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Australian Indigenous tools and technology

Warning. Australian Stories may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Australian Stories also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

The key to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander technologies is both their intimate understanding of the natural environment as well as their skills in designing artefacts that were flexible and adaptable.

Tools and technology implements

Louis Jupurrula making a

Ludo Kuipers, Louis Jupurrula making a 'karli' or boomerang in Lajamanu, a Warlpiri Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory, 1981. Courtesy of OzOutback Internet Services.

Tools and implements reflect the geographical location of different groups. For example, coastal tribes used fishbone to tip their weapons, whereas desert tribes used stone tips. While tools varied by group and location, Aboriginal people all had implements such as knives, scrapers, axe-heads, spears, various vessels for eating and drinking, and digging sticks.

Aboriginal people achieved two world firsts with stone technology. They were the first to introduce ground edges on cutting tools and to grind seed. They used stone tools for many things including: to make other tools, to get and prepare food, to chop wood, and to prepare animal skins.

Stone fish traps are used in rivers where water levels rise and fall. Stone fish traps on the Darling River at Brewarrina are used to catch fish after rain. The Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape in south-west Victoria contains the remains of one of Australia's largest aquaculture systems and the only remaining permanent houses built by an Indigenous community in Australia.

After European discovery and English colonisation, Aboriginal people quickly realised the advantages of incorporating metal, glass and ceramics. They were easier to work with, gave a very sharp edge, and needed less resharpening.

While stone tools have survived well, the great majority of technological items were made of perishable material such as wood and fibre. Boomerangs, clubs and spears were the most common weapons.

Weapons

Spears

Tasmanian aboriginal implements

Claude-Marie-Francois Dien, 1787-1865, Terre de Diemen, armes et ornemens, 1824, engraving, hand col. Courtesy of National Library of Australia.

Spears are used for hunting, fishing and fighting. Some are made from single pieces of wood. Tasmanian Aborigines had very long spears, about six metres in length.

Many spears have to be made from light wood. Oyster Bay pine saplings grow tall and straight. With the lightness, tallness and straightness of them, you rarely had to work them over a fire. We used to bind the spear shafts with yacca [grass tree, Xanthorrhoea] gum sap and kangaroo sinews. Apart from fighting spears, we had six-metre-long canoe spears, and short stumpy spears for spearing seals.
Brendan Brown, Rocky Point, Cape Barren Island, 2000

Other spears are made from one or more parts attached to a wooden shaft. Composite spears with stone heads are found mostly in the centre, north and Kimberley regions of Australia. Detachable barbed spears are common across the continent, from the south-west through the centre to Cape York Peninsula.

Multi-pronged spears are generally used for fishing and are mostly found in the north and south-east of Australia.

Boomerangs

Credited with inventing the boomerang, many Aboriginal groups used this tool mainly for hunting but also in ceremonies. The weapon can easily kill a small animal or knock down a larger one. The way that boomerangs work is very complex. Part of the explanation is that boomerangs are flatter on the lower side and more curved on top in a shape called an aerofoil.

Aborigines had boomerangs to suit different purposes. For instance, in desert areas, heavy wood from the mulga tree was used to make boomerangs for hunting kangaroos, whereas lighter boomerangs were made on the New South Wales coast from mangrove trees, where they were used for duck hunting.

In 1914, inventor David Unaipon (1872–1967) used the principles of boomerang flight to anticipate the helicopter. A Ngarrindjeri man, from South Australia, Unaipon was fascinated by the idea of perpetual motion and invented such things as an improved handpiece for sheepshearing, a centrifugal motor and a multi-radial wheel. David Unaipon is commemorated on Australia's $50 note.

Spearthrowers

Photograph of George Manyita about to throw a 3-pronged fish spear

Ludo Kuipers, George Manyita about to throw a 3-pronged fish spear, Mukarrmuli billabong near Wuymol/Bulman, an Aboriginal community in the south of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, 1983. Courtesy of OzOutback Internet Services.

Hunters all over the world have used spears. The 'woomera', a type of spearthrower, is an Aboriginal invention. A woomera is a simple lever that acts to increase the speed at which a spear is thrown, and thus increase the distance it travels. Made of wood, a woomera acts as an extension of the thrower's arm. A woomera and spear were the fastest weapons in the world before the invention of the self-loading rifle (Eric Willmot).

Woomeras were multipurpose tools that could be fitted with a stone cutting tool or an axe-like attachment. If you had a good woomera, you could hunt, chop firewood, cut down branches to make a shelter or chop up meat. It was lightweight and easy to carry around, which was really important in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Message sticks

Throughout Australia, Aboriginals had over 200 different languages and 600 dialects, yet no written language. Communication of information to all these different groups was often through a message stick. Each stick was carved in a way that would help the carrier remember the message and prove to the recipient that the information was genuine. Message sticks meant that a complex or very long message could be communicated between people. This was supported by people who acted as 'diplomats' and others who were multilingual and used as translators.

Nets, baskets and bags

Batjparra, traditional sieve

Elizabeth Djuttarra, Batjparra, traditional sieve. Elizabeth Djuttarra. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia, 2007.

Fibrework nets, traps, baskets and bags are used extensively for fishing and hunting. In earlier time, fibre objects were crucial for the sustenance of family groups. Some baskets and bags are so tightly woven that they can carry honey or liquids. Bags are generally collapsible and sometimes, expandable. They are mainly used for carrying food and sometimes babies. Bags are made from bush string, cordyline and knotted grass stalks. String bags are also used to sift seeds.

