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The Kaurna people are a group of Indigenous Australians whose traditional lands include the Adelaide Plains of South Australia. Pronunciation of the word "Kaurna" varies slightly by the background and origin of the speaker; the most common is English /ˈɡɑːnə/, sometimes /ˈɡnə/, native [ɡ̊auɲa] or, less often, [kʰana]. Kaurna culture and language were almost completely destroyed within a few decades of the European settlement of South Australia in 1836. However, extensive documentation by early missionaries and other researchers has enabled a modern revival of both language and culture.


The early settlers of South Australia referred to the various indigenous tribes of the Adelaide Plains and Fleurieu Peninsula as "Rapid Bay tribe", "the Encounter Bay tribe", "the Adelaide tribe", the Kouwandilla tribe, "the Wirra tribe", "the Noarlunga tribe" (the Ngurlonnga band) and the Willunga tribe (the Willangga band).[1] The name Kaurna was not widely used until popularised by Norman B. Tindale in the 1920s.[2] Most likely, it is an exonym introduced from the Ramindjeri or Ngarrindjeri word kornar meaning "men" or "people".[2]


Kaurna'war:a (Kaurna speech)[3] belongs to the Thura-Yura branch of the Pama–Nyungan languages.[4] The first word lists taken down of the Kaurna language date to 1826.[5] A knowledge of Kaurna language was keenly sought by many of the early settlers. William Williams and James Cronk were the first settlers to gain a working knowledge of the language, and to publish a Kaurna wordlist, which they did in 1840.[6] When George Gawler, South Australia's third Governor, arrived in October 1838, he gave a speech to the local Indigenous population through a translator, William Wyatt, assisted also by Williams and Cronk. Gawler actively encouraged the settlers to learn Kaurna, and advocated using the Kaurna names for geographic landmarks.[7]

Two German missionaries, Clamor Schurmann and Christian Teichelmann, arrived on the same ship as Gawler in 1838, and immediately set about learning and documenting the language in order to civilise and "Christianise" the natives.[8] In December 1839, they opened a school at Piltawodli (in the west Park Lands north of the River Torrens) where the children were taught to read and write in Kaurna. Schurmann and Teichelmann translated the Ten Commandments and a number of German hymns into Kaurna,[9] and although they never achieved their goal of translating the entire bible, their recorded vocabulary of over 2,000 words was the largest wordlist registered by that time, and pivotal in the modern revival of the language.[10]


Approximate extent of Kaurna territory, based on the description by Amery (2000)

Kaurna territory extended from Cape Jervis at the bottom of the Fleurieu Peninsula to Port Wakefield on the eastern shore of Gulf St Vincent, and as far north as Crystal Brook in the Mid North. Tindale claimed clans were found living in the vicinity of Snowtown, Blyth, Hoyleton, Hamley Bridge, Clarendon, Gawler and Myponga. The stringy bark forests over the back of the Mount Lofty Ranges have been claimed as a traditional boundary between Kaurna and Peramangk people. Tunkalilla Beach (keinari), 20 kilometres (12 mi) east of Cape Jervis, is the traditional boundary with the Ramindjeri.[citation needed]

This is the most widely cited alignment of Kaurna territorial boundaries. However, according to Ronald and Catherine Berndt the neighboring Ramindjeri tribe assert a historical territory including the whole southern portion of the Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island, extending as far north as Noarlunga[11][12] or even the River Torrens.[13] This overlaps a significant portion of the territory claimed by both the Kaurna and the neighboring Ngarrindjeri to the east. However, linguistic evidence suggests that the aborigines encountered by Colonel Light at Rapid Bay in 1836 were Kaurna speakers.[14] The Berndt's ethnographic study, which was conducted in the 1930s, identified six Ngarrindjeri clans occupying the coast from Cape Jervis to a few kilometres south of Adelaide. Berndt posits that the clans may have expanded along trade routes as the Kaurna were dispossessed by colonists.[12]

A main Kaurna presence was in Tarndanyangga ("red kangaroo place") near the River Torrens and the creeks that flowed into it, an area which became the site of the Adelaide city centre. Kaurna also resided in the suburb of Burnside, and an early settler of the village of Beaumont described the local people thus:

"At every creek and gully you would see their wurlies and their fires at night ... often as many as 500 to 600 would be camped in various places ... some behind the Botanic Gardens on the banks of the river; some toward the Ranges; some on the Waterfall Gully."[15]


