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The Kaurna people are a group of Indigenous Australians whose traditional lands include the area around 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 (non-rhotic) , sometimes , native or, less often, [kʰana].

Kaurna culture and language was almost completely destroyed within a few decades of the European settlement of South Australia in 1836.[1] However, extensive documentation by early missionaries and other researchers has enabled a modern revival of both language and culture.


  • Etymology 1
  • Territory 2
  • Culture 3
    • Population 3.1
    • Tribal organisation 3.2
    • Documentation 3.3
    • Mythology and burial practices 3.4
  • Native title claims 4
  • Kaurna place names 5
    • Known Kaurna 5.1
    • Possible Kaurna 5.2
    • Other 5.3
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


The early settlers of South Australia referred to the various Kaurna bands of the Adelaide Plains and Fleurieu Peninsula as being separate tribes such as "the Adelaide tribe" (the Kouwandilla band), "the Noarlunga tribe" (the Ngurlonnga band) and the Willunga tribe (the Willangga band) etc.[2] The name Kaurna was not widely used for the language group until popularised by Norman B. Tindale in the 1920s.[3] It most likely derives from the Ramindjeri or Ngarrindjeri word kornar meaning "men" or "people". "Uncle" Lewis O'Brien, a Kaurna Elder during the 1990s, suggested that a more appropriate name for his people might be Meyunna, from the local word for "people", meyu. However, "Kaurna" has been almost universally adopted by Kaurna and non-indigenous people alike to refer to the tribe of the Adelaide plains.


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.

This is the most widely cited alignment of Kaurna territorial boundaries. However 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[3] or even the River Torrens.[4] 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.[3] Ronald and Catherine 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.[5]

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 Burnside Suburb area; an early settler of the village of Beaumont described the local people thus:
At every creek and gully you would see their wurlies [simple Aboriginal homes made out of twigs and grass] 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.[6][7]


The Kaurna people were a hunter-gatherer society. 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[2]


At the establishment of South Australia in 1836 the Kaurna population was around 500 with the first official report on population, by the Protector of Aborigines Matthew Moorhouse in 1841, noting a population of 650. The Kaurna population, which may have originally numbered up to 1000, had been seriously depleted in 1830 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.[10]

As the first colonists had arrived in summer when the Kaurna traditionally moved from the plains to the foothills, the Adelaide area was settled without any conflict.[11][12] The population again severely declined upon the arrival of Anglo-European colonial settlers with South Australia Governor Captain John Hindmarsh as Commander in chief Proclamation December 1836 at Holdfast Bay (now Glenelg), from about 1000 members before settlement to 180 in 1856.[13] 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.[12] In 1879 it was recorded that the Kaurna were extinct with 'no single trace of them remaining'.[14] However, the last surviving full-blood Kaurna, a woman called Ivaritji, died in 1931.[10]

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".[15] [16]

Tribal organisation

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. "Yerta" was defined as "a complete territory which is able to sustain a group with all economic necessities".[13]

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.[17] Girls became marriageable at puberty, usually around 12 years of age. Conversely, men were only allowed to marry after the age of 25.[13]

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.[18] 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.[13]

The Kaurna practiced 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.[13][19]


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.[3][20] When 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.[3] In December 1839, they opened a school at Piltawodli (in the west Parklands 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, and although they never achieved their goal of translating the entire bible, their recorded vocabulary of over 2,000 words was the largest wordlist recorded, and pivotal in the modern revival of the language.[8]

Mythology and burial practices

Very little is known of Kaurna mythology and burial practices as colonial written records are fragmentary and rare. 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.[19]

Historical accounts of Kaurna burials are unreliable as any gathering of Kaurna was thought to be for a funeral. 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.[19] As soon as a person dies the body was wrapped in the clothes they had worn in life. The body is then placed on a wiralli (crossed sticks that form the radii of a circle) and an inquest is held to determine cause of death. The body is then buried. Children under four years were not buried for some months, They were wrapped and carried by their mothers during the day with the bundle being used as a pillow at night.[21] An unusually complex burial at Kongaratti has been 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.[19]

Native title claims

In 2000, a group called Kaurna Yerta Corporation[22] 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.[23] As of April 2010, determination of the claim is ongoing. The Ramindjeri people have contested the southern portion of the claim.[4]

In 2009, a group called Encompass Technology[24] 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.[24] The South Australian Government rejected the claim.[25]

Kaurna place names

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.

