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My Kangaroo Island

The looks of excitement on our faces was sure evidence that Mr Borham’s idea was met with class approval.

It was 1966. Trevor Borham was our class teacher at the Parndana Area School on Kangaroo Island.

Mr Borham had instructed us to move all our desks to the back and sides walls – in a “U” formation – and in the centre of the room we were going to make an Aboriginal campsite, including our very own wurley and hearth.

My proud contribution was a tool from an old Aboriginal campsite that I’d found on the farm. A tool that I was to later learn was a hammer stone. A tool, that thirty years later, was to send me on a journey.

But this wasn’t just any hammer stone. This was the finest I would ever see. It was so symmetrical, and a better specimen than any I would ever see again; at university, in museums, or from photos in university text books.

At the end of the school year we packed up our campsite, my hammer stone was returned to me, and I put it back near where I first found it, never to see it again.

For decades I regretted not keeping that stone. (It certainly would have impressed my professor in Aboriginal Archaeology). But the more I learned of the cultures and traditions of the First Australians, I slowly accepted that I’d made the right, although hasty decision to leave the stone where I’d found it. It belonged on the island. It belonged to the ancestral spirits that dwell there, and I had no right to take it. I’m happy with that.

But what was that journey?

I yearned to know more about the people who made and used that hammer stone. The answer surprised me.

I’d like to share that journey with you.

Kangaroo Island, or Karta, ‘Island of the dead’ – the name given to the island by the mainland Ramindjeri people – is a large land mass 15 kilometres off the South Australian coast. The island is approximately 150 kilometres long and 50 kilometres at its widest point, and has 450 kilometres of coastline enclosing an area of 4350 square kilometres. Lying across the mouth of St Vincent Gulf, it is separated from mainland South Australia by Backstairs Passage and Investigator Strait.

The island was declared uninhabited upon European ‘discovery’ in 1802. Matthew Flinders chronicled that the native animals – being unmindful of human beings and human predation – ‘concurred with the absence of all traces of men [sic] to show that it [the island] was not inhabited’ (1) (Cited in Tindale and Maegraith, 1931:275). He also noted that the island’s vegetation was overgrown as if untended by ‘firestick farming’, and though having declared the island uninhabited, had observed ‘puzzling signs of fire within the previous ten to twenty years’ and, foremost, speculated human agency. It was not an observation that was to occasion him any great distraction, merely recording that persons unknown – perhaps shipwreck survivors or whalers – may have been the cause.

European settlement of the island began shortly after Flinders’ visit: escaped convicts seeking refuge, or wandering sealers and whalers bringing as company a number of Indigenous women abducted from the nearby mainland or from Tasmania. By 1826 the permanent population of the island numbered upwards of two hundred, still predominantly sealers, whalers, and ‘native’ women who continued to be stolen from their tribal homes. Recognised for its potential for primary industry, in 1836 the island became an official British settlement and large tracts of land were systematically cleared for agriculture.

Previous habitation was never assumed until the discovery of stone tools in 1903 denoted a prehistoric population.

It was not until 1930 when Norman Tindale (2) and his associate Harold Cooper discovered archaeological campsites around the stranded shorelines of Murray’s Lagoon – and dismissed the theory of Tasmanian or mainland origin – that serious research began.

Hammer stone

Further campsites were documented, and the incidence of quartzite implements – nearly all of which were heavy pebble choppers or hammer stones – suggested the existence of a considerable previous population. Tindale identified that these implements belonged to a ‘pure’ industry which he termed the ‘Kartan’. The lack of material remains with these discoveries implied considerable antiquity, possibly of Pleistocene age when the island was a peninsular of the mainland.

Of this find, a ‘mystified’ Tindale (1930-74:4) recorded that ‘the implements are not associated with the usual signs of recent occupation’ noting the absence of ashes, charcoal, ruddle, bone and shell fragments (Tindale and Maegraith, 1931:278), adding that:

The evidence of the distribution of the artefacts suggests that the five-metre shoreline, or thereabouts, was a relatively stable one during one of the last periods of such occupation, and … as it was then, was a favoured campsite. Few inferences can be made concerning the people who fashioned the artefacts found on these sites. It is evident that they used very crude cutting, scraping, and hammering implements, and were living on the island sufficiently long ago for traces of organic camp debris to have disappeared. The primitiveness of the stone implements and the absence of all traces of the dingo may suggest that the former islanders were … a Pre-Australoid people who have become extinct. (Tindale and Maegraith, 1931:284).

