has had a long and complex history. From its origins as a dry valley over 15 million years ago, to its integral part of First Nations life and culture and significant industrial and urban development over the past 200 years, the river has experienced many changes. The purpose of the Parramatta River Masterplan is to protect this iconic river to ensure its future for many generations to come.

Close all

Natural History

add remove

How the Parramatta River catchment changed over time

It is estimated that the Parramatta River was formed between 15 and 29 million years ago during the Paleogene and Neogene geological periods. Over time, freshwater forged a valley in the bedrock base composed of Hawkesbury sandstone and Ashfield shale, which had been laid down more than 200 million years earlier.

The climate changed many times over the millennia. In Sydney, around 60,000 years ago, sea levels were estimated to be 20-70 metres below their present level, the coastline was 2-3 kilometres east of its current position and temperatures were 6-10°C cooler than today.

It wasn’t until the end of the Last Glacial Period, 18,000 to 11,700 years ago, that the climate gradually became warmer and melting glaciers in the northern and southern polar regions saw sea levels rise and stabilise around their present position.

Approximately 7,000 years ago, coastal and river valleys across south-eastern Australia were flooded with seawater, the largest of which were turned into drowned river estuaries. The Parramatta River valley is a prime example, which eventually became the estuary we now know as Sydney Harbour.

With the formation of estuarine environments, much of the sediment that had once been flushed into the sea remained within the estuary. This created various tidal zones from which several diverse ecosystems evolved, including saltmarsh, mudflats, mangroves, woodland, forest and rainforest communities. Over time these ecosystems supported an abundance of wildlife and food for First Nations peoples, providing new species of fish, crustaceans, and plant life.

Impact of European colonisation

European colonisation had a dramatic impact on the Parramatta River and surrounding catchment. As settlement spread from Parramatta along the river foreshore, changes in water quality occurred through increased sedimentation and turbidity, and pollution from the effects of land clearing, agriculture, domestic animals, and urbanisation.

Modifications to the river began as early as the 1790s to support the planting of vineyards, fruit trees, vegetables, and other crops in areas such as Eastern Farms, which is now known as Ryde. By the 1830s wetlands along the river were drained and filled to create firm and arable land. As a result, mudflat areas continued to expand until they became, along with saltmarsh, a dominant feature of the river’s foreshore areas.

The rapid growth of urbanisation and industrialisation throughout the catchment over much of the last two centuries saw an increasing degradation of the river system. Saltmarsh areas were further depleted due to the filling and reclamation of tidal lands for development. Considerable native vegetation was lost through land clearing and the planting of European plant species, and many freshwater streams and creeks became polluted from stormwater runoff and human activity. Several species of wildlife were also endangered or lost altogether due to habitat loss.

By the 1900s illegal dumping of soil and rubbish in the river was commonplace. Despite the river’s popularity as a swimming and recreational location from the 1880s to the 1930s, by the middle of the 20th century water quality in the river had become a health risk and most swimming baths were closed. In 2006 commercial fishing was banned from the river, which had provided an abundance of food for the First Nations people who had lived along its banks for thousands of years, due to the accumulation of heavy metals in fish and other marine life.

Improvements in water quality management

With the introduction of the Clean Waters Act and relocation of foreshore industries in the 1970s, interest in improving the water quality and ecological health of the Parramatta River began to grow. Over the last 30 years, we have seen significant improvements in the management of the river with advancements in regulation, technology, and community awareness.

The Parramatta River Catchment Group (PRCG) was established in 2008 with the purpose of restoring and protecting the Parramatta River. In 2014, the PRCG launched a new vision, purpose and mission to make the Parramatta River swimmable again by 2025. A Masterplan for the Parramatta River, Duba, Budu, Barra – Ten Steps to a Living River was released in 2018, outlining the steps needed to improve the health of the catchment, such as better management of stormwater and wastewater, protecting and restoring wildlife habitat, and educating and empowering the community to help care for the river.

Our five iconic species represent the range of environmental domains in the catchment and the communities they are part of. These mascots are at the centre of ecological action in the Parramatta River Masterplan and are used as indicators of the health of our local waterways and catchment and our progress to making more areas safe for natural swimming. Learn more about our iconic species.

