The Future History of Adelaide: Kaurna — Aboriginal people of the Adelaide Plains

Sharon Ede
10 min readJan 13, 2024

This ‘future history’ of Adelaide was based on ‘Los Angeles: A History of the Future’ (1982) by Paul Glover, and is written from the year 2136. It examines how Adelaide became an ‘ecopolis’ — an ecological city — over 150 years, reversing the damage done to the region since European colonisation began in 1836. At the time, there was a proposal for a ‘piece of ecocity’ in Halifax Street, whose features and design principles are referenced as the first fractal of this change. This larger scale proposal did not eventuate, but a smaller scale exemplar, Christie Walk, can be found in the CBD at 105 Sturt Street, Adelaide.

This was written in 1995 at university, as a directed study for history, and reflects my thinking, understanding, available technologies and references at the time. The Ecological Crisis of the 1990s is referred to as ‘EC’ and phrases like ‘200 years EC’ mean 200 years after this Crisis.

Here, I had just begun learning what we hadn’t been taught in school by the time I left high school in 1988. I had also encountered the work of Sheridah Melvin, who wrote an important local ethnograpic study called ‘The Black Swan Report’, which documented the dispossession of the Kaurna in the Port Adelaide / Le Fevre Peninsula area. I sought to learn about and share aspects of Kaurna culture, and compare how the indigenous cultures lived in this place we call Adelaide with the environmental and social trajectory of over a century of European colonisation. Some of this information may have been refined or superseded since 1995.

Image from ‘Map of Indigenous Australia’, Aboriginal Institute of Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander Studies

The Five Major Cultural Regions In SA

SA Gulf

There are cultural and linguistic relations between the SA Gulf and Western Desert peoples. There was a greater population density in this area as a result of coastal and hills resources. Two main groups are the Kaurna (‘Gowna’) people of the Adelaide plains and the Andyamathanha people of the Flinders Ranges.

South East Coast

The largest group within this region was the Bunganditi (Boandik) people, who spoke a different language from the other cultural regions. Due to rich food resources, the Bunganditi were also a less nomadic group.

The Murray Darling

The most well known group from this region are the Ngarrindjeri. There were certain language affinities between the people of this and the Lake Eyre region The Murray Darling is Australia’s major river system and the environs of this region were rich in resources.

Lake Eyre

The Dieri people are a well known group from this region and were predominantly desert dwellers. Their languages were very different from those of their western neighbours and they were the traditional traders of stone, ochre, furs, shells and other commodities.

Western Desert

One of the most well known groups of the Western Desert is the Pitjantjatjara. This region represents the largest language and cultural group in Australia. Many of the people still successfully maintain a semi-traditional lifestyle today.

(Ed Dept SA, 1989 pp46–47)

How did the Kaurna live?


Aboriginal people see themselves as related to and part of this natural world and know its features in intricate detail. This relationship to the natural world carries responsibilities for its survival and continuity so that each person has special obligations to protect and preserve the spirit of the land and the life forms that are a part of it.

(Ed Dept SA, 1989 p28).

The term ‘Kaurna’ refers to the Aboriginal people who lived on the Adelaide Plains (between the Hills and the sea) from Crystal Brook to Cape Jervis (Ed Dept SA, 1989 pp72–73). These boundaries are not definitive, and there were sub-groups within the Kaurna area.

People of this bioregion will recognise a number of the Kaurna names for locations along the Fleurieu Peninsula, which were adopted and changed slightly for Anglo maps.

Kaurna - European

Tarndanya — Tandanya

Pattawilyangka - Patawalonga

Naurlunnga - Noarlunga

Willangga - Willunga

Ngaltingga - Aldinga

Karrakalinnga — Carrickalinga

Yankalyalla- Yankallilla

(Ed Dept SA, 1989 p71)

The Kaurna and the neighbouring groups had a mutual respect for each other’s boundaries, and while entry into another groups area was not forbidden, genuine reasons were needed to occupy another group’s territory.

It was this strong bond to a small local area that made it difficult for local groups to retreat in the face of the white settlers. Once they left their own land they became, in effect, refugees.

(Ed Dept SA, 1989 pp53–54).