Of their origins Tindale postulated that the Kartan was of Pleistocene age and had drawn similarities – and cultural connections – between pebble choppers from Kangaroo Island and Upper Paleolithic tools from the Malay Peninsula known as ‘Sumatra-type’ implements.

To establish the antiquity of the occupation Ron Lampert surveyed the island in search of stratified occupation deposits. One site, Seton Cave, produced evidence of occupation dated to 16,110 BP. This site also provided strong evidence for a temporal overlap between humans and megafauna.

The existence of an ancient people on the island raised questions of their origins and their eventual fate. Neither of these questions can be confidently answered, though nonetheless they are widely speculated.

The disappearance of the prehistoric inhabitants from an island favoured with an admirable climate and an abundance of fish, animal, and bird life is far more difficult to understand than is the manner of their coming. In the absence of the appropriate data to answer this question there appear to be only two logical – yet purely hypothetical alternatives: ‘their departure or extinction in situ’ (Cooper, 1960:496).

Tindale and Maegraith suggested that the difficulties that early European settlers met with in obtaining water supplies during dry seasons might well have been experienced by the original inhabitants: a severe drought being quite capable, they argue, of reducing the food resources to a point that extinction was inescapable. Others offer evidence against this. Bauer’s description of a favourable palaeoenvironment (Bauer in Pilling and Waterman, 1970:198-199, 212-213) fits with Neil Draper’s observation that the locations of archaeological sites meet the ‘basic camp-site requirements of fresh water and proximity to a food supply’ (Draper in Robinson, 1992:9). There are also indications that the climate was more favourable for human populations for much of the recent past. For example, the presence of Tasmanian devils as reported by Draper is striking evidence of damper conditions favouring lush vegetation and permanent water. Further, by far the greatest number of artefacts have been found in association with higher shorelines of lagoons, suggesting that these bodies of water were larger at the time of occupation. Bauer adds that:

The wide distribution and numbers of implements found suggest that a moderately large population occupied the island for a considerable period of time. In terms of food and water resources, Kangaroo Island could be presumed to support a population of a few hundred almost indefinitely. Most of the mainland animals, such as kangaroos, wallaby, and opossum must have been present, and bird life, especially waterfowl, must also have been plentiful, for lagoons appear to have been larger and more numerous during at least some stages of the occupation. Sea foods, especially shellfish and fresh-water fish, must have furnished a nearly inexhaustible food resource. (Bauer in Pilling and Waterman, 1970:212).

In the absence of the appropriate data – including the complete lack of skeletal remains (3) – it is difficult to answer the question regarding their disappearance from the island. It is most likely that they succumbed in the land where they had lived, albeit the reasons for their extinction are not clear. Archaeologist Josephine Flood suggests that as a human habitat Kangaroo Island steadily deteriorated during the Holocene through demographic imbalances. Indeed, pollen analysis shows a change in vegetation towards drier shrubs and increasingly arid environment between 5,000 and 2,000 years ago.

Habitat isolation – a further argument considered – and the consequent reduction in landscape connectivity can lead to the decline and eventual extinction of local populations. Small, isolated populations are particularly vulnerable to random variation in the environment, population parameters, and genetic processes. Given a restricted population and a long period of time, genetic changes in the Kangaroo Island population itself could have been such that extinction was inevitable.

Kangaroo Island was again the island of the dead.

* * * * *

The recent tragedies on the island; the ecological devastation, and the loss of human life and property have cut deep into me. What are also lost are the hundreds of undiscovered ancient campsites of the Kartan people.

Perhaps one day – a hundred years from now, or even a thousand – a young boy might stumble upon a hammer stone. It may or may not be the one I found long ago. But when he does pick up that ancient tool, I hope it lures him on the same journey that I took.

(1) The time of the demise of the Kartan people was originally thought to be 5,000 years ago, which was later updated to around 500 years ago. On our farm – for a time – we had an old bloke by the name of Dougal McIntyre (Old Mac) work for us. Old Mac was well into his 80s when he died around 1967. He told me that he knew the last surviving Island Aboriginal, who lived at Flinders Chase and had died at the beginning of the 20th Century.

