Uluru-Ayers Rock: What’s in a Name?
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 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.
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+.