To understand Aboriginal society, is necessary to understand the Dreaming. The Dreaming is the centre from which all other aspects of life — sacred objects, spiritual beings, division of labour, social organisation and control, languages, artistic expression, technology, territorial rights, plant and animal life — radiate and interrelate (Edwards, 1988 p13). The Dreaming is not in the past, as what occurred thousands of years ago is still very much in the present for Aboriginal people. ‘…The Dreaming appears to point to a conception of time as circular, rather than linear.’ (Williams, 1986 in Edwards, 1988 p13).

Landscapes, physical features and the inhabitants of the environment are explained through the Dreaming, where the unseen of the spirit world take shape and metamorphose into an animal, plant, formation or natural force. The hills we are familiar with today as Mount Lofty and Mount Bonython ‘…were the two ears (urebilla) of a great giant who was slain in an ancient battle and whose fallen body forms the hills running north to Nuriootpa. (Groome & Irvine, 1981 p24)

The concepts of animism and totemism are incorporated in the Dreaming. Animists believe that there is no distinction between the animate and the inanimate — everything has its spirit double. When an Aboriginal child is born, he/she is said to be possessed of a particular spirit which then becomes their totem, the type of which is determined by the place of conception or the parents’ totems.

An Aboriginal person should treat his/her totem with respect — for a person with a kangaroo totem to kill a kangaroo would be akin to killing a brother or sister (Ed Dept SA, 1989 p28). After the death of an individual, personal belongings such as clothes, implements and ornaments, were either destroyed or buried.

The Kaurna kinship system ensured that a child grew up with a network of people who were responsible for his or her education and welfare. A father’s brothers were referred to and treated as ‘father’, a mother’s sisters as ‘mother’ and cousins were known as brothers and sisters (Ed Dept SA, 1989 p84). This system meant that parents were not solely responsible for the raising of their children, and were able to take spells from their parental duties — a system that today’s parents understand as sensible, if not necessary for sanity!


Kaurna law was a fixed, not an evolving system, handed down by the Spirit Ancestors. There was no single leader, but the elders of the group — including influential women — made decisions by consensus (Ed Dept SA, 1989 p53, p57). The young looked up to the elders, respect and status being granted to those who were knowledgeable. If the law was broken, the offender would be punished by not being taught, therefore remaining ignorant and of low status (Ed Dept SA, 1989 p103). The Kaurna had strict laws about sacred sites, social behaviour and the choice of marriage partners.

Economic & Cultural Activity

Most Aborigines were skilled hunter/gatherers, and the time spent on economic activity (ie. hunting for food, trade) has been estimated at 20–30 hours a week (Ed Dept SA, 1989 p54). This left lots of spare time for cultural pursuits like dancing, singing and honing of artistic skills. The Kaurna word for ‘corroborree’ (an east coast word) is ‘palti’. These cultural activities told stories of the Dreaming and the Spirit Ancestors, and were often used as an educational tool as well as for entertainment.

Shelter & Food

The Kaurna moved according to an annual pattern, enabling them to take advantage of seasonal foods. Plant foods were of great importance in the Kaurna diet, and it was the women who possessed the critical knowledge of which seasonal, edible and medicinal plants were available for consumption. A great variety of animal, bird and fish species meant that the Kaurna diet was rich and varied. Nets and spears were used to hunt animals, along with tactics such as firestick farming and the smoking out and digging out of prey (Ed Dept SA, 1989 p62). Bush ovens, pits lined with stones on which a fire was built, were used to cook animals. Some parts of an animal were prohibited to certain individuals like pregnant women, and the Kaurna were not allowed to kill or eat their totem, an animal or bird considered a spiritual brother or sister.

During the summer months, the Kaurna dwelt on the coast, taking advantage of the rich resources of the sea. Mild summer weather meant that only a light shelter was needed. The Kaurna built ‘ku’, which were windbreaks for this pleasant weather. As autumn progressed, the Kaurna began to retreat to the foothills from the winter storms to build ‘wodli’. A wodli was a hut built against a fallen gum tree. Branches were embedded in the ground in a semicircle and arched to meet and interlock with other branches. Bark, twigs and earth were used to water-proof the dwelling, and a fire was lit at the entrance for warmth and cooking (Ed Dept SA, 1989 pp120–121). The constant moving of the Kaurna meant that they avoided the risk of disease and infection caused by refuse build-up.

