Karta: Island of the Dead

Kangaroo Island

A large offshore island without human inhabitants, called 'island of the dead' by mainland Aborigines, separated from the Australian continent for almost 10 000 years, yet with abundant evidence of a prehistoric population. These are all the ingredients of a classic mystery story, which scholars have been trying to solve since 1802.


Kangaroo Island, about 150 kilometres long and 50 kilometres wide, lies 14.5 kilometres from the coast of south Australia, across Backstairs Passage. This strait is bedevilled by strong currents, heavy tidal wells and steep breaking seas that make crossings in canoes or small boats a hazardous undertaking. The island's first European visitors were Captain flinders in HMS Investigator in March 1802, and Nicolas Baudin, who followed in the same year. Both immediately noticed the lack of fires on Kangaroo Island in contrast to the adjacent mainland, where skies were constantly smoke-filled from Aborigines burning off the vegetation. When Flinders landed, he found no humans, only extraordinarily tame kangaroos and seals.

Kangaroo Island was settled later in 1802 by European sealers, who took with them Aboriginal women abducted from Tasmania and the adjacent mainland. Official settlement followed in 1836, and much of the land was cleared for agriculture. It was not, however, until a century after the first Europeans set foot on the island that evidence of prehistoric human inhabitants was discovered. In 1903, geologist Walter Howchin found some hammer-stones at Hawk's Nest near Murray's Lagoon towards the centre of the island. In 1930, more stone tools were discovered, and Norman Tindale was invited to investigate.

Kangaroo Island location Map

Kangaroo Island - Recent History


This is a story of history and memory, and how Aboriginality became invisible within one isolated community. In the early nineteenth century sealers kidnapped Tasmanian Aboriginal women to work and live with them on Kangaroo Island. Together they established farms and had children but within a few generations the land was lost and almost none of their descendants knew of their Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestry. Today they are unearthing their lost history.

here to see photographs of Kangaroo Island's history.

The history of Kangaroo Island is rich and multi-layered. In 1802 navigators Flinders and Baudin met off the South Australian coast. Their two nations were at war but their meeting was friendly. They exchanged information, Flinders telling Baudin where to find water and about the abundance of kangaroos and seals on the island. In turn, Baudin passed the information on to some sealers and the story of the colonisation of the island began.

Sealers came to work the coasts, sometimes bringing Tasmanian Aboriginal and mainland Aboriginal women they'd kidnapped with them. The women did hard labour, trapping wallabies and skinning seals and wallabies for trading. They were also used for sex and so the first known children were born on Kangaroo Island.

Then in 1836 the women and the sealers, who by now looked like wildmen to traditional English eyes, hair matted and clad in skins, were confronted by the arrival of the first 'official' colonists from England. The South Australian Company in London had decided to establish a colony of free-settlers and the place they chose for it was Kangaroo Island. It was an abysmal failure. The new settlers struggled in the harsh conditions but not all of them abandoned the island, and eventually, through the 1840s to '60s, other British settlers came in search of land. Together, the descendants of sealers and Tasmanian Aboriginals and the 'official' colonists farmed and participated in community life, establishing local councils, schools and cricket clubs.

Two generations later, however, our story becomes more complex, as one side of it disappears. The families of the 'official' colonists who've remained on the island hold their history close to them in stories passed down through the generations, but for the descendants of the Tasmanian Aboriginal women and the sealers who kidnapped them, their past becomes invisible. Many left the island and of those who remained, their children often knew nothing of their heritage.

It was Tindale and his associate Harold cooper who first seriously suggested that human occupation of Australia went back into the Pleistocene. They based this opinion largely on evidence from Kangaroo Island. Tindale's field work in the early 1930s around the freshwater, land-locked Murray's Lagoon produced hammer-stones and some massive trimmed pebble implements. Further work by Harold cooper between 1934 and 1939 disclosed the existence of forty-seven camp sites throughout the island. By 1958, the number had risen to 120 sites. Cooper collected some 1400 pebble choppers and horsehoof cores, and more than 150 hammer-stones.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!

The large tool industry represented by these pieces was termed the 'Kartan' by Tindale, after 'karta', the name given to the island by the mainland Ramindjeri tribe. it is characterised b the massiveness of its core tools. The dominant implements are hammer-stones and pebble choppers. The latter are made by hammer-flaking one side of a large quartzite pebble, usually oval in shape, and then trimming the margin to produce a sharp edge. Many are finely made and perfectly symmetrical, suggesting that their manufacturers were superb craftspeople with a strong aesthetic sense. Large, heavy, horsehoof-shaped cores are also characteristic of this Kangaroo Island industry, but they are less numerous than the pebble choppers.

