Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Mortuary Rites - Desiccation

In parts of northern and eastern Queensland, the Darling River Basin and the Murray River Basin, the Lakes District of the lower Murray River and the middle north of South Australia were found various forms of desiccation (Elkin, 1954: 313). A desiccating corpse was seen as far west as Ooldea in 1941 by one of the Berndts, they presumed it had come from eastern Australia. On occasion an incision was made through which the internal organs were removed, the cavity being packed with grass etc. The body was then dried in the sun or over a fire. Following this it was bound and usually painted, then carried around the mourners, eventually being placed on a platform in a tree or in a cave, or sometimes it was buried, cremated or put into a hollow tree.

Sometimes corpses were smoke-dried by the people at Encounter Bay and on the lower Murray River (Taplin & Meyer, in Woods, 1879: 21-1, 198-200.) According to Taplin, the people constructed a special bier with a slow fire under it, then arranged the corpse on it in a sitting posture with the arms outstretched. The hair is removed when the skin blisters, after which they sewed up all body apertures. The smoke-drying is carried out by men who have inherited the position of smoke-drying corpses. They then rub the corpse with grease and red ochre and place it on a platform in the same sitting position, but inside a hut. It dries gradually over a slow fire as the loudly grieving mourners brush away the flies with long whisks. The mourners eat and sleep either beneath or next to the platform. It is wrapped in a specially prepared mat when it is dry and kept in the hut. According to Meyer, the corpse is placed between 2 fires. The heat from the fires, combined with the heat from the sun, causes the skin to loosen after a few days. At this time the term the Aboriginal People used to refer to Europeans was used to call the corpse, because it is the colour of Europeans. For the rest of the process, most of the description by Meyer agrees with that given by Taplin. The body is carried around for several months after it is dry, then finally left on a platform to disintegrate. Some time later the skull is taken by a close kinsman and used as a drinking vessel (Tindale, 1938; Massola, 1961).

The Maranoa People dried the corpse on a platform over a fire, then carry it around for a long time, then the liquid exuding from the corpse is collected and rubbed over the bodies of young men to pass on the good qualities of the deceased person to them (Howitt, 1904: 467-8).

The Kurnai wrap a corpse in a possum skin rug, then tie it in a bark sheet, then build a hut over it. The relatives mourn in this hut by wailing and cutting themselves. The body is unwrapped and examined after a few days, then a close kin-father, mother or sisters plucks the hair and preserves it. They then re-wrap it and it is not opened again until it is well decomposed, at which point the fluids exuding from it are used for anointing. Sometimes they hasten the drying by removing the internal organs, then carry it around until it is a "bag of bones", when it is either buried or put in a hollow tree.

The same topic in relation to north Queensland has been discussed by Roth (1907). In Cape York, corpses were disemboweled and desiccated (Haris, 1912). According to McConnel (1937) the body is cremated and the mourning dances continue until the food dues are settled. Accompanied by rhythmic movements and mourning songs, food payments are made to the dead man's brothers, sisters and father by the widow and her brothers and sisters. Wrestling matches are held between 'brothers' on the day of the cremation, and eventually the mourners turn their backs to the funeral pyre as the body is cremated.

In the area of the northern part of Cape York, the body is typically bound to a pole erected on 2 forked sticks, particularly if the deceased person is a young man, either covered with bark or a dilly bag may be placed on the head. Certain parts are kept and carried around as relics, or eaten ritually, the remainder of the body being burned.

Desiccation is a very elaborate process in the area of the Russell River, the 'mummy' being ornamented. At places such as Miriam Vale, the corpse was sun-dried on a platform, then placed in a hollow tree through an opening that has been cut in the tree. 'The classic form of mummification was practised in the Torres Strait region and possibly spread down into eastern Australia '(Elkin, 1954). According to Elkin, when a body was preserved in other parts of the world it was to preserve the corpse as a home for the spirit. In aboriginal society it was seen as a temporary abode of the spirit until the mourning was complete, and if the death had been avenged, after which the body could be disposed of to free the spirit to allow it to find its way to the abode of the spirits in the Land of the Dead, in Aboriginal Australia this usually meant it could return to a sacred water hole, or some other sacred place, to await a suitable pregnant woman who it could enter as the spirit of her unborn child. see Aboriginal Afterlife

Sources & Further reading

  1. R. M & C. H. Berndt, 1964, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd,


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 15/04/2013
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