Known Kaurna

  • Aldinga - Ngalti (meaning unknown) + locative suffix -ngga.[26]
  • Cowandilla - kauanda, "north" + locative suffix -illa, hence "in the north".[26]
  • Kangarilla - kanggari + locative suffix -illa.[26]
  • Kondoparinga - possibly from kundo "chest" + parri "river" + locative suffix -ngga.[26]
  • Noarlunga - nurlo, "corner" + locative suffix -ngga, probably referring to Horseshoe Bend on the Onkaparinga River.
  • Onkaparinga - derived from nganki, "woman" + parri, "river" + locative suffix -ngga.[26]
  • Patawalonga - derived from patta, a species of gum tree (possibly the swamp gum) + wilya, "foliage" + locative suffix -ngga.[26]
  • Uraidla - yurreidla, "two ears", derived from a dreaming story in which the Mount Lofty Ranges are the body of a giant.[26]
  • Willunga -
  • Willyaroo - wilyaru, a fully initiated adult man.[26]

Possible Kaurna

  • Piccadilly - Although usually assumed to be named after Piccadilly, London, it is likely to be an anglicisation of the Kaurna pikodla, "two eyebrows", being part of the same dreaming story that gave rise to "Uraidla".[26]
  • Yankalilla - Although almost certainly an indigenous word, there are conflicting etymologies. The most likely is that it is derived from the Ramindjeri yangaiake, "hill", but with the Kaurna locative suffix -illa, or possibly yernkalyilla, "place of the fallen bits".[26]
  • Yatala - Most likely derived from the Kaurna yertalla, "water running by the side of a river".[26]


See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Betty Ross, Aboriginal and Historic Places around Metropolitan Adelaide and the South Coast Anthropological Society of South Australia 1984 Pg 5 ISBN 0-9594806-2-5
  3. ^ a b c d e Amery, Rob (2000). Warrabarna Kaurna! - Reclaiming an Australian Language. The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.  
  4. ^ a b Wheatley, Kim (20 November 2009). "Tribal War on Native Title". The Advertiser. 
  5. ^  
  6. ^ Aboriginal Catholic Ministry: The Kaurna People ( Accessed 27 April 2006
  7. ^ E Warburton, p. xv, The Paddocks Beneath
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^ Martin, Robert (2006). Valleys of Stone: The Archaeology and History of Adelaide's Hills Face. Kopi Books.  
  10. ^ a b City of Salisbury (1985). Settlers on the Hill, A Local History of Para Hills. City of Salisbury, South Australia. p. 5. 
  11. ^  
  12. ^ a b Amery, Rob (2000). Warrabarna Kaurna!: Reclaiming an Australian Language. Taylor & Francis. p. 65.  
  13. ^ a b c d e
  14. ^ The Native Tribes of South Australia M’CARRON, BIRD AND Co 1879
  15. ^ Ngadjuri Walpa Juri Lands and Heritage Association (n.d.). Gnadjuri. SASOSE Council Inc.  
  16. ^ "Aboriginal South Australians and Early Government of South Australia". Parliament of South Australia. 21 September 2006. Archived from the original on 20 July 2008. Retrieved 19 November 2008. 
  17. ^ Aboriginal and Historic Places around Metropolitan Adelaide and the South Coast Pg 3 - 5
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ a b c d Aboriginal and Historic Places around Metropolitan Adelaide and the South Coast Pg 7
  20. ^
  21. ^ Aboriginal and Historic Places around Metropolitan Adelaide and the South Coast Pg 8 (Tindale 1936)
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ a b
  25. ^ SA Govt rejects Marble Hill claim
  26. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k
  27. ^

External links

  • The Living Kaurna Cultural Centre Warriparinga
  • Committee of the Kaurna Language Reclamation (KWP) Program Adelaide
  • Kaurna Place Names project
  • Concise History of the Kaurna People
  • Kaurna Warra
  • Kaurna Culture
  • Bibliography of articles
  • Kaurna Yerta
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