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Australian Aborigines technology

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    Posted: 09-Sep-2009 at 20:27
Some interesting information about Australian Aborigines' technology
 
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Australian Indigenous tools and technology

Warning. This article may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased. It also contains 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 karli or boomerang in Lajamanu, a Warlpiri Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory.

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 but the 'woomera', a type of spearthrower, is a unique 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 spead 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

Bark canoes in the film Ten Canoes. Courtesy of Palm Pictures.

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.

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  Quote Cryptic Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10-Sep-2009 at 08:51
Thanks for the information. I have always found it fascinating that some Australian groups were able to avoid direct contact with Europeans until the early 1950s.  This is a big contrast to North America where all indigenous groups had indirect contact with Europeans by about 1830s and direct contact by the 1860s.  
 
Originally posted by Pachacutec

Warning. This article may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased. It also contains links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.
Do Abirigones (sp) have a cultural taboo about viewing photos of people who are deceased?
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  Quote Guests Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 20-Sep-2009 at 17:21
Originally posted by Cryptic

Thanks for the information. I have always found it fascinating that some Australian groups were able to avoid direct contact with Europeans until the early 1950s.  This is a big contrast to North America where all indigenous groups had indirect contact with Europeans by about 1830s and direct contact by the 1860s.  
 
The reason is simple. The West was a fertile zone and was in the middle of the way from California and its Gold Rush. The expansion to Patagonia happened at the same time.
Australia is a huge semi-desertic region that didn't have much resources, so left people free for more time, perhaps in the same way that the Amazon. Another region that was very harsh to colonize, and where some natives survived uncontacted to the first decade of the 21th century.
 
Originally posted by Cryptic

Originally posted by Pachacutec

Warning. This article may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased. It also contains links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.
Do Abirigones (sp) have a cultural taboo about viewing photos of people who are deceased?
 
I don't know, but I suspect.


Edited by Pachacutec - 20-Sep-2009 at 17:21
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  Quote Cryptic Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 20-Sep-2009 at 19:36
Originally posted by Pachacutec

perhaps in the same way that the Amazon. Another region that was very harsh to colonize, and where some natives survived uncontacted to the first decade of the 21th century.
Though I understand and agree with your comparison of Australia to the Amazon, I have my doubts about the recent claims that uncontacted groups have been discovered. Evidently, one famous tribe was just "discovered" by an activist group in conjunction with a campaign against illegal logging.
 
Strangely, the activists had information that the "undiscovered village" village was in the area and then flew a helicopter over the location. In fairness to the activists, however, the group is contacted, but still very isolated. My guess is that all Amazonian tribes have had at least indirect contact through trade objects.
  


Edited by Cryptic - 21-Sep-2009 at 09:20
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  Quote stella20 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 13-Jul-2011 at 05:02

Thousands of years ago, the indigenous Aboriginals of Australia collected food and were hunting in order to survive. To take some effort out of hunting, the Aboriginals invented some labour-saving technology. These included devices like the spear thrower and the throwing stick which made sure that the energy gained form eating the food was greater than the energy used in hunting for it.

Spear thrower

A spear thrower is a stick used to help propel the spear with greater force for a longer time. The basic design of the spear thrower was alike in many indigenous groups, though they called it different things. In New South Wales it was known as the Woomera, and in Western Australia, a Mirr. Spear throwers are made out of hard wood and usually 45cm to 50cm long. There is a carefully shaped handle at one end, and a hook-like peg at the other end where the butt end of the spear fits in. Using a spear thrower, you can get two to three times the distance you could throw without using one.

Depending on where it was developed, the shape of the spear thrower varies. Modification of the shape lets the spear be able to be used for other purposes, such as a water scoop, a digging stick or a simple axe.

Spear throwers work according to the principle of levers. It uses two levers to launch the spear. Both levers act as speed multipliers, increasing the speed of the spear compared to the speed of the thrower's arm.

The first lever has its load at the hand and its fulcrum at the shoulder, as shown in diagram 1-3. This is the natural throwing lever of the arm and would be the normal lever, have the spear thrower not be used.

Diagram 3 indicates the second lever coming into action. The fulcrum is complex and involves the shoulder, hand, and the hook-like point where the spear attaches to the spear thrower.

