Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Capital Punishment  - Ritual Killing

At Narrabeen on the northern beaches of Sydney a skeleton was found that was 3,700 years old. The man, who was about 35 years old when he died, at the height of the production of backed blades, which was near the peak of the sea level rise following the closing of the glacial period. Associated with the body were 14 artefacts, 12 of which were backed blades which display damage as either spear barbs or knives. Of these 1 that is believed to have been an awl for skin working, appears to have been carried in the man's hair at the time of his death, another was wedged in his spine. He had been speared in the back, the spearing striking him just above the left hip, passed through the small and large intestine, and possibly the kidney, eventually lodging in his spine. He was also speared from the front, and then killed on the ground with a club to the head, possibly by a stone axe, and speared in the skull, after which he was left on the sand dune.

The time of this man's death puts it at a time of high conflict, a time when backed blades were being used in conflict, and at a time when there were extreme social and environmental circumstances, which the death has been associated with, as there was social change occurring and increasing social proscription This was a time when sea levels had reached their peak and increased territoriality and social conflict was at its highest point. In that particular area there was an increase in rock art, as occurred in Magnificent Gallery in Queensland, which Cane1 suggests may indicate social and territorial adjustment, the diversity of engravings at this site appearing to indicate territorial division, a time when a number of factors were impacting the population of the continent, highest sea levels, diminished territory, variability of the climate, all impacting on population pressure. At that time conflict was a national characteristic, with evidence of violent disputation across populated areas such as the Murray River that Cane1 suggests bordered on organised warfare.

The manner of killing of the man at Narrabeen bears a remarkable similarity to a judicial killing, a ritual execution, of a man who had committed a crime for which the guilty person could receive a death sentence. In pre-contact Australia this was a normal part of the social justice system. Therefore this killing may be seen as less of an indication of the brutal nature of a murder as part of territorial conflict and more as the process of  a justice system that was unflinching in its application. Cane1 reports a similar incident he was told of in which a man who was widely said to have too many wives lost his temper when one of his wives ran off with her lover. Her husband tracked down the pair 100 km away and killed the man. He was found guilty and a party of senior men from all the surrounding districts were sent to execute him for his crime. All in the party were required to take part in his execution, possibly so blame could be placed on any individual, and anyone who might think of taking revenge would be similarly treated.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin

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  22/12/2013
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