The Kaurna people were a hunter-gatherer society, who changed their dwellings according to climatic conditions: in summer they would camp near the coastal springs fishing for mulloway. With the onset of winter, they would retire to the woodlands, often using hollowed out fallen redgums along creeks, with bark extensions with as shelters.[16] Sudden downpours could quench their fires, maintaining which was old women's work, with deadly consequences. At times they would have to impose themselves on otherwise despised tribes, such as the Ngaiawang and Nganguruku to trade goods like their cloaks, quartz flints and red ochre in order to obtain firesticks.[17]

Among their customs was the practice of fire-stick farming (deliberately lit bushfires for hunting purposes) in the Adelaide Hills, which the early European settlers spotted before the Kaurna were displaced. These fires were part of a scrub clearing process to encourage grass growth for Emu and Kangaroo.[18] This tradition led to conflict with the colonists as the fires tended to cause considerable damage to farmland. In an official report, Major Thomas O'Halloran claimed the Kaurna also used this as a weapon against the colonists by lighting fires to deliberately destroy fences, survey pegs and to scatter livestock. Due to this regular burning by the time the first Europeans arrived, the foothills' original Stringybark forests had been largely replaced with grassland. Since the late 1960s, restrictions on foothills subdivision and development have allowed regeneration of native trees and bush to a "natural" condition that would not have existed at the time of European occupation.[19]

Items of Kaurna material culture, such as traditional objects, spears, boomerangs and nets etc. are extremely rare. Interest in collecting and conserving Kaurna culture was not common until their display at the 1887 Paris exhibition spurred an interest in Indigenous culture, by which time the Kaurna traditional culture was no longer practiced. Many hundreds of objects were sent to the Paris exhibition and these were never returned to Australia. The Kaurna collection held by the South Australian Museum contains only 48 items. In September 2002, a Living Kaurna Cultural Centre was opened at Warriparinga in the southern suburbs area of Adelaide.


Initially, contacts began with the arrival of sealers and whalers. Sealers established themselves on Kangaroo Island as early as 1806, and raided the mainland for Kaurna women, both for the sexual opportunities and the help they could supply in skinning the sealers' prey.[5] Wary of Europeans from their experience with sealers, the Kaurna generally stayed aloof when the first colonists arrived.[20] The timing was important. Summer was a period when the Kaurna traditionally moved from the plains to the foothills, so that the initial settlement of the Adelaide area took place without any conflict.[21]

The population again severely declined upon the arrival of Anglo-European colonial settlers with South Australia Governor Captain John Hindmarsh as Commander-in-chief in December 1836 at Holdfast Bay (now Glenelg), from about 1000 members before settlement to 180 in 1856.[citation needed] According to an entry in the South Australian Register (30 January 1842), the Kaurna population numbered around 650.[22] They had suffered a serious drop in numbers in the early 1830s due to a smallpox epidemic which is thought to have originated in the eastern states and spread along the Murray River as Indigenous groups traded with each other.[23] An outbreak of typhoid, due to pollution by Europeans of the River Torrens, lead to many deaths and a rapid population decline, though accurate figures were not recorded.[23]

By the 1850s, there were few remaining Kaurna in the Adelaide area. In 1850 the children at the Native School (which had been on Kintore Avenue since 1846) were transferred to the Poonindie Native Training Institution near Port Lincoln.[24] Adults were also relocated from the city to places such as Willunga, Point McLeay, and Point Pearce. In 1879 it was recorded that the Kaurna were extinct with "no single trace of them remaining".[citation needed] However, the last surviving full-blood Kaurna, a woman called Ivaritji (Amelia Taylor), died in 1929.[25][a]

Tribal organisation[edit]

The Kaurna people lived in family groups called bands, who lived in defined territories called pangkarra which were "passed" from father to son upon his initiation. Pangkarra always had access to the coastline and ran extensively inland. The coastline was essential for seafood hunting and the inland territories provided food, clothing and protection for the people during bad weather. The pangkarra were also grouped into larger areas of land called yerta.[b]

As all the members of a band were related, marriage between a man and a woman within the same band was forbidden. Bands were patrilineal and patrilocal: a woman always lived with her husband's band following her marriage. Each band was also composed of two exogamous moieties, the Karuru and Mattari, which traced their descent matrilineally to an ancestral totemic being. All the children of a marriage would take their mother's moiety as children were considered to have "inherited" their "flesh and blood" from their mothers alone. Marriage within the same moiety was forbidden.[28] Girls became marriageable at puberty, usually around 12 years of age. Conversely, men were only allowed to marry after the age of 25.[citation needed]

