Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Spear Technologies – Innovation and change in Northern Australian Aboriginal Spear Technologies – Reed Spears

Reed spears differed from the majority of spears used by Aboriginal people in Australia, being light weight that made optimal use of spearthrower technology. Small projectile points that were pressure flaked stone projectile points were mounted on reed spears in the Kimberleys. Small projectile points have been found in the archaeological record of the Kimberleys and western Arnhem Land. According to Allen & Akerman there is no record of how reed spears were mounted outside the Kimberleys. In this paper Allen & Akerman review the evidence for reed spears and small projectile points throughout the Northern Territory and northwestern Australia, arriving at the conclusion that they represent associated technologies for which the primary role was feuding and conflict.

Allen & Akerman suggest the shift from hand thrown to spearthrower-thrown projectiles must be seen as a significant change in the technology of Aboriginals in Australia, which is believed to have taken place in the mid-Holocene. The rock art of northern Australia provides the most compelling evidence for this, with spearthrowers appearing late in the rock art style sequence (Brandl, 1973; Lewis, 1988; Walsh & Morwood, 1999). There are 2 lines of supportive evidence that the spearthrower was developed in the mid-Holocene, one being the presence of small stone projectile points, that are assumed to indicate spearthrower use, first appearing in the archaeological record about 5,000 BP (Allen, 1996), and ethnographic collections that demonstrate that multiple forms of spears and spearthrowers were used for hunting, fighting and symbolic markers of males throughout Australia (Allen, 1996: 148-9; Cundy, 1989; Davidson, 1934, 1936).

In the rock art of northern Australia the earliest known spears that have been recorded are 1-piece spears, either plain or with barbs that have been carved into the solid wood, most probably hardwood (Chaloupka, 1993: 146; Davidson 1934: 53; Walsh & Morwood, 1999). Allen & Akerman suggest that the move from this base to the wide diversity of spear and spearthrower forms that were present in the 19th and early 20th century required a considerable degree of innovation since that time of the earliest rock art that depicted spears: the development of hardwood heads on hardwood shafts; the adoption of new types of shaft – softwood, bamboo and reeds; new methods of attaching spear heads to spear shafts, splicing and joining; multiple forms of mastics and glues; the use of bindings of string, sinew and cane, and heads of diverse types of wood, stone, bone, and post-contact, iron heads (Allen, 2011).

Spears that had a high mass which travelled at low velocity and were hand-thrown were used in Australia. In many parts of Australia hand-thrown spears continued to be used, though a number of them had specialised functions, e.g. 1-piece fishing spears that were used in the Cooper Basin (Davidson, 1934: 48). Also, the spearthrower, or any form of composite spears,  was absent from Tasmania and on Bathurst and Melville Islands, which Allen & Akerman suggest indicates that Aboriginal societies did not require the spearthrowers or composite spears, surviving quite well without them, which suggests that projectile technologies had a wide margin of effectiveness.

The hallmark of an older, high mass, low velocity, spear technology is apparent in many of the spears used by Aboriginals, which has been adjusted to accommodate spearthrower technology (Allen, 2011; Cundy, 1998). According to Allen & Akerman it is suggested by this that the introduction of the spearthrower did not involve the wholesale replacement of the older hand-thrown forms of spear. The known evidence supports the case that the hand-thrown spears were modified to fit them for use with a spearthrower. Something that didn’t change following the introduction of the spearthrower was the requirement for the highly developed stalking skills and an excellent knowledge of the behaviour of the animals they hunted, and this applied whether the spears were hand-thrown or by the use of a spearthrower. The advantage of the spearthrower when used for hunting was its speed and accuracy over the distance of its optimal use of about 10 m. When the spearthrower was used in set duels the use of a spearthrower increased the range of the projectile used.