The Kartan tools were generally found in fields where ploughing had brought them to the surface from about 30 kilometres below present ground level. Others lay in the higher ridges around Murray's Lagoon, on a shoreline 5 metres above the present one, suggesting that the Kartan camp sites belong to a period when the lake was fuller than at present. Other tools wee found in what is now almost impenetrable scrub country, but it seems likely that in earlier times the vegetation was sparser because of the effects of glacial climate combined with the Aboriginal use of fire. Most of the Kartan tools are made of quartzite, which must have been carried a considerable distance to these inland camp sites. The nearest source of quartzite for the tools found at Hawk's Nest is at least 35 kilometres away on the north coast of the island. This factor could account for the lack of manufacturing debris and the few flakes in the Kartan industry.

How the former islanders, with their Kartan stone tools, first reached Kangaroo Island provided an intriguing problem for Tindale and Cooper. They both reached the conclusion that occupation must have taken place at a time of low sea level when kangaroo island was still joined to the mainland. This guess, for it was long before the advent of radiocarbon dating, was based on several different strands of circumstantial evidence. Firstly, there was the massive size and archaic appearance of the Kartan tools, unlike anything found off the mainland in more recent sites such as Devon Downs. Moreover, their location suggested that the occupation had a considerable antiquity and derived from a time when the island's climate and environment were rather different from the present. And, if the people did not walk to Kangaroo Island, how did they get there. Backstairs Passage is notoriously rough, and at the time of European settlement none of the neighbouring mainland Aboriginal tribes had any watercraft capable of getting across it. Indeed, only frail bark canoes and rafts of reeds were used, both propelled solely by means of poles. The absence of the dingo from Kangaroo Island and of the specialised small tools found in younger mainland sites supported the idea that the island was occupied during the Pleistocene, before the dingo was brought to Australia, and that subsequently it was cut off by the rising sea and isolated from later developments on the mainland. The development in the local fauna and flora of many subspecies also favours a considerable period of isolation.

Finally, there was an interesting myth about Kangaroo Island, widespread among Aborigines of south Australia, according to which the island is the home of the spirits of departed ancestors:

Ngurunderi was a great Ancestral figure of the southern tribes in south Australia, who established Tribal Laws. After death, the spirits of men follow his ancient travel paths to the island of Nar-oong-owie (Kangaroo Island) and thence to Ngurunderi's home in the sky.

Long ago, Ngurunderi's two wives ran away from him, and he was forced to follow them. He pursued them and as he did so he crossed Lake Albert and went along the beach to Cape Jervis. When he arrived there he saw his wives wading half-way across the shallow channel which divided Nar-oong-owie from the mainland.

He was determined to punish his wives, and angrily order4ed the water to rise up and drown them. With a terrific rush the waters roared and the women were carried back towards the mainland. although they tried frantically to swim against the tidal wave they were powerless to do so and were drowned. Their bodies turned to stone and are seen as two rocks off the coast of Cape Jervis, called The Pages or the Two sisters.

Ngurunderi dived into the water and swam out towards the island. As it was a hot day he wanted shade so he made a she-oak tree which is said to be largest in Australia. He lay down in the shade and tried to sleep but could not for as every breeze blew he heard the wailing of his drowning wives. Finding he could get no rest, he walked to the end of the island and threw his spear into the sea. Immediately a reef of rocks appeared. He then threw away all his other weapons and departed to his home in the skies, where those who have kept the Laws he gave the tribes will some day join him.

To this day anyone who tries to sleep under the she-oak tree will hear the wailing that Ngurunderi heard beneath the giant tree on Kangaroo Island, the sacred island of the spirits of the dead.

This story seems to be based on fact. Aboriginal oral history provides us with many accounts of the great climatic and geological changes that have taken place on the continent. There is a fascinating myth of the time when the earth blew up, which seems almost certainly to describe the volcanic eruption of Mount Wilson in the blue Mountains near Sydney. Since erupting volcanoes have not been seen in the Sydney region for several thousand years, this testifies to the incredibly long persistence of oral tradition. And on the Atherton Tableland in Queensland, stories about volcanic eruptions seem to have lasted more than 10 000 years. If memory of volcanoes can persist over thousands of years, there is no reason why traditions of rising seas drowning the land should not also persist. It has been estimated that Kangaroo Island was separated from the mainland about 10 000 years ago, but the drowning process continued until the sea stabilised at its present height between 5000 and 7000 years ago. 