Sexual relations were relatively free and uninhibited, regardless of marital status. Kaurna ownership of property was communal; the reproductive organs were seen no differently from any other form of property, and thus adultery was practically ubiquitous. The visitation of men from distant tribes was seen as a good opportunity to enhance the gene pool. The practice of milla mangkondi or wife stealing was also common, for the same reason.[c] Although this custom was hated by some victims, as arranged marriages were the norm, some women saw it as an opportunity to choose their own partners and actively encouraged a preferred suitor, all Kaurna bands are said to have engaged in the practice regularly.[citation needed]

Rites and mythology[edit]

Very little is known of Kaurna rites and mythology as colonial written records are fragmentary and rare. Physically, the Kaurna practised chest scarification and performed circumcision as an initiatory rite and were the southernmost Indigenous language group to do so. Waterfall Gully has been linked to initiation rites.[29]

Historical accounts of Kaurna burial rites are unreliable as any gathering of Kaurna was thought to be for a funeral. As soon as a person died the body was wrapped in the clothes they had worn in life. The body was then placed on a wiralli (crossed sticks that form the radii of a circle) and an inquest was held to determine cause of death. The body was then buried. Children under four years were not buried for some months, but were wrapped and carried by their mothers during the day with the bundle being used as a pillow at night.[30] Burial by bodies of water was common with the use of sandy beaches, sand dunes and banks of rivers. A large number of graves have been found on Glenelg beach and at Port Noarlunga.[31] Similarly, an unusually complex burial at Kongaratti was found. The grave was rectangular and lined with slate, the base was also lined with slate which had been covered with a bed of grass. An elderly woman was lying on her side, draped in a fishing net and wrapped in a Kangaroo skin cloak. The grave was topped with a layer of grass covered by marine sponges.[31]

The Kaurna regard the 35 miles from the Mount Lofty Ranges to Nuriootpa as the body of a giant who was killed there after attacking their tribe. The peaks of the Mount Lofty Ranges and Mount Bonython are jureidla (conserved in the toponym Uraidla), namely his "two ears".[32]

A legend recounted variously by Unaipon and Milerum concerns a culture hero called Tjilbruke[33] has topographical features that locate it in Kaurna territory. In Tindale's version Tjilbruke is associated with the glossy ibis the name actually refers to the blue crane.[34]

Munaitjerlo is an ancestral being who created the Moon and stars before himself becoming the Sun. The word Munaitjerlo was believed by Teichelmann to also refer to the Kaurna Dreamtime itself. The mythology of the Mura-Muras, ancestral beings who created landscape features and introduced laws and initiation, can be found in southwest Queensland, the Northern Territory and in the Flinders Ranges through to Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. As it is known that the Kaurna shared a common Dreaming with these peoples it is likely they shared the Mura-Muras as well. By way of contrast, the travels of Tjilbruke are well known from Norman Tindales research.[31]

Native title[edit]

Unlike the rest of Australia, South Australia was not considered to be terra nullius. The enactment of the South Australia Act 1834 which enabled the province of South Australia to be established, acknowledged Aboriginal ownership and stated that no actions could be undertaken that would affect the rights of any Aboriginal natives of the said province to the actual occupation and enjoyment in their own persons or in the persons of their descendants of any land therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such natives. Although the Act guaranteed land rights under force of law for the Indigenous inhabitants, it was ignored by the South Australian Company authorities and squatters who interpreted the Act to mean "permanently occupied".[35][36]

In 2000, a group called Kaurna Yerta Corporation[37] lodged a native title claim on behalf of the Kaurna people. The claim covers over 8,000 square kilometres (2,000,000 acres) of land stretching from Cape Jervis to Port Broughton, including the entire Adelaide metropolitan area.[38] The Ramindjeri people contested the southern portion of the original claim.[13] In March 2018 the determination was made and the Kaurna were officially recognised as the traditional owners of the land from "Myponga to Lower Light". An "Indigenous Land Use Agreement" for the area is expected to be finalised late in 2018 by the South Australian Government.[39]

In 2009, a group called Encompass Technology[40] wrote to the Governor of South Australia on behalf of the Kaurna people, asserting sovereignty over the Marble Hill ruins in the Adelaide Hills, and the Warriparinga Living Kaurna Cultural Centre in Marion, and that they were owed nearly $50 million in rent.[40] The South Australian Government rejected the claim.[41]

Kaurna place names[edit]

The name of the Onkaparinga River (pictured) is derived from the Kaurna language.

