Although the name Yalata has been used in the area for well over a century (it probably means 'shellfish' or 'oyster' in the language of the local Aborigines), the actual Yalata community came into existence as recently as 1952. The decision to declare the Maralinga desert area to the north a site for atomic testing meant that Aborigines from the Maralinga area (particularly those living around the mission at Ooldea) had to be moved out. Most of the Ooldea community was moved south to Yalata where, in 1984, the South Australian government officially handed back some 76 420 sq km of semi-desert. The Yalata Aboriginal Reserve now runs on either side of the Eyre Highway from Nullarbor to the Nundroo Roadhouse. It includes about 100 km of the coastline of the Great Australian Bight.
It is of some interest to visitors that the truly treeless plain ('nullus arbor' is latin for 'no trees' - see Nullarbor for details) starts about 75 km west of Yalata.
The present site of Yalata bears little relationship to the original Yalata Homestead which was located about 10 km from Fowlers Bay (there was a time when Fowlers Bay was actually called Yalata). It was built in 1880 by George Murray who, at the time, was working for the wool merchants Thomas Elder and Robert Barr Smith. The ruins can still be seen near the road about 10 km from Fowlers Bay.