What happened when the Europeans invaded in 1836?

The white settlers’ arrival on the HMS Buffalo in 1836 signified the imminent destruction of the traditional Kaurna lifestyle. The Europeans saw a great deal of seemingly uninhabited land which was not being developed or cultivated. They assumed they could take the ‘idle’ land from the Kaurna and put it to good use. The negative results of the European invasion for the Kaurna were many.

There was widespread abuse of Aborigines, ranging from misguided do gooding to murder; the Kaurna population was decimated as a result of disease and genocide, and Aboriginal health suffered due to the consumption of European products like sugar, flour and alcohol.

Spiritual health also suffered as a result of separation from kin and sacred sites; the Kaurna, dispossessed of their traditional lands, were forced onto other groups’ land to survive, which caused fighting between groups — previously, boundaries were mutually respected; the elders began to withhold knowledge from their young to prevent whites from accessing it; thus, tradition and a sense of identity was becoming lost. As a result of the newcomers’ treatment towards them, the elders also lost respect in the eyes of the young; Aboriginal children were stolen from their parents in an attempt to anglicise them, and bring them up as white children. Education shifted from the bush, song, dance and following the example of elders, to blackboards, books and desks; Aboriginal people were sent to missions like Point Pearce on the Yorke Peninsula where, as a ‘dying race’, they could be ‘protected’ from white people. This involved separation from traditional lands, and intrusion onto other groups’ lands.

The white settlers did not understand the Aboriginal culture, perceiving it as primitive, underdeveloped and heathen. They did not know of — or make any great attempt to discover — the intimate knowledge the Kaurna had about the area, the sources of food which could be utilised or the importance of Kaurna sacred sites and spirituality. Individuals who were ‘keepers’ of these sites suffered tremendously when they could not stop the desecration of these areas by the uninitiated. (Ed Dept SA, 1989 pgs 145, 171, 103, 91, 210–219, 160, 171). To the Kaurna, their land represented the physical manifestation of the Dreaming, and the Dreaming was the basis for all aspects of Aboriginal life. When the white people dispossessed the Kaurna of this land, they took away the foundations of an ancient culture, the Kaurnas’ identity, purpose and sense of belonging.

The Survivors

In the face of the dispossession of their land, the ravaging effects of introduced diseases and the attempts to undermine their culture and personal dignity, it is a source of immense pride to many Aboriginal people that they have survived.

(Ed Dept SA, 1989 p209)

The Kaurna have showed a remarkable will to survive in the face of enormous adversity — their courage and tenacity is to be admired. Since EC, non-Aboriginal Australians were gradually made aware of Aboriginal culture and the indigenous people of their area, as this is a large part of the history and identity of the region. It also helped the wider community to have a broader perspective of our place here, and education was and is a vital factor in breaking down the barriers of ignorance, suspicion and fear.

1911 First Aborigines Act of SA; segregation to ‘protect’ a dying race.

1936 Police Act; any non-Aborigine found moving or living with Aborigines with no good reason was liable to arrest and three months’ prison.

1940’s Exemption certificates entitled Aborigines to Social Security benefits, provided the person rejected their Aboriginality, and did not ‘consort’ with any Aborigines other than immediate relatives.

1951 Assimilation policy; Aborigines were expected to deny their culture and heritage, and be absorbed into white society.

1967 Aborigines granted citizenship status, and counted in census.

1971 Aboriginal flag hoisted for the first time in Victoria Square

1976 Racial Discrimination Act of SA passed.

1981 The traditional lands of the Pitjantjatjara were returned freehold.

1986 Kaurna Plains Aboriginal School established at Elizabeth.

1993 Year of Indigenous People

(Ed Dept SA, 1989 Appendix)


Education Department of South Australia (1989) The Kaurna: Aboriginal People of the Adelaide Plains. Education Dept of SA, Adelaide.

Edwards, WH (1988) An Introduction to Aboriginal Societies. Social Science Press, Wentworth Falls, NSW.

Groome, Howard & Irvine, Jan (1981) The Kaurna — Aboriginal People of South Australia. Eureka Press, West Beach, SA.



Sharon Ede

Regenerative Cities Activist | Circular Economy Catalyst | South Australian Government | Award Winning Author | |