The generalised spears for hunting and fighting are heavier and more robust than might be considered to be optimal for use with spearthrower technology, with the result that they did not make full use of the potential of the spearthrower (Cundy, 1998: 108). Allen & Akerman suggest it might be thought that there would be considerable selective pressure on the technology of the spear, as they were central to the survival of Aboriginal communities and individuals. What is clear from an examination of the spears used in eastern Arnhem Land, however, is that optimality was not determined by technical or aerodynamic efficiency on their own. Other factors that were considered included, ease of manufacture, materials availability and variable skill levels, where the mass of the heavier spears probably remained a factor in bringing down game (Allen, 2011). Most spear assemblages from northern Australian display a combination of generalised spear forms which could be used for multiple purposes, such as hunting and fighting, or forms that were more specialised, such as fishing or as harpoons. Australian spears, for the most part, do not seriate, as a result of the additive rather than their replacement quality. Allen suggests the exception seems to be the use of small stone spearheads, the pressure-flaked points replacing percussion-flaked points over time.

Reed spears and their spearthrower represent forms that were developed to make use of the spearthrower technology. It had been noted (D.S. Davidson) that the use of light-weight reed spears “… presuppose[d] the presence of the spearthrower” and that these spears required the acceptance and applications of new principles in the construction of spears, which is not the case for 1-piece and composite spears made of heavier materials (1934: 156; see also Cundy, 1989: 119). When light Phragmites sp. reeds were used as shafts of spears, they were part of a technology that was of low-mass, and high-velocity. In northwestern Western Australia reed spears were the predominant form of spear, where they were mounted with small pressure-flaked stone Kimberley points that were set in gum (Akerman, 1978).

Allen & Akerman says reed shafts should not be confused with spears that used indigenous bamboo (Bambusa arnhemica). It has been noted (Franklin, 2008) that Bambusa arnhemica is restricted to western Arnhem Land. The only bamboo spears in the Kimberleys have been obtained by trade. The heaviest spears in the Thompson collection from eastern Arnhem Land are bamboo spears with stone or metal heads, and the bamboo shafts are strong enough to carry either stone or metal heads (Allen, 2011: 77). When observers use terms such as bamboo, reed or cane interchangeably causes confusion, even in cases where the meaning is made clear in the context that Phragmites reed spears are being referred to.

In western Arnhem Land the rock art depicts spearthrowers as being generally associated with all types of composite spears; wood, bamboo or reed shafts and wood, bone or stone heads. As with reed spears, small projectile points are most suited to technology of low mass, their presence presupposing use with a spearthrower, even if stone points were used for other purposes (Davisson, 1934: 136; Luebbers, 1978). In archaeological deposits points occur across the northern region from the Kimberley to Western Arnhem Land, where reed spears were manufactured and used (Smith & Cundy, 1985: 34).

There are no known ethnographic examples of small percussion-flaked projectile points that have been hafted outside the Kimberleys, which leads to the conclusion that they ceased to be used as projectile points in Arnhem land at some time in the recent past (Akerman & Bindon, 1995: 91; Hiscock, 1999: 98). Also, it appears they dropped out of the record from the Kimberleys at about the same time (Maloney et al., 2014). In the region of the Victoria River the position is not as clear, where percussion-flaked points continue to be recovered from archaeological sites dating to throughout the past 1,000 years (Clarkson, 2006: 139-49).

It is claimed here that small stone projectile points associated with reed spears, that is observed in the Kimberleys, might also be extended to Arnhem Land, where there is no direct evidence of their association. A review of the evidence for reed spears has enabled Allen & Akerman to consider the factors that led to their development and to explore any potential connections between reed spears and small leaf-shaped stone projectile points, which were percussion flaked, in the archaeological sites of western Arnhem Land (Allen & Barton, `989; Hiscock, 2011; Jones & Johnson, 1985 Kamminga & Allen, 1973; Schrire, 1982). The fact that a specialist spearthrower, the goose-necked spearthrower, was developed in western Arnhem Land especially for use with reed spears has furthered this interest (Cundy, 1989: 116-20).

In spite of this the evidence for reed spears has not been reviewed in any detail. Allen & Akerman say it is the aim of this paper to review the current evidence for reed spears, and then use this evidence to suggest ways in which material culture and technology studies might contribute to understanding the archaeological past, in particular in regard to small stone projectile points. Reed spears from 2 areas of northern Australia, the northern part of the Northern Territory and the Kimberley region of Western Australia, have been concentrated on in this study.


