3 Things You Should Know about Uluru’s Aboriginal Name

Uluru-Ayers Rock: What’s in a Name?Aboriginal name of Ayers Rock, Ayers Rock, Australia

Many people ask us what is the Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock means.

So we’ve written this page to not only help you to learn what the original name for Ayers Rock is, but also to dispel some of the myths about Ayers Rock’s original name.

We often see information written on the internet about Ayers Rock that simply isn’t true. For example, I’ve seen websites stating that Ayers Rock is the heart chakra of the world!

Until recently, Wikipedia’s entry claiming that Uluru means ‘island mountain’.

I’ve even heard one ignorant tour guide at Uluru’s base spreading this ‘island mountain’ meaning to tourists.

Not only is this untrue, it’s also offensive to Aboriginal people who have their own spiritual traditions associated with the Rock.

So we want to make sure that you have the real facts about Uluru – and especially about the Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock.

On this page, I (Amanda) will share my knowledge as an anthropologist and tell you the real story behind Ayers Rock’s original name.

1. Uluru: The Original Name

The Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock is Uluru.

Uluru is a Yankunytjatjara word. Yankunytjatjara is the name of the Aboriginal people whose land Ayers Rock is located on.

Uluru is not just the name of Ayers Rock itself, but also of the country around Ayers Rock. Uluru is in fact the name of a large tract of land where a particular sub-group of Yankunytjatjara people (anthropologists call this an ‘estate group’) live.

2. What Does Uluru Mean?

Uluru is first and foremost a place name.

It does not have any specific meaning, although it may have some connection to the Yankunytjatjara words for ‘crying’ and ‘shadows’.

As I really wanted to know what the word meant, I asked Senior Traditional owners, Reggie and Cassidy Uluru and well known Alice Springs historian, Richard (Dick) Kimber, about the meaning of Uluru.

After a few ignorant comments on this post, I then asked several Yankunytjatjara people who are highly skilled language interpreters about the meaning as well.

They all told me that Uluru was the name of the place, and that it had no specific meaning.

I also read through the writings of Charles Mountford, one of the first anthropologists to live and work with Yankunytjatjara and Luritja people, and the books of Bill Harney (the first ranger at Ayers Rock). I consulted the anthropological work of Robert Lawton, who worked on land claims in the area during the 1970s.

Mountford worked with Aboriginal people at Ayers Rock in the 1930s and 1940s. He records that Uluru is both the name of a Dreaming ancestor, a snake, AND the name of a rockhole that is a Men’s Sacred site located on top of the Rock.

Traditionally, only initiated senior men could climb the Rock and visit this special site (this fact is often hidden from public knowledge, but is there in historical and anthropological records for anyone to discover.)

Bill Harney arrived at Uluru in the late 1950s. He was told by the Aboriginal custodians of Uluru that it was a place name.

Robert Lawton was the anthropologist who interviewed all of the old people for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Land Claim. He also established that Uluru was a place name.

After doing this research and asking expert people, the evidence suggested that the Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock, Uluru, is indeed a place name with no specific meaning.

Aboriginal name of Ayers Rock, Ayers Rock, Australia

Aboriginal people felt that the connection to ‘crying’ or ‘wailing’ was actually associated with ‘Yulara’, which is the name of the township where Ayers Rock Resort is located.

There are several named places on the south western side of the Rock (near the Park HQ) which refer to shade or shadows. (The ‘ul-‘ sound refers to shade or shadow in several Central Australian Aboriginal languages).

There may be some connection of the word ‘Uluru’ to shadows or shade, however, the Aboriginal men I spoke with did not suggest this.

So we can conclude that just as Niagara Falls is the name of a place, or London or the Amazon River, so too is Uluru.

It does not mean ‘Earth Mother’.

It does not mean ‘big rock’.

It does not mean ‘island mountain’. (This is an error lifted from a description on a topographical map!)

It does not mean ‘Rainbow Dreaming’ or ‘Heart Chakra Dreaming’ or any other New Age nonsense.

If you are using my page as a source for your own webpages, please make sure that you don’t promote any of the myths about Uluru’s name. Feel free to use this information, knowing that it is the real truth.

3. One Rock, but Many Names and Places

Another thing that’s useful to know is that there not just one Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock, but that Aboriginal people have named many of the individual features of Uluru, such as caves and waterholes, as well.

For example, all of the caves, valleys, waterholes and even a particular place right on the top of Ayers Rock have specific names. Many of these named places on Uluru are sacred sites.

Although Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people consider all of Ayers Rock to be spiritually significant, they strongly distinguish between sacred sites and the rest of the Rock. The photo below is a satellite photo, and I’ve labelled all of the places names and sacred sites around the Rock.

Aboriginal name of Ayers Rock, Ayers Rock, Australia

It’s important for visitors to understand the distinction between a place name and a sacred site.

All Aboriginal people in Central Australia have a word in their languages that means ‘sacred site’.

To an Aboriginal person, when a place is deemed as a sacred site, there are often restrictions on who can visit, when they may visit and the rituals and songs they need to know to visit such places.

This means that some places on Ayers Rock may only be seen by initiated men, or by Aboriginal women.

Places become sacred sites because Dreamtime beings travelled through, or performed some action, at that particular place and are still considered to be there, performing that action.

Although Aboriginal people acknowledge that non-Aboriginal people want to visit their sacred places (and in Central Australia, most of the ‘top’ destinations are sacred sites), there are some places which they request that people stay away from.