The Parramatta River that existed prior to colonisation has been changed irrevocably due to urbanisation and development. Through these initiatives, in consultation with First Nations communities, the goal is to develop a more holistic and sustainable approach to catchment management and work towards conserving the river’s natural and cultural significance for future generations to value and enjoy.

Watch the following video to find out more about the Parramatta River’s fascinating natural history.

First Nations History

add remove


For more detailed information, read the First Nations Peoples of the Parramatta River and Surrounding Region.

First Nations clans of Sydney

Interpretations of historical evidence suggest that at the time of colonisation, there were between 2,000-3,000 First Nations peoples living in the greater Sydney region. The population was divided into approximately 29 clans that formed larger language groups, although we are aware that more may have existed which were never recorded.

Clan names were usually derived from their totem combined with matta, a word to describe a place and gal, the word for man. So, in the case of the Burramattagal clan, the word Burra, was the name of their totem, the eel.

Clan groups varied in size from 25 to 60 people. First Nations peoples connected to their land spiritually through their particular clan that shared the same totem (usually an animal) as well as their ancestry, which was usually determined by the descendants of their father’s family.

As men and women from the same clan were not permitted to marry, First Nations peoples were more broadly connected through larger communities or ‘bands’. These groups comprised multiple families, including children and unmarried females, and often spoke more than one language. Band members were permitted to move beyond their boundary and usually interacted with each other regularly through fishing, hunting, and preparing food. They also came together for social and cultural events such as initiations and funerals and also to trade goods.

First Nations land use and management

First Nations peoples care for Country using land management practices that are based on a profound knowledge of and respect for the environment. Prior to colonisation, this enabled them to create a system that was sustainable and supplied them with the food and raw materials they needed to make medicine, tools, shelters, and other items for daily living.

An integral aspect of land management was a thorough understanding of the seasons. First Nations peoples followed seasonal calendars, such as the six-season Dharawal calendar, which are still used by some communities today. The calendar was based on observations of environmental indicators involving plants and animals, weather patterns, and the position of the stars, which was passed down through the generations. One such example is the Wangal people who would watch for the blossoming of the coastal wattle trees each year to indicate when the black fish were running in the Parramatta River.

The calendar helped First Nations peoples manage the environment systematically by allowing them to anticipate and prepare for the availability of food sources, breeding seasons, and climatic changes. It also enabled different food sources to replenish after hunting and gathering, and land areas to recover after planting and harvesting. Seasonal calendars remain integral to First Nations traditional land management practices and are increasingly being used by Western land managers to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Use of fire in land management
Fire is an important symbol in First Nations culture, which has been used for generations in hunting and cooking, to provide warmth and manage and care for the land. It also holds great spiritual meaning and is central to ceremonial practices and the sharing of cultural knowledge and wisdom.

Cultural burns are ‘cool’ or low-intensity fires that were applied to the landscape in a highly controlled way and self-extinguish. This traditional method of fire management prevented the oil in a tree’s bark from igniting. Animals were given enough time to escape, young trees survived, and grass seeds remained intact for regrowth. Invasive native species were also controlled with the appropriate fire for the type of Country.

Other agriculture and aquaculture practices
While not immediately obvious to British settlers, traditional knowledge reveals that First Nations people also used other land management practices throughout the catchment. Large agricultural fields of grain and yams amongst other produce, were observed near the Drummoyne area and extending west and north.

Further upriver, in the creeks and streams around Parramatta, eel farming was an important part of First Nations ceremony and culture. Burramattagal people made temporary dams in the creeks using sticks and rocks, and then guided the eels into purpose-built traps. First Nations people also created habitats for the balanced production of water environments by strategically placing obstacles in the path of the water to slow its speed.

Food sources
For the clans that lived along the foreshores of the Parramatta River, fish was a main food source and fishing was an important and regular activity. Women were primarily responsible for providing the clan with fish. They usually fished in canoes and less often from rock platforms using hooks and lines. Fishhooks were typically made from shell, although sometimes bone, stone or even bird talons were used, which were tied to lines formed from the twisted fibres of various tree barks.