Looped or twined fibre nets are used to catch kangaroos and emus, as well as ducks, fish and eels. In central Arnhem Land, men use hinged nets to scoop up the fish. In Tasmania, mollusc carry baskets made from twined bark fibres are used for collecting oysters, mussels and other shellfish. Aboriginal women use swamp reeds, native flax, sedge grasses, water vine and sea grasses to make baskets.

Most fibrework is made from coiling, twining and looping. In South Australia, the Ngarrindjeri people of the Murray River and Coorong regions never lost their basic fibre techniques despite their experiences of colonisation. The coiling of rushes into baskets was then passed onto women of Goulbourn and Croker Islands through missionary activities. This technique soon spread across Arnhem Land.

In Arnhem Land, fibrework and containers is associated very closely with major Dreaming stories. Weaving baskets and bags helps define the knowledge and status of women in communities as women have to earn the right to that knowledge.

In south-eastern coastal communities, Aboriginal women's basket work has benefited from a significant amount of knowledge being sourced, collected and passed back to them. Highly regarded basket makers, women from Lake Tyers, Victoria, and the Coorang, South Australia, have demonstrated methods of collecting materials and different weaving techniques which they shared with the women of the south-eastern coast of New South Wales. Basket making for the south coastal women revives and continues a tradition of women's work.

Watercraft and canoes

Photograph of Ten Canoes by Rolf deHeer

Rolf de Heer, Still from 'Ten Canoes', 2006. Courtesy of Vertigo Productions and the National Film and Sound Archive.

Early watercraft were relatively fragile, often made from bark and usually left to rot when their use was finished. Canoes provided an easy means of travelling through the lagoons and into reed beds, providing a plentiful supply of fish, eels and birds' eggs. A river was a means of navigation and Aborigines used canoes and rafts to travel extensively through their lands.

The film Ten Canoes , the first feature-length movie in an Australian Indigenous language, tells the story of ten men going onto the swamp in canoes to hunt the eggs of Gumang, the magpie goose. The bark canoes and artefacts used in the film were based on historical Donald Thomson photographs, loaned from Bula'bula Arts.

Tied bark canoes were used along the south-east coast of Australia. 'Canoe trees' are relatively common within the Murray-Darling Basin. The clearly visible canoe scars seen on the trees result from the removal of a large slab of bark, destined for shaping as a crude canoe. A Wurundjeri canoe from the Melbourne region survives and is held by the Museum of Victoria.

Three types of rope have been used to tie the canoe into shape; two of these are handmade, but the third is machine-made European twine. Most striking are the three metal straps (taken from a wooden barrel) that maintain the canoe's shape.
Museum Victoria, Bark canoe
Galiliwa Nunggarrgalug getting turtle eggs on the beach at Almalamig Point, Malagayangu, near Numbulwar at the west coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Ludo Kuipers, Galiliwa Nunggarrgalug getting turtle eggs on the beach at Almalamig Point, Malagayangu, near Numbulwar at the west coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, 1995. Courtesy of OzOutback Internet Services.

Bush food implements

Carrying dishes and digging sticks were important tools used in food gathering.

Most Aboriginal communities harvested seeds of native millet, which only grows in the summer months. Some groups overcame the problem by gathering grass seeds while they were green and stacking them in heaps until they ripened. Seed-grinding stones were larger and flatter than stones used to grind other plants.

Along the Murray, from the river red gums along the river banks, Aboriginal people could use the bark for making buckets or coolamons of paperbark stitched together and which carried food and water. From the plentiful sheoaks of Maribyrnong came the useful hard wood which Aboriginal people used for making implements such as digging sticks.

Shelter

The design and technology of shelters differed according to differing seasons and climates. Ceremonial function and family grouping size also effect the diversity of Australian shelters.

Photograph of Meriam house in the Torres Strait Islands

Meriam house of the Torres Strait Islands. Courtesy of Queensland Museum and Aboriginal Environments Research Centre.

On the Atherton Tablelands, shelters, or wiltjas, were made from pliable cane or branches lashed together. The covering was of grass, leaves or bark. In the Torres Strait Islands, houses were a distinctive 'beehive shape' constructed of thatched grass over a framework of bamboo poles lashed together.

In Arnhem Land, shelters ranged from simple peg-supported paperbark windbreaks used in the dry season, to poles that supported sheets of stringybark. Shelters also included raised platforms to protect from heavy rains and flooding.

In southern Australia, materials and shapes of shelters recorded by Europeans varied from a whalebone hut on the shores of Encounter Bay, South Australia in 1847 through stone shelters in western Victoria to 'complex house structure with several interconnecting spaces constructed of sheets of rigid bark and poles' at Corranderrk in 1878.

Trade in material culture and technology

Many of these items of material culture were traded from one location to another across the continent and down to Tasmania. Trade was vital to Aboriginal existence in some areas as it improved the quality of life for family groups. Stones, ochres, tools, ceremonial items and other resources not normally available in one area could be obtained through trade in another.

Trading routes followed permanent waterholes, and goods were traded over long distances. From the north came sea shells, from the south came grinding stones and ochre, and from the east and north-east came shields, axeheads, boomerangs and spears.

Useful links

Aboriginal technology

Indigenous culture and heritage

Trading routes

Last updated: 10th December 2007

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