This is why that Aboriginal people at Ayers Rock request that visitors don’t climb the Rock, and in some places, request that photographs aren’t taken.

So you can see that the Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock is at first glance, just a place name. However, Uluru has not just one named place, but many and these are often of great spiritual importance to Aboriginal people.

Please Read This:

Even after furnishing all of this evidence, we still receive comments and emails from people who do not accept that Uluru has no special meaning.

We have recently had someone insist that an unnamed ‘elder’ at Uluru told her that the name meant ‘island mountain’. This person refused to believe not only the anthropological and historical evidence, but the evidence given by Aboriginal Elders with whom we have worked over a long period of time.

This is deeply insulting, ignorant and ethnocentric.

So, all we ask is that if you do not believe what is written here, that you seek out the original sources mentioned above.

If you are very lucky, you may be able to speak with some of the true Elders at Uluru (they will NOT be tour guides or rangers – they are now all very old people in their late 70s and 80s).

Lastly, if you’ve found this page interesting and useful, please share it via Twitter, Facebook or Google+.

 

 

7 Comments

  • Seth says:

    I think the etymology traces all the way back to the roots of Arabic/Hebrew like swahili and hindu words similarly related to hurra (arabic for applause or rejoicing) that corresponds with unda in Latin for wave or water that all have in common uplifting or uplifts such as occur in rejoicing applause water waves and that the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro (Uhuru meaning freedom) similar derive from – so that the uluru word though it has lost use in their language and now only stands as a place name actually means “shadowy uplift” and you probably could include a section on the many related words that appear to have a common origin in the core meaning they all relate to?

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Seth,

      As an anthropologist and archaeologist, I’m going to have to disagree with you for two reasons: the difficulty of establishing a common language ancestor, and archeological evidence.

      The difficulty of tracing ANY language back to the point where the major language families have a common ancestor, and thus have words with similar sounds & meanings, is very, very, difficult. From my understanding, linguists can establish similarities between Indo-European languages to *suggest* that the Proto-Indo-European ancestor language is around 8700 years. Hindi and Latin are part of the Indo-European family, so they *might* share the common ancestor I’ve mentioned above – BUT please note I say *might* because linguists are still figuring out the whole Proto-Indo-European idea.

      Arabic and Hebrew are part of the Afroasiatic family tree, and proto-Afro-Asiatic, the common ancestor of Arabic and Hewbrew, is dated by linguists at 10-15,000BCE. Then we get to the Niger-Congo langauges, whose proto-ancestor has been estimated at around 14,000BCE, which has been correlated with genetic evidence (Winters, 2012, Origin of the Niger-Congo Speakers, GENETICS 2012;3(3)).

      Yankunytjatjara is a member of the Australian language family, and as we have neither the written records nor extensive genetic data it is not really possible to say whether the languages spoken in Australia have a common ancestor dating to 65,000 or 4,000 years – these two dates being the waves of migration we know about from the archaeological record.

      The point of all this is that languages change constantly and these proto-languages are just too old for anyone to make other than a few generalisations. There *is* work being done to establish a proto-Human language, but again, there appears to be no consensus amongst linguistics about it.

      2. The settlement of the area around Uluru by the earliest Aboriginal people is currently dated around 10-14 thousand years BCE (before the Common Era – or if you’re a Christian, before Christ). This predates proto-Indo-European (8700BCE). Furthermore, we know places further south and east of Uluru were occupied 40,000 years ago, so this probably pushes back the date for any language similarities -right into the realms of proto-Human! In other words, it’s just too far back to reliably know what people were speaking as there are no written records like there are for Sanskrit, Sumerian or even Latin & Ancient Greek.

      Whilst it’s a nice idea that there are cognates between the languages you mention, I have to agree with Ben: it’s more likely to be chance than any prehistoric linguistic connection.

      -Amanda

  • Ben says:

    Nope.

    Seth, those from PNG, who we believe were the ancestors of the Aboriginal people, had no contact whatsoever with Arabic, Hebrew, Hidu or Swahilli people nor their languages. Australia-wise, the Chinese and the Dutch made contact with the Aboriginals long before any english speaking person came along.

    Therefore, any similarities you see are aphophenia, illusion, and by fact of geography the etymology of Aboriginal language can never be traced to any of the sources you mentioned. Their language in fact may be so ancient as to be an original, as in created by pre-lingual tribespeople.

  • Linda Visman says:

    Excellent post Amanda, and clear as to the fact that Uluru is simply a place name.
    It is a pity that people cannot accept that their unsubstantiated, and even pie-in-the -sky interpretations are simply false.

    • Amanda says:

      Thanks, Linda. I’m glad that you and many other sensible people seem to have appreciated the research and effort that went into creating this article.

  • Art D C says:

    Hi folks, I arrived here by chance tonight, randomly choosing Aborigines as a topic to research & am delighted & amazed at what Amanda & Ben offer here.

    Disappointed that Uluru has no deeply mystical connotations but facts must be respected as much as sacred sites should be.

    Uhuru & Uluru both applied to ‘uplifts’ so far apart looks too unlikely a coincidence but is it possible that they share an ancestral language, over such a distance from untold years ago.

    What’s known about Chinese & Dutch interaction with Aborigines & why no apparent cultural footprints left on any Aboriginal tribes who met them?

    I’m not academic but sincerely interested in mysteries of human social origins. I’m in my 70s & live in Somerset, SW England. Thanks if you respond Amanda & Ben, ‘tho’ your input on this was over a year ago.

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