Ron Lampert, in an attempt to solve the riddle of stone tools on an island isolated for 10 000 years, surveyed the whole island in search of stratified occupation deposits that might establish the antiquity of the kartan industry. Only one cave was found that appeared promising: this was a small limestone cave beside a freshwater lagoon, 8 kilometres from the south coast. This was named the Seton site after the local landowner.

Excavation in 1971 and 1973 revealed an occupation deposit 1.5 metres deep, resting on bedrock. Dating of the deposit indicated that people first visited the cave about 16 000 years ago when the site would have been some 40 kilometres from the coast. They manufactured small scrapers from flint, and their diet possibly included the now extinct giant kangaroo, Sthenurus, bones of which were found in association with the earliest tools. Thereafter, the hunting site was visited infrequently, until about 11 000 years ago, when a period of intensive occupation began small flint scrapers were manufactured at the site, quartz was flaked and some quartz flakes were retouched for use as scrapers. Two small bone points were found in the 11 000-year-old level. These were made from kangaroo thin bones, and the dull polish on their tips suggests they were used for skin-working. The Kangaroo Islanders' subsistence economy was broadly based; a wide variety of inland fauna were hunted, among which the modern grey kangaroo was of particular importance Because of the rising se level, Seton was by then within easy reach of the seashore and some marine shellfish formed part of the diet.

Then, abruptly, visits ceased. This abandonment of the Seton cave coincides with the time of final separation of the island from the mainland. The islanders' impending isolation would have become clear from daily and seasonal tidal fluctuations, which would gradually have produced breaks of longer and longer duration between the island and mainland.

Originally Lampert thought that Kangaroo Island was then consciously abandond, but later he found several small sites belonging to the post-separation period. Some are coastal sites that contain small shell middens associated with flakes; shells from one of these middens gave an age of 6000 years. Other sites are inland, stratified open camp sites with small flakes and scrapers, for example Rowell's site and the Sand Quarry site, dated respectively to about 5200 and 4300 years ago.

This younger occupation is extremely sparse compared both with the earlier Kartan sites and with the very numerous Holocene shell middens of the adjacent coast of South Australia, thee are two possible explanations for the presence of sites on kangaroo Island post-dating isolation from the mainland. either a relict population survived on the island for several thousand years before becoming extinct, or the island was reoccupied occasionally from the mainland by Aborigines with watercraft. From considering varied evidences - palaeoenvironmental, archaeological and ethnographic - the case of a relict population is favoured. The demise of such a community before European contact might be explained largely by the steady deterioration of Kangaroo Island as a human habitat during the Holocene, though demographic imbalances and short-term disasters could also have played a role.

The case for a relict population, which eventually died out, is mainly based on the evidence that watercraft suitable for the crossing were not available in historic times and that the island's stone tools show no sign of outside influence - despite significant changes and new tool types on the adjacent mainland. The extinction of the Kangaroo Island population was probably due to a variety of causes. The island could only have supported a few hundred people after separation, and such a small population is always at risk from naturally occurring imbalances in sex and age ratios, and natural disasters. There is also evidence that thee was a gradual deterioration in the island's environment, which became increasingly and between about 5000 and 2000 years ago. Analysis of pollen from a core from Lashmar's Lagoon shows a change in vegetation towards drier shrubs, and there are strong signs that regular burning of the vegetation by Aborigines ceased after 2500 years ago. Burning of the bush was such a common practice in Aboriginal Australia that cessation of burning in all likelihood indicates that the last kangaroo islander had either left or died. Indeed, it was the absence of smoke from burning off which made flinders assume the island was uninhabited even before he landed. 

The discovery of traces of a relict population stranded by the rising sea was not the only surprise produced by Lampert's research. In his search for the Kartain culture, he also found a non-Kartan industry on kangaroo Island. This is exemplified at the Seton site. Others have suggested that the Seton industry of small flint scrapers might be the flake component of a Kartan industry, but Lampert has convincingly argued that Seton is not Kartan but post-kartan, because among its 5000 pieces of flaked stone thee was not one core tool and only a single piece of quartzite, the material out of which the heavy Kartain tools are made. Moreover, there is an enormous difference in implement size between the two industries the average weight of a Seton tool was 9 grams, whereas that of a tool from a typical Kartan assemblage was 900 grams. The assemblages are too different to represent merely diverse aspects of the same culture caused by seasonal or environmental differences. Indeed, not only are they not contemporary, but thee is also little or no continuity between the two cultures.

It may be that the Kartan industry was brought to Kangaroo Island when it was joined to the mainland at least 60 000 years ago. It seems likely, but not certain, that thee was a subsequent rise in the sea level sufficient to inundate Backstairs passage. If there was, this would have caused the Kangaroo Island population to leave the island, to stay and become extinct, or to stay and survive in isolation for a long period. Any of these alternatives would account for the great difference between the kartan and Seton industries. The latter would be a much younger industry, either a descendant of the kartan or developed on the mainland and introduced to the island during the next phase of low sea level.