The men fished from rock platforms or in shallow waters, using multi-pronged spears. Made from the flower stems of grass trees, the spear shaft was usually two metres in length and bound to several points (or barbs) fitted with pieces of animal bone, fish teeth, or hardwood.45 When fish were scarce, the men also fished from canoes at night using burning bark torches or cooking fires for illumination.

Shellfish also formed a substantial part of the diet of these foreshore peoples, supported by the presence of shell middens that still exist on both sides of the river. First Nations people collected oysters, crabs, crayfish, and other shellfish directly from the rocks or from the sandbanks, and mudflats.

Further upstream and inland, First Nations groups relied more on other sources of food. Mullet and other freshwater fish were found in some of the creeks and streams, along with eels and freshwater mussels. In the woodland areas of the Cumberland Plain, land animals such as kangaroos, wallabies, possums, and water birds were hunted.

Men used spears to hunt larger animals, aided by the use of a woomera, a wooden spear throwing device that also served other purposes, such as a fire-making saw, a receptacle for mixing ochre, and in ceremonies. Smaller prey, such as possums, were hunted by smoking them out of nests and hollows or burning grass areas where they could be seen and caught more easily.

Plant foods also featured more prominently in the diet of the hinterland peoples across the Cumberland Plain, particularly root vegetables such as yams, nuts, berries, figs, and other seasonal fruits, and honey from native bees. Women were believed to have been the main gatherer of these foods, using wooden digging sticks, woomeras, and stone hatchets; however, there is little direct evidence of this in earlier colonial accounts, and may have been based on later observations in other parts of Australia.

Raw materials
The flooding of the Parramatta River valley and creation of several distinct ecosystems over 7,000 years ago, resulted in the growth of a diverse range of plant life. In addition to the plant food resources that were available, First Nations people made good use of the mangroves, paperbarks, and reeds that lined the river foreshore. Further inland, the forests and woodlands across the Cumberland Plain provided an abundant source of wood for building dwellings, canoes, tools, and other items.

Canoe building
Canoes were usually made from the bark of a she-oak (Casuarina glauca), bangalay (Eucalyptus botryoides), or stringybark (Eucalyptus agglomerate) tree. These species were chosen for their large, wide trunks and thick bark.

The canoe was made from a single piece of bark that was gradually separated from the tree using stone wedges. The bark was then softened with fire and tied at each end to form a pointed shape. The base was waterproofed using resin from the Xanthorrhoea (grass tree), which was also used to repair any small holes or leaks.

Canoes were an important mode of transport along the Parramatta River and its tributaries. They were regularly used for fishing, transporting supplies, visiting and trading with neighbouring clans, and attending ceremonial events.

While many culturally modified or ‘scar’ trees, as they are also called, no longer exist due to development and neglect, there are still examples throughout the Parramatta River catchment and elsewhere that serve as a living reminder of the responsible and sustainable use of natural resources and provide an important continuing connection to Country for First Nations peoples.

It is important to note that all First Nations sites in NSW are protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974. It is an offence to damage or destroy them (including collecting artefacts) without prior permission of the NSW Government.

Tool making
First Nations people in the Parramatta River catchment and throughout the broader Sydney region, used a wide range of tools and weapons to hunt and prepare food, make equipment and defend themselves. These included spears and spear throwers, digging sticks, grindstones, mogo (stone axes), clubs and shields. These tools evolved over time as climatic conditions changed and people were able to move across the land and gain access to new source materials or traded them with other clans.

Stone material required for making hard-wearing tools was not abundantly available along the coastal zone of Sydney. The most common local source of stone used were conglomerate pebbles found in Hawkesbury Sandstone and other eroded volcanic materials. Further inland on the Cumberland Plain, fine-grained siliceous rocks such as silcrete and quartz were also used as well as river rocks or iron stone for items such as axe heads.

