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Evidence of Indigenous Australians over 5,000 years ago

A visit to Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park, not far from Nildottie will reveal a unique insight into the traditional landowners, the Nganguraku people. This culturally and historically significant conservation park can only be accessed through a guided tour with an experienced guide from the Mannum Aboriginal Community Association Inc. 

Ngaut Ngaut is an ancestral being. Beliefs and Dreaming stories about Ngaut Ngaut are complex and at times Ngaut Ngaut is described as either a man or a woman. People in the Aboriginal community today may also refer to Ngaut Ngaut as a demon or a fire demon.

Hale and Tindale Conduct the First Scientific Excavation in Australia

Not far from Nildottie, Ngaut Ngaut was the first stratified rockshelter deposit to be scientifically excavated in Australia in 1929 by Herbert Hale and Norman Tindale. Hale, a zoologist, was the Director of the South Australian Museum from 1931 to 1960. As previously noted, Tindale began working for the South Australian Museum in 1918 and worked in the fields of entomology, archaeology and anthropology. This excavation also confirmed that Aboriginal people have occupied the Murray River for thousands of years.

Because of the many layers in the archaeological deposit at Ngaut Ngaut (and the artefacts and remains found in association with these layers) this site provided the first clear evidence for the presence of Indigenous Australians in one place and over a long period of time. This was later confirmed in the 1950s when the deposits were radiocarbon dated and demonstrated to be over 5000 years old.

A Turning Point in History

Prior to Hale and Tindale’s work little systematic research had been conducted in the field of Indigenous Australian archaeology. In fact the thinking of the day was that Indigenous Australians were recent arrivals to Australia and that their material culture had not changed over time. Hence, the research at Ngaut Ngaut provided a turning point in the way the Indigenous Australian archaeological record and Indigenous history was viewed by non-Indigenous people.

Because the artefacts and other remains that Hale and Tindale uncovered were from a finely layered (stratified) context they were able to consider possible environmental and cultural changes since the arrival of humans. One of Tindale’s theories stated that changes in Indigenous Australian artefact assemblages at Ngaut Ngaut and other sites reflected the immigration of new groups of people over time (which he gave names such as Murundian, Mudukian, Pirrian and Tartangan).

Hale and Tindale also excavated a variety of artefacts. For example, they found stone tools made to perform different functions such as cutting, scraping, hammering and grinding (created from a variety of materials such as chert, quartz, quartzite and limestone – many of these materials were imported to the site proven to be from areas many kilometres distant).

They also found other artefacs including:

  • Burnt hearth stones
  • Ochre pieces of different colours (including various shades of red and brown)
  • Bone points
  • Resin
  • Pipe-clay pieces

Human burials were also uncovered during the excavations. Aboriginal people in this region may use terms such as the ‘old people’ and ‘merrily bones’ or ‘merildi bones’ as a way of respectfully referring to such remains. In particular, the remains discovered included those of a young baby approximately 3 months old, the skeleton of a young child about 15-18 months old, the remains of another young child and the remains of a child around 5 years of age.

Hale and Tindale also excavated the remains of other predator species in the deposits such as the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) and the dingo (Canus lupus dingo). The Tasmanian devil and Tasmanian tiger both became extinct on mainland Australia sometime before the arrival of Europeans. Dingos are believed to have been introduced to mainland Australia by humans approximately 4000-4500 years ago.

Much of the information above comes directly from the publication "Ngaut Ngaut: An Interpretive Guide" by Amy Roberts and the Mannum Aboriginal Community Association Inc. This publication also contains much more detail about the broader significance of Ngaut Ngaut and can be accessed via the link below.

For more information visit National Parks SA

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