For the spear thrower to be used effectively, as the arm reaches the normal release point (like when you're throwing a ball), it is swept down very quickly. This causes the top of the spear thrower to travel rapidly, acting like an extension of the arm. The second movement, where the end of the spear thrower effectively increases the speed of the hand, allows the force to apply to the spear for longer than it would without a spear thrower.

The reason why the spear travels faster using a spear thrower, than if it were hand thrown is because the extension of the throwing arm provides more leverage, as the spear thrower moves faster than the hand holding it. Opportunistically, the spear thrower increases the arm length of the user and therefore creates more power.

The boomerang- throwing sticks

The returning boomerang originated from specially shaped sticks used for hunting. There are many forms of boomerang-like throwing sticks that were used by different indigenous tribes. These throwing sticks were carefully shaped according to the purpose they were going to serve as well as the prey they were going to be used to hunt.

The things that give rise to the different flight paths they follow when thrown are the different curvature of the surfaces and the shape of the boomerang. One surface is flat, while the other is curved into the shape of an air foil (just like a wing). This is the reason there are right-handed and left-handed boomerangs, and why boomerangs can 'hover' for some time in the air.

A boomerang returns because of the lift created by the combination of lift created by the wings being deflected by the winds, and the 'gyroscopic' forces created by the rapidly rotating boomerang.

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  Quote Cryptic Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 13-Jul-2011 at 11:33
Originally posted by stella20

Spear throwers work according to the principle of levers. It uses two levers to launch the spear. Both levers act as speed multipliers, increasing the speed of the spear compared to the speed of the thrower's arm.
A well designed spear (or dart) thrower also needed well designed darts for maximum efficiency. Darts were usually made out of light, flexible wood. During the throw cycle, the dart would compress and then flex as the dart left the thrower.  The whole process takes a fraction of a second and adds more energy to the dart.
 
In addition, sophisticated users added stone weights (usually rings) to the dart at certain locations.  This altered how the dart compressed and flexed and allowed the length of the thrower's arm, the dart thrower and the dart to be "tuned" together with other characteristics of the dart such as wood type.
 
Needless to say, a skillfull user with a well designed dart thrower and well designed darts could bring down any animal in existance (well, some more easily than othersWink).


Edited by Cryptic - 13-Jul-2011 at 11:35
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  Quote Nick1986 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Aug-2011 at 20:17

It's interesting that the boomerang, now largely considered a toy, was at one time a deadly weapon capable of taking down birds on the wing. I still can't get mine to return though

Edited by Nick1986 - 24-Aug-2011 at 20:18
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  Quote Cryptic Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-Aug-2011 at 17:38
Originally posted by Nick1986


It's interesting that the boomerang, now largely considered a toy, was at one time a deadly weapon capable of taking down birds on the wing. I still can't get mine to return though
Though I do not mean to sound harsh, your boomerang appears to be a tourist souvenier item and not a real boomerang
 
I can not see any air foiling on the tips or edges of the wings needed to be a returning boomerang.  Also, though most boomerangs (hunting and war) were not designed as returners, yours appears to lack the size to be a hunting boomerang and the wings look too stubby in relation to the apparent size of the boomerang.


Edited by Cryptic - 25-Aug-2011 at 18:05
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  Quote Nick1986 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-Aug-2011 at 19:32
Despite its size my boomerang is capable of flight. It even spins in an arc but loses height long before it can return
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  Quote Cryptic Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-Aug-2011 at 20:57
Any object is capable of flight (even Ben Ladin) if you throw it hard enough.   Likewise, a stick will rotate in flight.  In the end, I do not think your boomerang is a working boomerang, either returing or non returning.  Instead, it is a stick in the rough shape of a boomerang.
 
I have a good source for boomerangs if you are interested.
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  Quote Nick1986 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26-Aug-2011 at 20:07
Thanks Cryptic. Could you post the link?
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  Quote toyomotor Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03-Jan-2014 at 13:11
Originally posted by Cryptic

Thanks for the information. I have always found it fascinating that some Australian groups were able to avoid direct contact with Europeans until the early 1950s.  This is a big contrast to North America where all indigenous groups had indirect contact with Europeans by about 1830s and direct contact by the 1860s.  

 

Originally posted by Pachacutec

Warning. This article may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased. It also contains links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

Do Abirigones (sp) have a cultural taboo about viewing photos of people who are deceased?


Yes. Their belief is that the depiction of a deceased ancestor may upset that ancestors spirit.
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