Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Occupation of the Simpson Desert

A number of Aboriginal tribes and branches of tribes occupied parts of the Simpson Desert. The western margins of the desert were occupied by the Lower Southern Aranda and Eastern Aranda. Along the eastern fringe of the desert there were the Wangkamadla and the Karanguru. The territory of the Wangkamadla also extended into the northern part of the desert, that of the Wangkanguru extended to the central and southern central regions of the desert.

In the past it was believed the Aboriginal People never penetrated the central areas of the Simpson Desert. This belief was based, at least in part, on the writings of European explorers in the 19th century, such as Charles Winnecke, who wrote in 1883 that he was almost certain "this country has never been visited by natives." More than 50 years later Cecil Madigan stated that the Aboriginal People around the margins feared the desert and lacked knowledge of its interior. According to Madigan the area of the Simpson Desert and around Lake Eyre was under the malevolent influence of Kuddimukra (kadimakara) that were often associated with the bones of Diprotodon and other animals from the region. Madigan said the Aboriginal People of the region believed it to be "a djinn-like" spirit which may appear in the form of a giant snake with the head of a kangaroo, likely to do much harm to the unwary traveller". He claimed the Aboriginal People avoided the lake, saying that all who had gone into the desert have become victims of Kuddimukra (kadimakara). He believed Leichardt's remains were in the Simpson Desert, and the reason the Aboriginal People never found it was their taboo on the area.

Madigan and Winnecke later changed their minds about the Aboriginal People never travelling in the desert. It was claimed by others that the Aboriginal People only entered the desert after good rain, mainly because there was no water or food.

Archaeological excavations of the 'barrier deserts' and adjacent dunefields - Rudall Lake, Balgo region, Simpson Desert, Lake Eyre Basin, Coongie Lakes and Cooper Basin has found hundreds of sites from the last 5000 years. Pleistocene sites in these areas haven't been found yet (Flood, 2004).

In 1886 David Lindsay crossed the southern and central parts of the desert, taking a man from the Wangkangurru people who knew where water could be found at 9 native wells (soaks). It was stated in Lindsay's Journal that the Wangkanguru people were living in the desert on a permanent basis at the time of his expedition. Since 1980 all 9 wells mentioned in Lindsay's journal have been found. Detailed descriptions of places and life in the Simpson were given to Dr Louise Hercus who spent 20 years working with the Wangkangurru people, including some who were last members of their tribe to be born in Simpson Desert, and the story of how they left it (Hercus, 1985). Hercus visited the sites of the wells and was able to confirm the detailed description he had been given by story and song by Irinjili (Mick McLean), a tribal member born in the desert, being able to find direct evidence of habitation and lifestyle. He made accurate maps of the occupation sites surrounding the wells, as well as the 9 wells.

Based on Hercus' findings it is now known that the Wangkanguru centred their life around the wells, or mikiri, the only known sources of permanent water in the desert that were essential to their existence in such an arid environment. The wells are now known to be at the sites of shallow freshwater soaks that formed on gypseous flats where depressions in the centre of swales allowed rainwater to collect. Rainwater infiltrated coarse sand around the depressions, percolating down to impervious layers of clay. The water accumulated until it came close enough to the surface to be reached by digging. Narrow shafts up to 7 m deep were dug to reach the water. Being so deep beneath the surface it was mostly protected from the extreme heat and dryness of the surface allowing it to remain for much longer than it would at the surface. Making the shafts narrow, whether intentional or not, would tend to reduce the evaporation rate. Though the soaks depended on rain to maintain them, they were apparently permanent enough to support the tribe for up to thousands of years. It is not known how the Wangkanguru first found the soaks, as they had to dig to reach the water. Hercus suggests they may have followed the water as it flowed along the gypseous flats after rain.

Hercus has found a total of 18 mikiri, most being silted over by wind erosion since the people left the desert and no longer maintained them. The work of Hercus with the Wangkangurru has found that a unique character and significance, as well as mythological significance, was associated with each mikiri, and its usefulness as regarded by the people. The mikiri that have been visited have been found to retain the same quality and taste as recorded by Lindsay in 1886.