My Aboriginal Archaeology professor found it hard to believe my story, arguing that he was surely a Tasmanian Aborigine, and reminded me of Flinders’ observation that the kangaroos where he landed (Penneshaw) did not fear humans. A salient point. My argument – knowing the geography of the island – was that Penneshaw was close to 80 miles from Flinders Chase, which made Flinders’ point irrelevant. However, it was an argument I was never going to win.

Then … at the end of the year he called me into his office. I was right after all. Neil Draper had discovered a cave at Cape Borda that had archaeological evidence of human occupation that preceded the arrival of Tasmanian Aborigines to the island, and ending about a hundred years ago.

(2) I was given permission to read through Norman Tindale’s diaries in the Adelaide Museum. Tindale noted that as old stone tools had been unearthed after ploughing and that old campsites were on the ancient shorelines of lagoons, he realised he had discovered an ancient civilisation. To read that discovery, in his own words, in his own diary, sent a chill through me. It was as though I were there with him.

His diaries, as an aside, also mention a Tasmanian girl named Suke, who was stolen and taken to the island. After the death of Truganini in 1876 it became legend that the last ‘real’ or ‘full-blood’ Tasmanian Aborigine was now gone. This was not true, however, as Suke lived on the island until her death in 1888.

(3) The island was home to the Kartan people for over 16,000 years, with a population of over 200 people at any one time. Hundreds of Kartan campsites have been discovered, as have the remains of their prey, yet the remains of not one individual have ever been found. Not one.


Cooper, H. (1960). ‘The archaeology of Kangaroo Island, South Australia’ in the Records of the South Australian Museum. Volume 13, number 4, pages 481-503.

Cooper, H; and Condon, H. (1948). ‘On some fragments of emu egg-shell from an ancient camp-site on Kangaroo Island’ in The South Australian ornithologist. Volume 18, number 7, pages 66-68.

Cooper, H. (1960). ‘The archaeology of Kangaroo Island, South Australia’ in the Records of the South Australian Museum. Volume 13, number 4, pages 481-503.

Cooper, H. (1966). ‘Archaeological stone implements from a lagoon bed, Kangaroo Island, South Australia’ in the Records of the South Australian Museum. Volume 15, number 2, pages 309-327.

Draper, N. (1988). ‘Stone tools and cultural landscapes: investigating the archaeology of Kangaroo Island’ in South Australian geographical journal. Volume 88, pages 15-36.

Flood, J. (1995). Archaeology of the Dreamtime. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Lambert, R. (1981). The great Kartan mystery. The Australian National University, Canberra.

Mulvaney, D; and White, P. (1987). Editors Australia to 1788. Fairfax, Sydney.

Nunn, J. (1981). Soldier settlers: war service land settlement, Kangaroo Island. Investigator Press, Hawthorndene.

Nunn, J. (1989). This southern land: a social history of Kangaroo Island 1800-1890. Investigator Press, Hawthorndene.

Pilling, A; and Waterman, R. (1970). Editors Diprotodon to detribalisation: studies of change among Australian Aborigines. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, USA.

Robinson, A. (1992). Editor Biological survey of Kangaroo Island. NPWS, Adelaide.

Tindale, N; and Maegraith, B. (1931). ‘Traces of an extinct Aboriginal population on Kangaroo Island’ in the Records of the South Australian Museum. Volume 4, number 3, pages 275-289.


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  1. RosemaryJ36

    Michael: your story reminds us how much we do not know and how careless we are being in our custodianship of this ancient land.

  2. wam

    Luck plays such an important part in life.
    A child’s discovery, a teacher, a neuron spark, an active mind and a seeker of knowledge is born.
    There are few with your perception and skill and I hope the next person the stone finds has your ability to write.
    My luck was a perfect woman selected me and our transfer to darwin high school.

  3. paul walter

    I wonder if the lack of human remains perhaps involves a coastal population whose remains were lost under rapidly rising seas at the end of the Ice Age, or perhaps many of the remaining people left as they saw seas rising and decided island resources would not suffice in the future.

