Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Backed Blades

Backed blades, a distinctive tool type, are found in a belt across the continent from west to east south of the area of the tropical monsoon, with a few being found in Cape York in Queensland and the Top End in the Northern Territory. Artefacts from Miriwun in the Kimberly were claimed to be backed blades, but this is disputed, suggesting they were actually more likely to be a type of abruptly trimmed points.

Backed blades are flakelets, very small blades with an edge blunted by steep retouching. They appear to have been the stone age equivalent of a pen knife. There are 2 main types, Bondi points, first discovered on Bondi Beach in 1899, are slender, asymmetrical backed blades, the points of which are tapering with a length twice that of the width.

Geometric microliths are broader, and are found in a wide range of geometric shapes - trapezoids, triangles and half-circles.

All backed blades were microliths, usually less than 3 cm long, and all appear to have been used for a similar purpose. It has been suggested that their main use was in rows of barbs along the sides of death spears. These spears were deadly weapons, the barbs causing great blood loss in the victim, human in fighting, animal in hunting. It has been said that they usually couldn't be pulled out, needing to be pushed right through the body, which no doubt caused even more damage.

The death spears from museum collections have up to 40 barbs attached to grooves in the spear shaft with gum. These barbs are unbacked quartz flakes with no secondary working. Evidence from sites such as Sassafras and Currarong indicates that backed blades gradually disappeared about 2000 years ago, to be replaced increasingly by quartz flakes. It is thought that in earlier times backed blades were used as barbs on death spears, evidence for which is the large numbers of backed blades that have been found, the large numbers suggesting they were used for something other than spear points, with so many being used on death spears this could account for the high numbers found.

Backed blades with traces of hafting gum still present on the blunt edge have found at Graman. Most of the geometric microliths found at Seelands have an end broken off. This is the type of damage that is expected if they were used as barbs on spears.

In historic times death spears were still being used across the southern part of the continent. This is the area where great numbers of backed blades have been found. In other parts of the continent the use of death spears and the presence of backed blades don't coincide so precisely. South of Sydney, more than 1000 were collected from the Curracurrang rock shelter. Thousands have been collected at Kurnell and around Lake Torrens in South Australia.

Both points and backed blades were also used in the construction of composite tools in which the flakes were attached to a tool, usually in grooves, held in place by hafting gum and twine. The small tool tradition allowed the development of the composite tool.


Backed blades first appear in the archaeological record 15,000 BP, the numbers and frequency of these artefacts increasing over time, and more appearing 9,000 years ago, and the numbers astronomically increasing 4,000 years ago, their production at some sites increasing by about 200 fold, and across the southern parts of the continent there were many thousands of them at some of the primary production sites

See Weapons


  1. Backed Artefacts in Northwest Queensland
  2. Backed Blades in Northern Australia
  3. Backed into a Corner

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J.B. Publishing, 2004
  2. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin
  3. Scott Cane has included in his book, written as a companion to the ABC TV series of the same name, a number of stories from his days living among Aboriginal people in the desert and moving around with them.

Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 30/09/2011
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