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5 Aboriginal boomerangs recovered in a dried-up riverbank

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According to a new study, five unusual "non-returning" boomerangs discovered in a dry riverbed in South Australia were most likely used by Aborigines to hunt waterbirds hundreds of years ago.

According to a new investigation of the artefacts — four entire boomerangs and a fragment of another — Aboriginal Australians utilized them for a range of functions, including hunting, digging, fueling fires, and possibly even ceremonial and hand-to-hand combat.

Radiocarbon dating revealed that the boomerangs were made from wood by Aborigines between 1650 and 1830, before the first Europeans reached the area. 

According to study lead researcher Amy Roberts, an archaeologist and anthropologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, the artefacts provide a rare peek into what life was like for the southern continent's Indigenous inhabitants.

"Even before we got the dates, we could see they were constructed using stone tools rather than metal tools, which were utilized following the European invasion," she explained to Live Science. "You can see it in the sharpness of the incisions – we can see the essence of the wood shaping in some of the microscope photographs."

Because Aboriginal boomerangs are constructed of wood, they degrade swiftly when exposed to air. It's only the sixth time any have been discovered in their archaeological environment. "It's very unusual to find that many of them at once," Roberts added.

The brook is dry.

The boomerangs were discovered primarily as a result of a drought. The Cooper Creek river system's gullies are usually full of water, but during a very hot summer in late 2017 and early 2018, the river dried up, revealing the riverbed and the boomerangs that were partially buried there.

The first was discovered by a woman from the Yandruwandha Yawarrawarrka traditional landowners group when she was cleaning up garbage on the dry riverbank. Within a few weeks, the three other boomerangs and the fragment were discovered, all within a few kilometers of one other.

According to Roberts, it's plausible that the Aborigines deposited the boomerangs somewhere and then water washed the tools into the river system. However, a more plausible theory is that Aborigines hurled the boomerangs over the river to scare waterbirds into awaiting nets, an action recounted in oral traditions.

"We got the concept from looking at traditional legends of people dropping boomerangs over the lake and looking for them," she explained.

The largest of the newly discovered boomerangs would have been roughly 40 inches (1 meter) long when finished and would have been much too heavy to be utilized as a projectile. "It is therefore likely that the primary usage of this artefact was in close combat," the researchers stated in a report published online Nov. 3 in the journal Australian Archaeology.

Boomerangs are described as "fearsome weapons" in some ethnological reports, and there are Aboriginal images of "fighting" boomerangs employed in hand-to-hand duels.

The new collection's oldest boomerang, dating from around 1656, is also one of the best maintained. The researchers discovered that it, too, was probably too heavy to be thrown very far.

"The wooden artefact was thus far more multi-purpose in function and might have been used as a digging staff, infighting, or for hunting wildlife," the researchers wrote in their paper. It was heavily burned on both ends, indicating that it had also been used to stoke fires.

Boomerang flight

Boomerangs are famous for flying away and then back toward the thrower, but Roberts believes that this was an unintentional finding due to their aerodynamic cross-sections.

Non-returning boomerangs were more useful and common: they were huge and relatively heavy, with a distinctive bend or "elbow" that caused them to spin when thrown.

"I think it's just a notion that a boomerang returns and that it's the smaller, symmetrical-looking one, but in fact, it's a fairly large class of objects," said Roberts. "Many might have aerodynamic properties, but many did not return."

According to ethnographic studies, Aboriginal men preserved several varieties of boomerangs in their camps for various purposes, including decorative ones for dances and celebrations. The Cooper Creek boomerangs, on the other hand, aren't adorned with carvings or show signs of being painted, according to Roberts.

Throwing sticks of a similar kind were employed in other parts of the world, including ancient Egypt, Poland, and North America. However, boomerangs are now firmly tied with Australia, despite the fact that climate change there threatens any future discovery, according to Roberts.

"The expectations for their area are that these waterhole regions will be more susceptible to wetting and drying conditions, resulting in reduced stability," she explained. "That isn't good for wooden goods."