Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Karta: Island of the Dead - Kangaroo Island

This is a large island, 150 by 50 km,  that has been separate from the mainland for nearly 10,000 years. It was called the 'Island of the Dead' by the tribes in southern part of the Australian mainland around the Murray River, probably because a creation being from the Dreamtime, Ngurunderi, crossed to the island, from where he travelled to the Milky Way. The spirits of the dead of a number of tribes were believed to follow his track to the afterlife in the sky. See Kangaroo Island Mythology.

On the island there is plenty of evidence  of occupation in prehistoric times. It is separated from South Australia by Backstairs Passage. This body of water would be very difficult to cross in canoes. It is subject to strong currents, heavy tidal swells and steep breaking seas. The first evidence of Aboriginal habitation on Kangaroo Island was the discovery of hammer stones at Hawk's Nest near Murray's Lagoon in 1903. In 1930 more stone tools were discovered and excavation was proposed. It was based on the finds at Kangaroo Island that the first suggestion was made that colonisation by Aboriginal People might date from the Pleistocene. The Aboriginal People on the nearby mainland had no water craft capable of making the dangerous crossing, having only rafts and bark canoes that were propelled with poles.

The method of transport to the island used by the original occupants had been puzzled over, the conclusion being that they probably reached the island at a time of low sea level. The occupation was thought to have probably occurred a long time ago, as indicated by the archaic nature of the tools, no similar tools being found on the mainland from more recent times. Further support for this conclusion was the fact that the dingo never reached the island, as was the case with Tasmania. Also, no small tools have been found that were used at more recent times on the mainland.

An indication of the length of time since the isolation of the island by rising sea levels is that many of the animals and plants of the island have evolved a subspecies related to those on the mainland.

Fieldwork in the early 1930s near Murray's Lagoon, a land-locked freshwater lake, revealed some hammer stones and some massive pebble implements. Subsequent exploration revealed the presence of 47 camp sites on the island, by 1958 the number had risen to 120. There were hundreds of pebble choppers, horsehoof  cores and hammer-stones. The tool industry was named the Kartan, after the name for the island among the mainland Ramindjeri tribe.

Most of the Kartan tools have been found in ploughed fields where they have been brought to the surface by the ploughs. Some tools have been found in areas where the land is covered by near-impenetrable scrub, but in the past, when the climate was different from the present, especially when the vegetation was probably being controlled by fire-stick farmers. Some have been found on a high ridge above Murray's Lagoon that was apparently the water's edge, about 5 m above the present water level, indicating that at the time of occupation the climate was different from that of the present.

The nearest source of quartzite for the tools found at Hawk's Nest is about 35 km from the site on the north coast of the island. Together with the lack of flakes and debris from the manufacture of the tools at the site the tools were found, this indicates that the tools were prepared elsewhere, probably at the source of the raw material.

Kartan tool industry

The Kartan industry is characterised by the massiveness of its core tools. The dominant implements are hammer-stones and pebble choppers. Hammer-flaking technique is used to get flakes from one side of a quartzite pebble. The result is usually oval-shaped and a sharp edge is produced by trimming the margin. Many of the pebble choppers were perfectly symmetrical, finely-made by what must have been highly skilled craftsmen with a strong aesthetic sense. Another characteristic of the Kangaroo Island tools is the large, heavy, horsehoof core, but there are not as many of them as there are of the pebble choppers.

An occupation site was found at Seton Site, (the Seton industry), a small limestone cave near a freshwater lagoon, 8 km from the south coast, where dating has shown the site was occupied, at first sporadically, from about 16,000 years ago, and intensively at about 11,000 years ago, until the separation from the mainland at about 10,000 years ago.

Some believed that the island was abandoned once the sea level rose enough to make the crossing between the mainland difficult, but some coastal occupation sites have been found that have been dated to later then separation. Some of these sites contain small shell middens associated with flakes that have been dated to 6,000 years ago. Some inland stratified camp sites, such as Rowell's Site, dated to 5,200 years ago  and Sand Quarry Site, dated to 4,300 years ago, contained small flints and scrapers.

Post-separation  occupation was very sparse compared to the earlier Kartan sites and the many shell middens on the adjacent South Australian coast from the Holocene. 2 explanations have been proposed for the post-separation sites on Kangaroo Island, that a relict population survived for several thousand years before dying out, there were occasional, probably temporary, occupations from the mainland. The second option requires the possession of more suitable watercraft than was possessed by the Aboriginal People of the adjacent mainland in historic times.

It is now thought what evidence there is from ethnography, archaeology and palaeoclimate, points towards it probably being a relict population. If it was a relict population, the reason for their disappearance is unknown, but at best the population that could have been maintained on the island was never more than several hundred, small enough to be severely affected by natural disasters, and pollen evidence suggests the climate became drier.

At Lashmar's Lagoon a pollen core contained evidence of a change to drier habitat shrubs, and other evidence suggests there was a drying of the environment of the island between about 5000 and 2,000 years ago, and that regular burning of the vegetation didn't occur after about 2,500 years ago. The early European explorers in Australia associated no smoke with no Aboriginal People, the practice of burning being so common in all parts of Australia.

It has been suggested that the original occupation of the island may have occurred about 60,000 years ago at a time of low sea level, then at the start of a later phase of higher sea levels they left the island before the water was too deep to cross, returning again at another time of low sea level, bringing the Seton industry tools with them, that had been developed on the mainland during the time Kangaroo Island was uninhabited, but failed to leave in time when the water again rose. The industries also differ in the stone used for their manufacture, Kartan artefacts being made from quartzite and Seton from quartz. It has been suggested the change in source material may have resulted from the quartzite beach pebbles being unobtainable when the sea rose.

The size difference between the Kartan and Seton industries is also seen on the mainland, the difference being that on the mainland there is a gradual reduction in size, as seen in the artefacts, from places such as Cloggs Cave and Burrill Lake, whereas the Karan suddenly gave way to the much smaller Seton artefact.

The discovery of 24 very large waisted, flaked stone tools introduced another debate. These tools have been found in widely separated sites on the mainland, at Wepowie, in the southern Flinders Ranges, South Australia, as well as 80 found near Mackay, Queensland, at the foot of 500m high Mt Jukes, about 6 km from the coast. Study of the artefacts from the Mackay site concluded that they were very similar to those being used on Kangaroo Island.

The function of these waisted tool is not known, but it has been suggested they are very similar to tools used for pounding sago in New Guinea. Other suggestions have been for forest clearing and killing large animals caught in pitfall traps, as has been known from historical times in the Queensland rainforest, where pitfall traps were used to catch large animals which were dispatched with a large, heavy bladed stone axes, some of which were grooved, attached to very long handles of 'lawyer cane' that wrapped around the axe head and was bound with cane lashings. (Flood, 2004).

Kangaroo Island Mythology


Sources & Further reading

  1. Flood, Josephine, 2004, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 30/09/2011
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