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Aboriginal Culture

Wadjemup is a place of cultural significance for the Whadjuk Noongar people.
Traditional smoking ceremony
Traditional smoking ceremony

Place across the water where the spirits are

Thousands of years ago, before sea levels rose following the last glacial maximum, Wadjemup / Rottnest Island was part of the mainland. Accessible by foot at the time, its elevated position on the coastal plain made it an important place for the local Noongar peoples and a site for hunting, gathering and trade.

Archaeological evidence proves that Wadjemup was occupied by Whadjuk people for tens of thousands of years before the rising Wardan (Indian Ocean) cut off land access, making it an island.

Whadjuk Noongar Boodja / Land

In traditional Aboriginal culture, a person’s identity and sense of belonging is intrinsically connected to the land on which they live. Great importance was placed on maintaining and monitoring the health of the land (and water surrounding and within it) due to the essential role it played in their ancestors’ cultural practices. It was believed it not only sustained life physically, but also socially and spiritually. This still continues to this day.

Whadjuk Noongar Elders are the keepers of kaartidjin (knowledge) about the complexities of boodja (land) – its management, seasons, and creation. Kaartidjin was passed down, unwritten, for thousands of years on Wadjemup before sea levels rose.

As Traditional Owners of the land, the Whadjuk Noongar people lived in a way that ensured the sustainability of the world around them. This was governed by the patterns observed in the six seasons that indicated when and how to move – taking advantage of varying resources according to weather, ecology and fertility.

They brought up their children to know their lore and customs where they could and could not go, where to find water and food, and how to understand the habits of animals, fish and birds. This kaartidjin was passed down through thousands of generations.


Cultural tool-making

The remains of tools have been found at a number of sites on Wadjemup embedded in paleosols dating between 10,000 and 49,000 years ago. The artefacts provide evidence of Whadjuk Noongar people’s activity on Wadjemup when it was still part of the mainland.

Fossiliferous chert was the preferred tool-making stone for the Whadjuk people due to its ability to be quickly flaked into a very sharp edge to assist with hunting and gathering. 

Wadjemup has no known chert quarries today. As sea levels rose, it is likely that the island's quarries disappeared underwater. Evidence of chert remains on the mainland today. 

Welcome to Country

Visitors who attend an event or join a tour on Wadjemup will hear a Welcome to Country. A recorded audio Welcome to Country is available to all at the Koora-Yeye-Boordawan-Kalyakoorl (Past-Present-Future-Forever) sculpture at the end of the main jetty.

This Aboriginal ritual recognises the area of land where Whadjuk Noongar people traditionally lived, hunted and gathered (Moort Boodja). A “Welcome to Country” also reinforces spiritually being one with the land. Aboriginal peoples’ connection with Wadjemup today remains strong, with community members paying respect to Elders, past and present and future.

Chert in Wadjemup Museum collection
Chert in Wadjemup Museum collection

European settlement

When the Noongar people first saw the seafaring explorers (and eventual colonisers) off the coast and along the Swan River, they believed them to be their ancestors who had returned in life-form as djanga (white spirits). However, the subsequent colonisation of Western Australia resulted in Wadjemup acquiring a different significance, one which still impacts Aboriginal people today.

For nearly a century, the island served first as a prison and then a forced labour camp for Aboriginal people. Almost 4,000 Aboriginal men and boys from all over Western Australia were exiled at the Rottnest Island Aboriginal Establishment from 1838 to 1931. These men and boys came from many different Aboriginal tribes across Western Australia, including Whadjuk Country.

The prisoners were occasionally permitted to hunt and fish on Sundays and artefacts have been found around the shady hills of Wadjemup, suggesting a regular practice of their knowledge and culture. Glass points that are distinctive to the Kimberley have been found, particularly on the outskirts of the Settlement where the prisoners would have been able to work on them away from the guards’ eyes. These artefacts are available to view in the Wadjemup Museum.

Culturally significant sites are registered as culturally significant places on Wadjemup and are protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972

Learn more about Aboriginal history on Wadjemup here.

Aboriginal flag
Aboriginal flag