Many places around Adelaide and the Fleurieu Peninsula have names either directly or partially derived from Kaurna place names. Some were the names of the Kaurna bands who lived there. There are also a few Kaurna names hybridised with European words.

Alternative names[edit]

  • "Adelaide tribe."
  • Coorna
  • Jaitjawar:a ("our own language").
  • Koornawarra
  • Kurumidlanta (Pangkala term, lit. "evil spirits").
  • Medaindi (horde living near Glenelg), Medaindie.
  • Meljurna. ("quarrelsome men", likewise used of northern Kaurna hordes).
  • Merelde (Ramindjeri term applied most frequently to the Peramangk but also to the Kaurna).[22]
  • Merildekald (Tanganekald term also loosely given to Peramangk)
  • Meyu (meju = man)
  • Midlanta (Pangkala exonym for the Kaurna).
  • Milipitingara
  • Nantuwara. ("Kangaroo speakers," applied to northerly hordes).
  • Nantuwaru
  • Nganawara
  • Padnaindi (horde name), Padnayndie,
  • Wakanuwan (Jarildekald term for Kaurna and also other tribes such as the Ngaiawang).
  • Warra (means "speech" a name for language), Warrah, Karnuwarra ("hills language," a northern dialect, presumably that of Port Wakefield).
  • Widninga. (Ngadjuri term applied to Kaurna of Port Wakefield and Buckland Park)
  • Winaini. (horde north of Gawler).
  • Winnaynie

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tindale gives her date of death as 1931[26]
  2. ^ yerta means ("earth, ground, soil, country"), and was regarded by Taplin as equivalent to the word ruwe in Ngarrindjeri. The other Kaurna word pangkarra definitely implies land ownership[27]
  3. ^ Milla mangkondi. Milla: a noun denoting violence or force. Mangkondi: a verb meaning to touch or grab hold of a woman, more specifically a young woman.


  1. ^ Ross 1984, p. 5.
  2. ^ a b Amery 2016, p. 3.
  3. ^ Tindale 1974, p. 133.
  4. ^ Clendon 2015, p. 2.
  5. ^ a b Amery 2016, p. 57.
  6. ^ Amery 2016, pp. 61,93.
  7. ^ Amery 2016, pp. 64–65.
  8. ^ Amery 2016, p. 65.
  9. ^ Amery 2016, pp. 66–68,86.
  10. ^ Amery 2016, p. 86.
  11. ^ Amery 2016, p. 4.
  12. ^ a b Berndt, Berndt & Stanton 1993, p. 312.
  13. ^ a b Wheatley 2009.
  14. ^ Amery 2016, p. 5.
  15. ^ Warburton 1981, p. xv.
  16. ^ Tindale 1974, p. 71.
  17. ^ Tindale 1974, p. 73.
  18. ^ Archived copy.
  19. ^ Smith, Pate & Martin 2006.
  20. ^ Amery 2016, p. 59.
  21. ^ Jenkin 1979, p. 32.
  22. ^ a b Tindale 1974.
  23. ^ a b Amery 2016, p. 74.
  24. ^ O'Brien & Paul 2013.
  25. ^ Amery 2016, p. 1.
  26. ^ Tindale 1974, pp. 133,213.
  27. ^ Amery 2016, p. 116.
  28. ^ Ross 1984, pp. 3–5.
  29. ^ Ross 1984, p. 3.
  30. ^ Aboriginal and Historic Places around Metropolitan Adelaide and the South Coast Pg 8 (Tindale 1936)
  31. ^ a b c Aboriginal and Historic Places around Metropolitan Adelaide and the South Coast Pg 7
  32. ^ Tindale 1974, p. 64.
  33. ^ Tindale 1987, pp. 5–13.
  34. ^ Amery 2016, p. 115.
  35. ^ Ngadjuri Walpa Juri Lands and Heritage Association n.d.
  36. ^ Parliament of South Australia 2006.
  37. ^ Holdfast Bay 2003.
  38. ^ NNTT 2000.
  39. ^ Eacott 2018.
  40. ^ a b newsmaker.com.au 2009.
  41. ^ ABC News 2009.