    Yet some remained, until very recently.

    As Rosemary J36 says “…how much we do not know..”

    It seems borne out in the inability locate the remains of former inhabitants. Perhaps the bones themselves warrant inspection for signs of axe marks and if so, of what type.

    Fascinating story, enjoyed the school class bits since I’ll always remember the days Miss Smith has us out on the mats on mild sunny days, reading “The Magic Faraway Tree” to us, never beaten since and reminds me that time runs out to find out the answers to many mysteries as the years pass.

  4. New England Cocky

    Michael, my sincere condolences for the losses on your island home, both people and environmental.

    On a personally more positive note, I find your article provides some supporting evidence for my own heretical ‘scientific’ theory (‘speculation’) that Aboriginal settlement of Australia came from the south via Antarctica rather than, or as well as, from the north via the Malay Peninsula.

    The absence of dingoes is a key factor, much like the difficult to explain biological evidence for the occurrence of the Common Reed, Phragmites communis, in ancient Egypt and the Tigris Euphrates Basin, West Africa and Lake Titicaca, at 12,000 feet altitude in Chile, when that aquatic plant only breeds by vegetative reproduction or cuttings, being pollen sterile.

    All locations have reed boats that float IN the water, a unique characteristic, with the double prow vessels restricted to the Middle east, and single prow vessels elsewhere, even Chile. Modern vessels float ON the water, displacing water volume to float.

    Or the Kumara, aka the root crop Sweet Potato, now spread across the South Pacific, but known to originate in South America. Perhaps Heyerdahl was correct when proposing that the South Pacific was possibly settled by rafts floating east to west on the equatorial Pacific Ocean currents from Peru to where ever it was (sorry memory lapse).

    Certainly your dates of habitation on Kangaroo Island (KI) fit with the general story of human origins in southern Africa, migration north to the African Rift Valley where Europeans made their first discoveries and recently were shown to be a YOUNGER site than elsewhere, but why not also south to about the Cape of Good Hope, then further south across a speculated land bridge to Antarctica, then into Australia via Tasmania, and South America via the known land bridge to Terra del Fuego.

    This heresy requires a suitable climate over a sufficiently wide geographical area to allow or encourage migration away from a source point. This usually occurs when local food resources become scarce or run out, requiring population relocation.

    Pollen analysis work on ice cores by Retallack (BSC (Hons) about 1969 UNE) showed that about 10,000 years ago Antarctica had a climate similar to present day Coffs Harbour, i.e. southern subtropical Nothofagus rainforest, presently having remnants ranging from Tasmania to at least the Queensland NSW border.

    I will avoid speculation of world rolling on, or changing, its axis to relocate the Equator to allow this phenomenon.

    Some late 19th century European explorer’s logs from Terra del Fuego show ‘aboriginal’ adult males very similar to Tasmanian Aboriginal men earlier that century, with similar “low level” technologies like humpies and an absence of clothing in the then freezing cold climate, thus suggesting long term physiological adaptation to the cold climate. There is also other drawings/sketches of local males bearing considerable resemblance to North American Indians, so possibly a clash of cultures out that time. I have insufficient knowledge to do more than speculate.

    The link between Tasmania and KI may be a little more difficult to establish given the west to east flow of the strong Southern Ocean marine currents, and the present lack of any evidence that any surviving Aborigines used sails on their vessels.

    Our overall knowledge is incomplete and continuing research may provide future answers. However, I am reminded that Copernicus speculated that the solar system was heliocentric, contrary to the self-serving geocentric edicts of the then dominant Roman Church, that held this erroneous position until 1948.

  5. john tons

    Thanks for this I taught at Parndana in the eighties. My son took his young family to the Island to show them the places he remembered with fondness only to find that his holiday was spent staying ahead of the fire. This fire was caused by dry lightening – if any doubt the impact of climate change they need to remember that this has always been the cause of bushfires but bushfires on this scale are unprecedented.

  6. Keith Davis

    A beautiful piece of writing that evidences the power of connection to land. Full of factual material, yes, but far fuller with the talking of the heart.