There was also a total change between the kartan and Seton industries, from the use of quartzite to flint as raw material. Perhaps because of the inavailability of the source of quartzite beach pebbles, covered b the rising seas. Tools also became much smaller. At other sites, such as Cloggs Cave and Burrill lake, there was a very gradual reduction in the size of tools, quite unlike the dramatic change seen on kangaroo island. another possibility is that the kartan industry died out, and the Seton assemblage mirrors new technological developments that had taken place on the mainland whilst the kartan was isolated. These questions are now being further investigated by archaeologist Neale Draper.

A further discovery by Lampert has complicated the picture even further. This is the discovery on the island of twenty-four huge, flaked stone tools with notches on each margin. Such wasted tools have also been found in mainland South Austalia, at Wepowie Creek in the southern flinders Ranges, and in the Mackay district of Queensland, 6 kilometres from the present coast in sugarcane fields at the base of Mount Jukes, which rises 500 metres above sea level. The eighty waisted tools from Queensland have been examined by Lampert, who has shown that they closely resemble those from Kangaroo Island.

The function of these waisted tools is unknown. Lampert has remarked on their resemblance to the sago pounders of New Guinea, and thinks they may have been used to pound some hard foodstuff. Another possibility is forest clearance, as postulated for the New Guinea waisted axes (see chapter 2).Tindale suggested they were used to kill large animals caught in pitfall traps.


Kartan tools, although named after kangaroo Island, were made by people occupying an area of more than 100,000 square kilometres, covering south Australia and the adjacent islands which then formed part of a single landmass. Kartan sites have been found on the mainland on the Fleurieu, Yorke and Eyre peninsulas - but none has come from a stratified deposit.

One of the best-known mainland surface sites was at Hallett cove. In 1934, cooper discovered at Hallett Cove, about 16 kilometres south of Adelaide, crude, heavily weathered stone implements lying on a ploughed hillside above a creek overlooking the beach. In the course of his 220 visits to the site over thirty-six years, cooper found some 400 kartan core tools, the largest of which weighed 5.5 kilograms. The site has the essential requirements of campers; a permanent water supply, well-drained ground and a commanding view. It also faces northeast, so it catches the warmth of the early morning sun.

One of the puzzling aspects of the Hallett cove sits is that the Kartan pebble choppers, horsehoof cores and hammer-stones are all made of a poor quality siltstone found close to the camp, whereas at the foot of the cliff lie banks of fine-grained quartzite pebbles that are highly prized by more recent Aboriginal tool-makers. Why did Pleistocene tool-makers not use the better raw material? They probably could not do so, for when the sea level was low the pebble bank would have been covered by a talus slope, now washed away by the sea pounding at the foot of the cliffs. In Kartan times, the nearest pebble banks would have been a long distance away on the ice age shore. 

The long-suspected ice age occupation of the lower Murray river valley has now been confirmed by the excavation of Roonka Flat near Blanchetown by Graeme Pretty (figure 10.2). This has a complex history, going back 18 000 years. At that time the river flat seems to have been occasionally used as an open-air encampment by hunter-gatherers during the annual flood of the river. Charcoal (radiocarbon dated to 18 150 +- 350 BP) was found in four hearths, associated with stone cobble cooking structures and freshwater mussel shells. The Roonka site seems to have been exclusively used as a cemetery between about 7000 and 4000 years ago, and then for both burials and habitation. The burials show a wide diversity of mortuary practices, and many individuals were buried with grave-goods.


Comparisons of industries of the Australian core tool and scraper tradition show the Kartan to be the most archaic on two grounds: its massiveness and the high percentage of core tools to scrapers. Not only are there far more core tools in the Kartan industry, but they are also considerably larger and heavier than those of any other Australian industry. This is not due to their raw material, since Kartan tools wee made of many different rock types. Finally, the waisted tools that are part of the Kartan industry suggest the possibility of great antiquity. Made of quartzite, like the Kartan core tools, the waisted tools are even more massive, weighing an average of 1837 grams, compared with 882 grams for Kartan tools. Their edges are usually sharpened by crude bifacial flaking, whereas all Kartan tools are unifacially falked. They may have been hafted to a handle or used in a two-handed grip, a hand on each notched margin.

