Kangaroo Island’s Aboriginal history and heritage

Indigenous History from the Ngurunderi Dreaming story to the Present

Kangaroo Island’s Aboriginal history is fascinating but shrouded in mystery. Although it was thought the first settlers on Kangaroo Island were European and American whalers and sealers who arrived from 1802, they weren’t the first inhabitants as was discovered over 100 years later.

Karta Pintingga—which means ‘Island of the dead’—is Kangaroo Island’s Aboriginal name. People of the Ramindjeri, Ngarrindjeri, Kaurna and Barngalla nations were believed to inhabit this area approximately 16,000 years ago, before rising sea levels later caused it to become separated from the mainland of South Australia.

First Settlers on Kangaroo Island before European settlement

The Ramindjeri and Kaurna tribes were hunters and gatherers. They often travelled in family groups around their traditional lands on the Fleurieu Peninsula, so it is not surprising that they ventured onto the island when it was still joined to the mainland. They became known as the ‘Kartan’ people, named after Karta Pintingga, and are thought to be the first settlers of Kangaroo Island.

Rising sea levels and the separation of Kangaroo Island from the mainland

Around 10,000 years ago during the last glacial period, the sea levels rose, and Karta Pintingga became separated from the mainland of South Australia. Geological evidence as well as a Ngurunderi Dreaming story both confirm this event.

Discoveries such as Aboriginal stone hammers and shell middens confirm that Indigenous people once inhabited Kangaroo Island. Oral histories from mainland Aboriginal people also corroborate the evidence of habitation found on Karta Pintingga.

Ngurunderi Dreaming Story

Aboriginal ‘dreaming’ or ‘dreamtime’ stories are passed from generation to generation and tell how the ancestor spirits created the land and everything in it. The Ngurunderi Dreaming story, one of these oral histories, explains how Karta Pintingga became separated from the mainland of South Australia.

Ngurunderi was an ancestral being who shaped the lands, laws of living and creatures. When Ngurunderi's two wives ran away from him, he pursued them across Lake Albert and along the beach to Cape Jervis. From there, he saw his wives wading halfway across the shallow channel dividing Kangaroo Island from the mainland. Determined to punish his wives, Ngurunderi angrily ordered the water to rise up and drown them. Although his wives tried frantically to swim against the tidal wave, they could not, and were drowned, and their bodies were turned to stone. These rocks can still be seen in the strait of Backstairs Passage and were named ‘The Pages’ by Matthew Flinders.

Devils Kitchen at Cape Willoughby
Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, with the Pages in the background