Indigenous tools and weapons

Traditionally Indigenous Australians have used a variety of tools and weapons in their everyday life, often for collecting food and carrying it from place to place. Most of the wooden tools, implements and weapons use local materials – different timbers for particular tools and weapons, strings for various uses come from different plants and even from the sinews of animals, as well as glues from plants. Traditional people also use fire to bend or straighten timber, or to make it harder.

While both men and women use some tools, there are tools that are used exclusively by men and others by women. Men almost exclusively use weapons like spears, boomerangs and rifles.

Although western people often think of Aborigines as nomadic, moving from place to place, usually their movement was for following the bush foods according to a seasonal pattern and for ceremonies. Many of the tools they needed could be left behind until they returned the following year. For example, grinding stones were left near where the grasses grew so they could be used from harvest to harvest.

Spears and spear throwers Boomerangs Other tools

Spears and spear throwers

There are a large variety of spears made by the Indigenous peoples of Australia, and they were made for a variety of purposes and from different materials. When making a spear, Aboriginal men would often use fire to help straighten or harden the wood.

The science of spear throwers

Spear throwers were often used with spears to increase the distance they could be thrown. The design of spear throwers depends on the people who made them. They are made out of hard wood and are usually 45 to 150 cm long. They have a peg at one end where the spear fits in and the thrower holds it by the other end to throw the spear. Using a spear thrower, an expert thrower can get two to three times the distance he could throw without using one. Spear throwers work according to the principle of levers, which are one kind of simple machine. There are three types of levers and a spear thrower is an example of the second type of lever. The peg is the fulcrum, the spear is the load and the effort is at the top of the spear thrower, provided by the thrower.

Some spear throwers could also be used to produce fire, by rubbing the edge against another softer piece of wood while keeping some kindling nearby.

Woomera is a name commonly used instead of spear thrower although it is a name used only by some language groups in parts of New South Wales. The town of Woomera in South Australia was first built in 1947 when Australia was involved with the British in developing rockets and missiles.


Boomerangs

The boomerang is a wooden Aboriginal implement that has a number of uses, particularly for hunting and fighting, and other uses such as digging sticks and making music as clapsticks. Although we usually think of its use as a throwing stick that returns to the thrower, there are boomerangs that are made not to return. Boomerangs were not used in all parts of Australia, and the word “boomerang” comes originally from the Tharawal people south of Sydney.

Returning boomerangs are shaped like two wings joined together at an angle. In cross-section they have the same airfoil shape as a wing. One end is usually twisted up slightly, the other end slightly downwards. It is the spinning action that causes the boomerang to return to the thrower.

When boomerangs are thrown correctly, they are held at about 45 degrees to the ground, about halfway between horizontal and vertical. The thrower flicks the boomerang with a wrist action as well as throwing it forward. The boomerang spins about 10 times a second at about 100 kilometres per hour, and can be thrown about as far as 150 metres.

The boomerang that won’t come back

Non-returning boomerangs are bigger and heavier than returning ones and were used in hunting and fighting. Their design allows them to be thrown further and they keep on spinning, even when they hit the ground.

How boomerangs are made

Boomerangs are made from hardwood; mulga, a type of wattle (Acacia aneura), is commonly used in central Australia, whilst sheoak (Allocasuarina) is often used in southeast Australia. Depending on the angle of the boomerang, the piece of wood is selected because of a curve in the stem or the way a branch comes off the stem. This is cut off and split so that it is possible to make two boomerangs. Before they had metal axes and hatchets, the boomerang makers used stone axes and adzes to cut out the boomerangs, and finished them using stone scrapers. The shape of the boomerang is cut out of the wood, sometimes using another boomerang to check the design. Often it will have to be put over a small fire so that it can be bent into shape, particularly to twist the ends up or down. Traditional designs might be painted or engraved on the surface of the boomerang.

Activities: Activities with boomerangs

Links

Aboriginal technology
http://www.questacon.edu.au/html/aboriginal_technology.html
http://www.howstuffworks.com/boomerang.htm


Other tools

Wood and stone together

Many wooden implements have stone points attached as well, including some spears, stone axes and adzes. These were tied on with string or animal sinews and glued in place using natural resins. The resins were collected from various plants (for example Xanthorrhoea and spinifex) and could be softened and worked into place over a small fire. The resins would turn hard as they cooled down. Sometimes the resin would be applied to a shaped stone to make a knife, or to a didgeridu to make a mouthpiece.

Bowls

Bowls have a wide range of uses, usually for women to carry things such as foods, water and even babies. They can be used for winnowing grain and for digging. Bowls are made from wood, not bark, and have to be shaped according to their purpose. Women usually do the work of making bowls and they often decorate the outside with traditional designs. These days many bowls are made and sold to tourists. These are often called coolamons but this is the name given to particular bowls in only a few language groups.

Other wooden tools

Other wooden tools include digging sticks, adzes and clapsticks. Digging sticks are long and hard, with the end pointed and often hardened over a fire. Adzes are used for scraping out other wooden tools, such as boomerangs and coolamons. There is a sharp stone or kangaroo teeth set in the end of the adze with resin. 

String

String can be made from various plants or from the hair or fur of animals and humans. It could then be woven into ropes to give it increased strength. String has many uses for Indigenous peoples, including making baskets and traps of different types and for making rope. Torres Strait Islanders made ropes which were strong enough to catch dugong and to bring them back ashore.

Weaving

In Northern Australia, Aboriginal women weave baskets and mats using fibres they obtain from the pandanus plant. The leaves of the pandanus are collected and dried, then torn into strips. The strips could be dyed various colours using dyes from some other plants, to produce yellow, red and brown string. Baskets could be used for collecting and carrying foods, and these days are also sold to tourists.

Other plants could be woven into baskets and traps to catch animals. Fish traps could be made from the bulrushes growing alongside wetlands.

Cloaks

Skins of various animals could be made into cloaks and blankets, to keep warm in the cooler times of the year. In southeast Australia the skins of up to 80 possums were sown together to make heavy cloaks which were highly prized. The skins were first dried out then sown together using vegetable fibres or animal sinews. Designs were cut into the cloaks that told of the maker and the group the wearer belonged to. People were often buried in their cloaks.

Pearl shell and bone

Pearl shell was used for decoration and was traded from its sources in Torres Strait and the Kimberleys along trade routes extending to southwest and southern Australia.

Bone from a variety of animals was used to make points for spears and other purposes. Awls made of bone were used for punching holes into skins for cloaks and or bark to make canoes. Sometimes teeth, particularly of kangaroos, were used as tools because of their hardness, and they were sometimes made into necklaces.

Back to Areas of interest Last updated: 25 June 2005