  7. Robin Alexander

    Truly wonderful read thank you! To all the replies information found it so amazing to have such inormative people on this site! For older lady I find it wonderfull learning many things as I have today! Thanks to all intelligent people here

  8. Juanita Hardy

    Great article, and it reminded me of an intriguing reference I once read to “pygmy aborigines” who still existed in the Marion Bay area on Southern Yorke Peninsula at the time of European settlement. The mention was made in a book by Minlaton amateur historian, Alan Parsons, (sorry, I’ve forgotten the title) and came from an article in an S.A. farmers’ newspaper some time in the 1930s. Unfortunately, being very much an amateur historian, he didn’t provide proper citations or a bibliography so it would take some hunting down. I was chasing up history of Wool Bay back in the early 1990s and went to visit Alan Parsons and actually asked him about the mysterious “pygmy” people. He said that there had been dwellings belonging to these people but the farmer on whose property they existed had destroyed them after the newspaper article appeared because he didn’t want a whole lot of people poking around his farm. Marion Bay’s really just a stone’s throw from KI so there may be a connection.

  9. Michael Taylor

    Thank you, everyone, for your kind comments.

  10. Florence Howarth

    As Pascoe has written, the truth about how Indigenous people lived is to be found in the early writings, letters & diaries of the settlers that came to this country. The question is why so much remained hidden since 1788.

  11. John Lord

    Very comprehensive.

  12. Phil

    Michael Taylor.

    Hello Michael ref Kangaroo Island.Sorry about the loss. I worked on the Ketches that serviced Kingscote and American River in the early seventies. The island was pristine and the fishing in American river was probably the most abundant fishing grounds in the world. It was indeed one of the wonders of the state if not the world.

    I will never forgive Morrison and his band of shrieking baboons masquerading as a government, for what they have done to this country and what they have planned for the future. It depending on who you read, may take 300 years to recover for mine it will never recover. Humans are far too stupid to do anything about it.

  13. leefe


    Is there any knowledge as to when and why the island was given that name “Karta”? There must be a story behind it.

  14. Michael Taylor

    Hi Phil.

    Ah, the fishing. A KI King George whiting is the Rolls Royce of edible fish.

    My mother was in a LA restaurant in the early 70s. On the menu it had “Kangaroo Island King George whiting.”

  15. Michael Taylor

    leefe, the mainland Aborigines called it Karta (the island of the dead) because that’s where the spirits would go to live after they’d passed from this life.

    There’s more to the story but I’d have to rummage through my old uni books to find the answer. So far I haven’t been given permission from my wife to make a complete mess of the spare room. 😉

  16. Janine P

    Deep respect for the girl then woman, Suke
    from Tasmania who lived and died without her people on Kangaroo island.
    Thank-you for this enlightening information, for your light and whimsical passion.

  17. Anne Byam

    Thank you Michael so much, for a fascinating read – and tutorial. I have learned much in your article, written to a background of deep personal feelings, and your experiences living, working, learning and discovering there.

    I can only imagine the loss you felt when so much of the island was razed in those ghastly fires. So sad too the loss of so many of the koalas – the last bastion of good clean koala health ( it is thought by scientists / veterinarians / koala specialists ).

    Thank you ….

  18. Phil

    “Ah, the fishing. A KI King George whiting is the Rolls Royce of edible fish.”

    To use one of the old fisherman’s yarns. They virtually jumped into the boat. Garfish were a plenty there too.

    Not a place I would swim voluntarily mind you. We saw plenty of Great Whites around the island.

  19. Michael Taylor

    Thank you, Anne.

    Yes, the island koalas are the only ones free of chlamydia. A report from the Adelaide Uni last year suggested that the survival of the species was dependent on the island population.

    I can’t get my head around that an estimated 38,000 perished in the fires. Only 9,000 survived.

    It is my understanding that they were not native to the island, having been introduced from Victoria. (I heard that zillions of years ago, so don’t quote me on it).

  20. Michael Taylor

    Thanks, johno.

    I recall now that they were hunted to near extinction.

    Humans can be bastards.

  21. Michael Taylor

    For anybody interested in the Kartan occupation of Kangaroo Island, here is my university paper that this article was based on.

    Archaeology 2A

  22. Michael Taylor

    Paul, I apologise for my reply being two and a half years late, but the ancient campsites were dotted all over the island. In the case of the site on our farm, we were miles from the ocean.

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