The Cultural Significance of Uluru

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article may contain images of a deceased persons.

Uluru (Ayers Rock) aerial view Uluru aerial view. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, 2008.

Uluru, the towering red sandstone monolith, is a place of great cultural significance for Aboriginal peoples nation-wide. The traditional owners of Uluru and the surrounding Country are the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, also known as the Anangu people. For the Anangu, Uluru is so much more than just an ancient rock, it's a living cultural landscape that holds many sacred sites and stories. The Anangu believe that this landscape was created by ancestral beings, and that they are the direct descendants of those beings. As such, protection and management of Uluru and the surrounding lands is an intrinsic part of Anangu peoples' responsibilities. Through caring for Country, the Anangu people are able to keep their aboriginal culture and stories alive (Red Centre, 2022). 

The long fight to protect Uluru

Uluru climbing permanent closure Climbing Uluru permanent closure. Photo: Mike Bowers/The Guardian. Courtesy of National Museum Australia, 2022.

Since the European discovery of Uluru, this sacred Indigenous site has been mistreated in many ways. European settlers originally named the rock Ayers Rock after Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia at the time. Despite being declared as a national park in 1950, the tourism boom and climbing of the rock damaged many sacred sites. Over decades, the Anangu people expressed their concerns to the government. It was in 1985, after more than 35 years of campaigning, that the Anangu people were finally recognised as the Traditional Owners of the park. In 1987, Uluru was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was later extended to encompass the whole park. Then, in 1993, the official park name was changed to the culturally respectful name, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (Parks Australia, 2021).

The Anangu community fought long and hard to protect Uluru so that both the cultural integrity and health of the Country could be preserved. Their last fight to protect Uluru involved stopping people climbing the rock face of Uluru. The Anangu have always believed climbing Uluru is a violation of the Tjukurpa, which is the Anangu people's belief system that governs the relationships between aboriginal people, and the way in which they interact with the land and other animals. It was in 2019 that the trail to the top of the rock was finally permanently closed (National Museum Australia, 2021).

If you would like to learn more about Uluru, check out our previous post The Iconic History of Uluru’s Traditional Land and Place Name Repatriation.

The Dreaming of Uluru  

Uluru Dreaming walking tours Uluru walking tours. Courtesy of Inspiration Outdoors, 2022.

Uluru is the site of many Dreaming stories that feature the Anangu people's ancestors. For Aboriginal people, the Dreamtime was a time in which the world was created. It is believed that in the beginning the world was a featureless place until the ancestral beings emerged and travelled across the land, creating landmarks such as Uluru. The rock's caves, cliffs and fissures represent the physical evidence of the ancestral spirits' time on earth. To this day, the Anangu people's spiritual and cultural connection to Uluru and Tjukurpa is still very strong (Red Centre, 2022).

Currently, there are over 40 sacred Aboriginal sites around Uluru and 11 Tjukurpa trails featuring the sites associated with Uluru's Dreaming stories (Red Centre, 2022). If you have the chance to visit beautiful Uluru, we highly recommend taking a walk along one of these trails with a guide. You can learn more about the ranger led walks here.

The Dreaming Story of Mala

storytelling in the sand Telling stories in the sand. Courtesy of Parks Australia, 2022.

One of the key Dreaming stories of Uluru is the Mala story. The story goes that a group of Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) men travelled from the north to see Uluru, as they thought it would be a good place for an inma (ceremony). In the middle of their ceremony preparations in a cave, a group of Wintalka men approached from the west to invite the Mala to their inma. However, the Mala said no as they had already begun their own inma and could not stop. Disappointed, the men went back and told their people who became enraged, so they created an evil spirit to destroy the Mala inma. This evil spirit was a huge devil-dog called Kurpany. As Kurpany sought out the Mala men, he changed into many forms. The Kingfisher woman Luunpa, spotted Kurpany and warned the Mala people. Unfortunately, they didn't listen and once Kurpany arrived he killed many of the Mala men. The surviving Mala people fled down to South Australia with Kurpany chasing them.

These ancestors still remain at Uluru today. Luunpa remains forever watching out for Kurpany, but in the form of a large rock, and the murdered Mala men remain in their cave. The Mala story has been passed down through generations for thousands of years to the Anangu peoples, teaching them the importance of finishing what you've started, and that you should always watch and listen for signs of danger (Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, 2022). 

Sacred rock paintings

Ancient Aboriginal rock paintings at UluruUluru Aboriginal cave paintings. Photo by Kim Dingwall, Wikimedia Commons, 2017.

Along with oral forms of storytelling, rock paintings are key way in which important cultural knowledge and stories have been passed down through the generations for tens of thousands of years. Uluru is world famous for its amazing rock paintings. The rock art and countless petroglyphs around Uluru's caves have many layers of symbols and figures painted on top of each other because these are sites that have been used as a part of Anangu education for thousands of years. Uluru's caves are like a classroom blackboard that a teacher has used to illustrate a lesson, and only those who attend the lesson can fully decipher the notes left behind. Since these special paintings are done in natural pigments, the art is easily damaged. Anangu Aboriginal tribes in the region still perform rituals and teachings in the caves to this day, making new rock art. Today, the local Anangu Aboriginal people work closely with the national park's staff to conserve 80 rock art sites around Uluru (Parks Australia, 2022).

The best way to experience and learn about these inspiring creations is with an experienced local guide. Maruku Arts offers some excellent cave art tours which you can learn more about here.

Indigenous cultural cave art tour Uluru Maruku Uluru cave art tours. Courtesy of Maruku Arts, 2022.

The sheer physical presence and cultural significance of Uluru make it a landmark like no other on the planet. So, as we enter an era where Uluru is finally protected and managed by its traditional owners, it is so important that visitors continue to be respectful of this sacred site, staying mindful that they are bearing witness to tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal culture.