Ngurunderi's wives escaped again, running ahead to Cape Jervis and across to Kangaroo Island, ignoring his call to stop. Ngurunderi called for the waters to rise, to drown the women. Mourning, he crossed to the island and prepared himself for the spirit world...


When Europeans first saw Kangaroo Island it was uninhabited. Mainland Aborigines called it 'Karta' - Land of the Dead. We now know that Aborigines had lived on the island until at least 4,000 years ago - long after the island was isolated from the mainland by rising sea levels.

Who were the Aborigines of Kangaroo Island?

Ten thousand years ago Kangaroo Island was not an island, but an area of higher land to the west of the ancient Murray River mouth. Since the 1930s archaeological discoveries on the island have added to our knowledge of its people.

Hawk's Nest
During the 1930s stone choppers and hammerstones were recovered from this site, an ancient lagoon. Archaeologists Harold Cooper and Norman Tindale later found more of these 'Kartan' tools throughout the island.
Three types of large stone tools found on the island: a hammerstone, 'horsehoof' core, and pebble chopper. After their discovery in the 1930s these large tools became known as 'Kartan implements' - based on the Ramindjeri word 'Karta' for Kangaroo Island. Collectors H. Cooper, N.B. Tindale, 1930s, (A2244, A20420, A30163).
Seton Rockshelter
This site, on the shore of a small semi permanent lagoon, contains evidence of two distinct occupation periods around 16,000 years and 11,000 years ago. During this more recent period the island became separated from the mainland. This material from the middle levels of the dig is around 11,000 years old. Many small tools were found, and animal remains such as the jaw-bones of a western grey kangaroo and a brush-tailed rat kangaroo and the tooth of a hairy-nosed wombat. Shells like the cockle shown here would have been brought from the nearest beach, at least 16 kilometres away. Collector: R Lampert, South Australian Museum. Jaw-bone (prob. western grey kangaroo), (P29775). Rat kangaroo jaw-bone, (P29774). Tooth, (P2977).
Cape du Couedic
Aborigines were attracted to this area by a sea lion colony. The bulk of their meat diet came from sea-lion hunting, supplemented by kangaroo, shellfish, goannas, emu eggs and other foods. They used this cliff-top shelter for about 600 years, until 6,800 years ago when rising sea levels may have forced the sea-lions to abandon their beach colony. A range of stone tools excavated from the Cape du Couedic site. A tooth and a rib bone of the sea lion, a fragment of kangaroo bone and some egg-shell pieces (probably of the extinct dwarf emu) indicate the range of food eaten here. Collector. N. Draper, 1985-88.
The Continuing Mystery
Archaeologists are continuing to uncover new evidence. For example, examination of pollen spores from ancient bushfires suggests that Aborigines may have been living on the island until only 2,000 years ago. The fate of the Kangaroo Island Aborigines is still a mystery. If they left the Island, why and how did they leave? If they remained, what became of them?

Before Ngurunderi left the earth to live in the Milky Way he told the people: 'I am going first, you will come after me.'


The death of a Ngarrindjeri person involved a series of rites and obligations. These rites helped to strengthen social ties across a wide network of relatives.

Funeral rites involved an inquest, a funeral ceremony, a period of mourning, and a final burial. These rites ensured that the soul of the dead person followed Ngurunderi's path safely to the spirit world.

Waleruwar - the spirit world
The spirits of the dead were believed to follow Ngurunderi's path to Kangaroo Island, the Land of the Dead. After cleansing themselves in the sea they joined Ngurunderi in Waieruwar, the spirit world. Photographer. S. Schrapel, 1986

The Inquest
Even if a person died of disease or injuries, the Ngarrindjeri believed that someone was responsible through sorcery of some kind. After an inquest to identify the culprit, punishment was fixed by a group of elders to compensate for the death. This engraving shows an inquest, in which the corpse was carried through the camp until mourners detected a sign indicating the culprit. After a death, other people in the camp immediately shifted to another site and the dead person's name was placed under a temporary ban. Artist. Unknown, about 1870, (AA389).
The funeral ceremony
The most elaborate ceremonies were staged for young initiated men. Mourners prepared the body by removing internal organs and by annointing it with red ochre and grease. Next they bound it in a sitting position on a platform in the camp. As the body dried over a slow fire for several days the mourners 'sang' the dead person's spirit to Waieruwar, the spirit world. Artist G.F Angas, 1844, (AA8).
The mourning period
When the funeral ceremony was complete, the dried bones were wrapped and placed in a specially woven mat which served as a coffin. Relatives kept this coffin with them for as long as two or three years, until the mourning period was over or until the death had been avenged. These basketry coffins were made for the Museum by Clarence Long (adult's); and Amy Johnson (child's). Collector N B Tindale, (A26246, A26236).
The burial
After a time the remains were placed on a burial platform. The bones were covered with rushes and sedge mats and in the case of young men, their weapons were left with them. Finally, when the time was right, the nearest relatives took the skull to use as a water vessel and buried the rest of the bones. The skull was believed to carry the protective powers of the dead person. Ngarrindjeri burial platforms were built in the shape of a raft. The belief was that the spirits used rafts to follow Ngurunderi's path across the sea to Kangaroo Island, the land of the dead, before entering the spirit world. Artist G.F Angas, 1844. (AA8).