Following colonisation, many implements used were taken back to Europe with only a handful surviving in overseas museums. Only two pre-European stone axes from the Sydney region have survived, one of which is located in the Australian Museum.52 Most archaeological evidence for tools and equipment used in the Parramatta River catchment and surrounding areas has been limited to more durable materials such as bone, shell, and stone.

The architecture of First Nations dwellings built prior to colonisation was dependent on the climate, natural environment, and available resources, family size and particular needs of the clan groups in that area. For example, on Rosemary Island, located off Australia’s north-west coast, archaeologists have found evidence of First Nations stone houses dating back 9,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age.

Early colonial records describe three main forms of shelter used by the coastal First Nations peoples of the Sydney region: rock shelters and overhangs, huts made from sheets of bark, cabbage leaf trees, other plant material, and large hollow trees. Further inland in areas such as the Cumberland Plain, bark huts were the primary form of shelter.

The length of stay at a particular location may have been dependent on the availability of food and other resources, and First Nations peoples returned to the same camp sites many times. While there did not appear to be significant seasonal movement within the catchment area compared to other areas in Australia, coastal clans were believed to spend more time in the forested areas away from the coast during winter months.

Traditional ceremonies and other cultural practices

Throughout the Parramatta River catchment, First Nations people gathered regularly to trade and perform a wide range of ceremonies that were deeply embedded in lore, kinship, and cultural practice. Early colonial records show that areas such as Hen and Chicken Bay at Abbotsford, Homebush Bay, Baludarri Wetlands, Parramatta and Cockatoo Island were important meeting places to trade food, special objects and raw materials, and hold special events such as corroborees, initiations, marriage exchanges, funerals, and combat rituals.

The purpose and nature of the ceremony usually determined who could participate. Sacred ceremonies, referred to as ‘men’s business’ and ‘women’s business’, were gender specific and held separately, away from the main camp. Other non-sacred ceremonies often included all members of the family, clan or community, although men and women performed different roles.

Music and dance were a sacred part of First Nations ceremonies that marked special occasions as well as everyday life. Songs were used to pass down ancient Creation and Dreaming stories to future generations, facilitate significant life events and rites of passage, and impart practical knowledge on areas such as climate, seasons, food resources, and land management. Dance was incorporated to assist in the storytelling and often featured imitations of significant animals. Performers usually adorned themselves with body paint and other ceremonial dress and ornamentation to connect their physical body with the spiritual world.

Initiation ceremonies
Male initiation ceremonies were sacred and complex events held over several days. The purpose was to introduce youth to the spiritual beliefs and customs of their clan and train them in hunting and other skills. The ceremony often involved several evenings of dancing, after which an older initiated male claimed responsibility for each boy and supported them through the proceedings. The boys were not permitted to eat and left by themselves overnight. The following day the boys took part in symbolic hunting rituals and were trained in the use of a spear. In some clans, the final stage involved the removal of one or two front teeth from the right side of the upper jaw, in a practice known as ‘tooth avulsion’.

Scarification and other body modification
The practice of ‘scarification’, which involved cutting or branding a person’s skin to create raised, symbolic shapes and designs, was associated with male initiation ceremonies but performed on women as well. The markings were intended to indicate what stage of life a person had reached. In some clans, children aged between eight and 16 also had the area of skin between their nostrils pierced with a piece of bone or reed, which may have been part of an initiation ceremony, to indicate status or served another spiritual function.

Other forms of body modification involved the removal of the first two joints of the little finger on a female’s left hand. It was believed that this procedure enabled women to control a fishing line more skilfully and was observed more in coastal than inland clans.

Combat rituals
Ceremonial contests and ‘payback’ rituals were a traditional form of conflict resolution and important part of First Nations culture. They enabled the clans to seek justice or retribution after a wrongdoing and hold those responsible to account. Offenders were usually punished by being clubbed or speared by the victim or his kinsmen. Ritual combats continued for several decades following colonisation and traditional customary law is still practised in some First Nations communities across Australia today.

Death and burial practices
Death was a significant and deeply spiritual event for First Nations peoples that impacted many other aspects of their life. People feared the dead and often believed that death was caused by harmful spirits or other nefarious influences. An important part of the death process was to ensure the safe passage of the spirit into the afterlife and prevent it from returning and causing mischief for the living.

