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Aboriginal Technology

When Europeans arrived in Sydney local people made canoes, for fishing on the Harbour, from bark (read more); and this was believed to be the pinnacle of indigenous seafaring technology; but was this just the best 'fit for purpose'?  

Bark canoes took only a day or two to make and lasted around four years.


Aboriginal bark canoe


There are many early records, including some photographs, of Aboriginal Australians making dug-out canoes and using outriggers to stabilise more simply worked logs. But it is obvious that wooden canoes are much more time consuming to construct than bark ones and don't last more than a few decades in any case. 

There is some excellent photographic and supporting documentation of men cutting a wooden shield out of a living tree using stone tools (Dick, T. (1915) 'The Origin of the Heliman or Shield of the New South Wales Coastal Aborigines', J. Roy. Soc. NSW. 49, pp. 282-288). 


Photographs taken by Thomas Dick on the NSW coast circa 1914 - Australian Museum


These shields are substantial and were widely used in intertribal battles for defence against clubs (or nulla nulla as we called them at school - a local Sydney name) and spears.  Many shields and clubs are indicative of sophisticated wood-working skills.  They could also be used for defence against ritual punishment by spearing.  In an early observation of this cultural practice in South Australia the offender was allowed a shield to attempt to protect himself against the spears of his accusers.


Aboriginal Clubs and Shield
Aboriginal shield with cuts and a range of clubs - Australian Museum Sydney



When knowledge is handed on verbally, from father to son and mother to daughter, there is obviously a risk that it will be lost or distorted.  But practical techniques are self-correcting.  If the information is wrong the technique fails and needs to be corrected. 

When I was a child in Sydney we mimicked numerous Aboriginal technologies that somehow got handed down as playground knowledge along with other playground lore like: the rules of marbles; or the various varieties of cicadas and how to make them leave their holes prematurely; caring for silkworms; and various rhymes and taunts. 

We made shelters (cubby houses), but not canoes, using sheets of bark; bullroarers (a 'musical' or signalling instrument); and returning boomerangs from the wooden cases fruit was then shipped in. The wood from these cases could also be used for starting fires, boy scout style; but matches are more convenient. 

We also made woomeras, for throwing spears, out of wood and fencing wire but we found that a length of cord with a knot in the end is almost as good.  


School boy spear-thrower


Using this simple device we could confidently throw a spear about 50 feet (15m), to stick it's steel point, made from a sharpened 4" (100 mm) nail, well into a tree with some accuracy.  Possibly this cord was also an Aboriginal tool; but one that would be unlikely to survive; be noted; or even recognised; by a museum.  Some adults were certainly oblivious as to its purpose, when emptied from a grubby pocket. 

Our boyhood efforts with burning arrows are noted in a comment by a friend elsewhere on this website.  A properly weighted (nail pointed) arrow, even shot from a home-made bow, has a much longer range and better accuracy than a spear.  But it has lower mass and therefore less penetrating power, unless very fast, like a modern archery arrow; a crossbow bolt; or a bullet.

There are close genetic, linguistic and cultural similarities between Aboriginal Australians and New Guinea Highlanders.  For example 'Bilums' and other carriers woven by women in Papua New Guinea are very similar to carriers for collecting food made by indigenous Australian women.


Aboriginal baskets and string bags in the Australian Museum, Sydney


But somehow archery did not spread to Aboriginal Australia or was forgotten.  Archery is more or less ubiquitous elsewhere in the world; widespread from about 12 thousand years ago.  Australia had, possibly, the only substantial population that did not use or develop this technology. 

Bows and arrows are very widely used in Papua New Guinea for hunting and, until quite recently, in battle.  Highland tribes were once very warlike.  As recently as 1986 then Prime Minister Paias Wingti, himself a highlander, said that the re-emergence of large-scale tribal fighting in the Highlands was:  '...nothing much.  They use only bows and arrows, no firearms... All these traditions are dying down. They will fade away maybe in 10 to 15 years time.'  Nowadays mock battles may be staged for the Queen or other high status tourists; and they no longer eat the enemy champions thus killed. 

Upon passing into manhood highlanders are presented with their first bow and arrows and they are thereafter carried ceremonially as a symbol of manhood; as was a sword in western and some eastern cultures.  

In PNG the arrows are unfletched and usually longer than modern archery arrows.  The arrow shafts are bamboo to which a denser sharpened hardwood arrowhead is joined by a woven socket.   Ceremonial arrow heads are often elaborately carved and painted.  As in most cultures a man's status is closely related to the value of his ceremonial dress.  Rare feathers and fine weapons are particularly valuable and high status objects.  


PNG Bows and Arrows
Papua New Guinea Warriors with Bows and Arrows  Source: Bundi Fitz-Patrick & Kimbuna 1983


In 1983 I bought a bow and half a dozen arrows from a tribesman in Madang.  The bow is of springy, probably heat treated, hardwood and is not any better finished than some of our childhood ones but some, more valuable, are beautifully finished. The bow string was missing and I guessed that this was the most valuable component.   I substituted a fine stainless steel braided cable, purchased from a local ship chandler, and held an archery competition with some of the local boys.  They needed a lot of practice just to hit a cardboard box.  The arrows are relatively heavy and not nearly as fast as a modern archery arrow, giving them an effective range of less than fifty metres.

Possibly the technology was developed in, or introduced into, PNG after separation, around 8 thousand years ago, or possibly it was unsuitable for killing the larger game on the mainland where spears and woomeras were in effective use for the same purposes (ceremonial, hunting and fighting).  As in PNG elaborately carved and decorated spear heads were used ceremonially.  

Perhaps at some time there was a cultural prohibition against killing at a greater distance.  In the time of the Greek heroes a bow and arrow was judged to be a coward's weapon when compared to a sword; particularly as the arrow tip can be poisoned; like the arrows of Paris. 

But the absence of bows and arrows, that are ideally suited for hunting small game and birds, as well as engaging an enemy at a distance, does suggest a long period of effective cultural separation.





# Kaustuv 2021-07-11 05:29
Thanks Richard for my first and only lesson in anthropology.
And in the ancient history of my adopted land.
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