Classic Kartan sites are concentrated in the region of south Australia around the mouth of the Murray and on the northeast coast of Queensland. Both these regions are high ground near fresh water. They are among the few surviving remnants of Australia's continental shelf; if the earliest population were concentrated on the coast, most other sites would now be submerged. The reasons Kangaroo Island has such prolific remains of the a Kartan industry are probably twofold: sufficient altitude to place it above the present sea level and a particularly favourable location, close to both the sea and to the mouth of Australia's largest river.

The emerging picture of Pleistocene technology is of a varied and efficient tool kit, including stone, bone and wooden tools, and no doubt many other items  made of organic materials. This Australian core tool and scraper tradition is characterised by pebble choppers, horsehoof cores, steep-edge scrapers, notched and other types of scraper, including many small flakes and artefacts made of sharp quartz by the bipolar technique. Many of these artefacts are primarily tools to make tools; they were used for manufacturing, maintenance and food processing, evidenced by usewear and residue analysis. 

The stone tools are remarkably similar all over the continent, even when made from different raw materials, and appear to belong to a single distinctive Australoid ttchnological tradition, readily distinguishable from the stone tool industries of Asia, Europe and Africa. Nevertheless, they encompass much variation, like thumbnail scrapers in some Tasmanian Pleistocene sites. Australia's Pleistocene artefacts have been called homogeneous by some and heterogeneous by others, depending on their particular perspective. My own view is that the Pleistocene assemblages are much more homogeneous than those of the Holocene, but also include some distinctive regional variations of the basic old Australian core tool and scraper tradition.

There is strong circumstantial evidence that the ice age inhabitants of Australia wore skin clothing. The whole tool kit used for skin-working in historic times has been found in Pleistocene sites, and some of the bone points have use-wear on their tips consistent with piercing skins. Stone tools played a very small part in traditional Aboriginal equipment: most artefacts were of wood, bone, shell or plant material. Unfortunately, after even only a thousand years in the ground, almost everything has disappeared except items made of stone. Very special conditions are needed to preserve wooden tools, in particular a constantly wet or dry environment. These conditions are found in peat bogs, such as Wyrie Swamp in South Australia. This site was discovered by accident, literally! roger Luebbers was doing field work in the Millicent district when he fell, slipped a disc, and ended up in hospital. Whilst convalescing, the man in the next bed, Hans Van Schaik, causally mentioned there were boomerangs in a peat bog on his land. Luebrs investigated and discovered the lakeside camp of Wyrie Swamp, which was later flooded and preserved by the encroaching swamp (colour plate 8).

The stone tool kit included core tools and scrapers, with organic residues indicating processing of wood and plant foods. Associated was the missing element from all sites hitherto excavated in Australia: the wooden artefacts. Twenty-five wooden tools were recovered, complete or in fragments. Types represented were a digging stick, pointed stakes (about 40 centimetres long, possibly also for digging), a short simple spear, two barbed spears, and nine boomerangs, three of them complete. The barbed spears were a real surprise - no one had thought they went so far back in time in Australia, and they are the oldest examples found anywhere in the world. The boomerangs are clearly the returning type, because the two ends are orientated in different aerodynamic planes. The curvature and lateral twist they exhibit are the classic properties of a well-designed aerodynamic missile. The wing span is 29 to 50 centimetres and the arms join in a sharp elbow.

Australian prehistoric technology was not static. There was a gradual development towards less massive, more efficient and more varied tools: later Pleistocene industries have fewer core tools, smaller scrapers and a greater range of types. This decrease in size reflects progress towards greater efficiency in the use of raw material. It has been calculated by Rhys Jones that over a period of 25 000 years, stone tools became eight times more efficient. (these figures are based on an increase in the average length of working edge per unit weight of tool from 0.5 millimetres per gram 25 000 years ago to 4 millimetres per gram 5000 years ago.)

The single glimpse of Pleistocene wooden technology reveals the characteristic equipment of traditional Aboriginal society. Then, as now, it seems women were equipped with digging sticks, men with spears and boomerangs. A strong, fire hardened wooden spear was an efficient weapon which has been used throughout Aboriginal history. The barbed, javelin-type spear was an unexpected refinement in the Pleistocene, but would have been effective in spearing large game. When such barbed spears enter man or beast they are difficult to dislodge, and tend to cause death through loss of blood. The returning boomerangs are even more sophisticated. It is a salutary thought that 10 000 years ago, Aborigines understood the principles of torque and aerodynamic flight, something most of us cannot do today.

In summary, prehistoric technology in Australia was neither simple nor primitive. The tool kit was limited in range and highly portable, but it was adapted to cope successfully with a wide variety of environments and harsh conditions which, 30 000 years later, were to prove too much for many of the European 'explorers' and settlers.

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