Graves were avoided and campsites were often abandoned if someone died. Following a person’s death, the name of the deceased could no longer be spoken, and any person with the same name was obliged to use another one. People associated with the deceased were also restricted from eating certain food.

The type of burial was determined by a person’s age, gender, and status. Personal effects such as tools, weapons or ornaments were often placed with the body, which were then either buried or cremated and then interred in shallow graves that faced a particular direction. The grave was covered with sand or earth, and rocks, branches, and other vegetation may also have been placed on or around it.

Due to the significant number of deaths caused by the smallpox epidemic in 1789, many First Nations people were quickly buried in sand dunes or middens by their kin or British settlers. Colonial accounts indicate that traditional burials had all but ceased around the Sydney area by the 1820s.

Parramatta River European History Timeline

add remove

Nov 1788: Settlement at Parramatta (second settlement back at ‘Rose Hill’ which was renamed Parramatta in June 1791.

1791: Commencement of river modification (Beginning of modification of riverine landscape including planting of Vineyards at Vineyard Creek, citrus trees and other plants.  First land granted to ‘free immigrants’ around Homebush Bay).

1830s: Wetlands impacted (Wetlands were drained and filled to create firm and arable land).

1850s: Parramatta main metropolis of NSW (the river foreshore became the site for heavy industry, resulting in extensive soil contamination which continues to impact on the estuary today).

1831: First paddle steamer built in the harbour services the Parramatta River.

1857: Parramatta Park open (Parramatta Park became a public place, previously on the grounds of Government House).

1866: First Ferry Service (ferry service began in 1866 but services often terminated at Rydalmere and ceases the trip to Parramatta in 1928 due to siltation and shallowing).

Early 1900s: Industrialisation (Homebush bay progressively filled with soil and rubbish for industries – 1907-1911 abattoirs, brickwork.  Industrialisation attracted illegal dumping and river referred to as an open sewer. By the end of the 1900s factories and industrial plants had been established on both sides of the river from Rhodes to Parramatta).

Until 1920s: Parramatta River was a popular holiday destination.

1904-1932: Six swimming and bathing locations were built along the estuary between 1904 and 1932 (rowing and sailing also very popular from the late 19th century).

1909: Lake Parramatta a recreational area (Lake Parramatta was provided as a recreational area in 1909 and a popular swimming hole between 1920 and 1940. By the late 1980s continued poor water quality resulted in the lake being unsuitable for swimming.  Lake was reopened in 2006 for limited swimming and on 24 January 2015 the Lake was officially opened as a designated swimming spot).

1950-60s: Swimming in river a health risk (despite attempts to address pollution in the river in the 1940s and 1950s, poor water quality in the river meant swimming was dangerous to human health).

Pre 1970: Significant Pollution to Parramatta River (Prior to 1970 210 sites which discharged untreated or poorly treated industrial wastewater into the Parramatta River, but by 1985 this had reduced to 19 sites).

1970: Introduction of the Clean Waters Act (The Clean Waters Act of 1970 was introduced to improve water quality. Waterfront industries and port activities were relocated as a greater appreciation of the waterways aesthetic and recreational values developed.  Parameters for the River were developed to stimulate interest in improving degraded aspects of the river, its foreshores, landscapes, remnant vegetation, habitats and fauna).

Late 1980s: Lake Parramatta unsuitable for swimming.

Early 1990s: Dredging of Upper River (the Upper Parramatta River was dredged for future ferry access with the Rivercats commencing in 1993).

2006: No more commercial fishing (commercial fishing licences for the harbour were terminated due to transfer of sediment contaminants to fish species).

2008: Parramatta River Catchment Group formed (a consortium of local government and community organisations).

January 2015: Lake Parramatta officially open to swimming.

November 2022: Bayview Park Baths in Concord open to swimming.


Learn more about the European history of the Parramatta River:

River Cycles – A History of the Parramatta River

City of Parramatta – History of Waterways