According to Irinjili his tribe spent their entire lives around the wells. He spent his childhood around the mikiri, and playing on salt lakes or catching small birds. He said they didn't record the passing of time. Every day the men hunted and the women collected seeds in the dunefields, of which a favourite were the seeds of pigweed (Aizoon quadrifidium) from the edges of dunes and claypans. The sporocarps (spore capsules) of nardoo (Marsilea drummondii) were collected by the women from nardoo meadows growing in shallow pools, especially on the eastern and northern parts of the desert that received more regular floods. The sporocarps were harvested when they dried as the pools evaporated. The flour made by crushing them on grindstones was mixed with water to make dough to be cooked in the manner of damper, on the ashes of a fire.

Archaeological evidence from the sites near the mikiri confirms that stone was a precious item in the desert, every stone implement being used until it was worn away too much to be useful. The Paltrhirri Pithi stone quarry on Anna Creek station near Sunny Creek, to the southwest of the desert, was a favourite source of stone for grindstones. This required a long walk from their home in the desert, but the shortage of stone in the desert made it necessary.

The use of wood for the construction of mia mias (humpies or wiltjas) by the Wangkangurru made it a valuable commodity. Mia mias were mainly made from gidgee. In the dry environment of the desert wooden implements, digging sticks, waddies and bowls, are preserved well, as are the wooden frames of wiltjas that can still be seen 90 years after they were erected. Stone and wooden artefacts, still in good condition, can be found around the mikiri.

Archaeological evidence of the diet of the desert people can also be found at the occupation sites around the mikiri. The animal remains from these sites reveal that they ate a wide variety of animals such as bandicoots, bettongs, hare-wallabies, bilbies, desert rat-kangaroos, spinifex hopping mouse, rats, dingoes, carpet snakes, lizards, emus and a number of smaller birds (Shephard, 1992).

One of the animals the people of the Simpson Desert ate was the desert rat-kangaroo Caloprymnus campestris, described for the first time in 1843. According to most references in books it was found only on stony interdune flats and gibber plains in the north-eastern parts of South Australia, and in Queensland in the far southwest. Its bones in the occupation sites of the central Simpson Desert indicate that it also lived in the sandridges of the desert.

One of the food items spoken of by Irinjili was the carpet snake, which the men would go to great lengths to catch, tunnelling into the holes the snakes were in to dig them out, and because of the loose nature of the sand, risked the tunnel caving in and burying them. He said they always had enough meat to not worry much about food, as was found with other people in the Western Desert. In both localities there was enough time after gathering food to develop a rich cultural and spiritual life. In the area of the occupation sites there are many graves, the body being laid out in a simple shallow grave and branches placed upon it.

In good seasons, when rain had left water in sites away from the wells, such as irpi (claypans) and ikara (swamps), not the sort of places usually thought of being in the Simpson Desert, at times when the monsoon brought heavy rain to the northwest of the continent a number of watercourses brought water to the edges of the Simpson Desert, even into the swales - the Macumba River, Todd River, Hale River, Plenty River, Hay River and Warburton River, and Eyre Creek, Kallakoopah Creek and Illogwa Creek. After rain these streams often had large waterholes that hold large amounts of freshwater.

It was at these times that the Wangkangurru held their big totemic rituals and corroborees, and general celebrations, meeting the neighbours as they held all types of ceremonial activities. Also at these times initiations were carried out at sacred places, such as the ritual centre associated with the Two Men at the claypan Mararu. These times when they were away from the mikiri could last for months and even years. As well as a time for ceremonies and a chance for an easier life for a while as they could collect more and different food, that could be obtained easier than during their normal life, it also allowed the plants and animals of the country around the mikri to recover.

When Irinjili's uncle Imatuwa left the desert he was the last person out, the culture that had lasted for thousands of years was ended (Shephard, 1992)

Links with the Southern Aranda

The links between the Wangkangurru and the Southern Aranda included marriage exchanges and joint ceremonies associated with Ancestral beings that crossed the country of both tribes.

In the Footsteps of Lindsay (Reproduced here with the author's permission) Chapter 5 from the book Desert Walker, by Denis Bartell, in which he relates his finding of 9 abandoned wells (mikaris) (soaks) in the Simpson Desert that had been used and maintained by the Aboriginal tribe living in the Simpson Desert until they finally left the desert.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Shephard, Mark, 1992, The Simpson Desert: Natural History and Human Endeavour, Reed
  2. Flood, Josephine, 2004, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications.


Heritage of the Birdsville and Strzelecki Tracks: Part of the Far North and Far West Regions (Region 13)

Desert Walker 


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 08/10/2012 

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