There are a number of elements of art, language and material culture that are shared between the Kimberleys and the northern part of the Northern Territory. Included among these changes in material culture, it is documented in sequences of art periods (Lewis, 1988; Walsh & Morwood, 1999) and also that non-Parma-Nyungan languages are spoken across this area (Evans, 1988). Ecological similarities exist in that Phragmites reeds (Phragmites karka) occur in moth regions (Akerman et al., 2002: 20-21).

Small stone projectiles are found in archaeological deposits throughout the northern region, from the Kimberleys to western Arnhem Land. Percussion flaked points are the earliest points; they exhibit similar chronologies and similar patterns of archaeological expression. Across the wider region percussion-flaked points appear almost simultaneously, showing an efflorescence between about 1,500 and 3,000 years BP, then virtually disappeared from the record in the Kimberleys and western Arnhem Land at least 1,000 years ago, and were replaced in the Kimberleys only in the past 1,000 years by Kimberley points that were pressure flaked (Maloney et al., 2014).

The situation has been described for the Kimberleys (Love, 2009: 93), the men spent much of the day, when they were not out hunting or at ceremonies, making stone spear heads and spears, which conforms to the archaeological evidence of point manufacture at western Arnhem Land sites (Allen, 1996: 149). Bone artefacts have been recorded in the Kimberleys for the final preparation of stone points, such as pointed and spatulate bone tools, as well as being common in middens in western Arnhem Land where they were in association with stone points (Akerman & Bindon, 1995: 95; Allen & Barton, 1989; Schrire, 1982).

It is suggested by ethnographic, traditional and rock art evidence that stone points that were percussion-flaked were found in association with a spear assemblage that included multiple composite spear forms, including reed spears, in Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys.

Manufacture/use/discard rates for percussion-flaked points in Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys appear to have peaked about 1,500-3,000 years ago. Reed spears appear to have been manufactured after this time, though 1,000 years ago the percussion-faked stone points had been dispensed with, Allen & Akerman suggesting it was possibly because of loss of belief in their mystical efficacy.

Trends in the Kimberleys and western Arnhem Land diverge after about 1,000 years ago. The manufacture of reed spears continued alongside a wider range of spear types and the development of specialised spearthrowers, goose-necked and sabre spearthrowers (Akerman, 1996). Heavy spears using stone, and more recently metal blades, were developed (Allen, 1997, 2011). Reed spears with pressure-flaked stone projectile points replaced all other forms of spear, with the exception of 1-piece fishing spears, in the north and central Kimberleys, becoming the predominant spear that was used for both hunting and fighting, where pressure-flaked stone points retained the mystical and symbolic powers that have been observed (Taҫon, 1991).

In western Arnhem Land the multiple spear and spearthrower forms, cylindrical, notched lathe, goose-necked and sabre spearthrowers used represent an impressive, complex assemblage of projectiles, which indicates trade, historical influences and innovations. An ecologically diverse, rich environment is encompassed by the Kimberleys and coastal western Arnhem Land, where the populations of Aboriginal people were high, with multiple small local groups all of whom vigorously defended their territories, sacred property and their families (e.g. Warner, 1937: 155-90). Allen & Akerman suggest these circumstances are likely to foster innovations in spear and spearthrowers that were specialised for fighting. It has been documented that in this area rock art demonstrates that there is a long history of fighting, scenes of fighting being depicted throughout the sequence of its art styles. According to Allen & Akerman the balance of the technical, ethnographic and archaeological evidence that has been presented here suggest the association of reed spears and small percussion-flaked projectile points are part of a specialised technology to deal with conflict.

Allen & Akerman say the changes in Aboriginal projectile technologies that have been discussed in this paper were cumulative and directional, in terms of increased complexity of spear and spearthrower form. In the Kimberleys and Arnhem Land the complexity and innovation of projectile technology emerged as a result of the particular ecological and social conditions experienced by the Aboriginal hunter-gatherers. As material culture, reed spears and small projectile points are intertwined, it sheds light on the meaning of small projectile points in the archaeological record. Such meaning is clearly complex, involving technological, social and ecological relationships. Allen & Akerman say the study presented in this paper demonstrates how knowledge of Aboriginal material culture adds to the understanding of the archaeological and rock-art record in new and valuable ways.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Allen, H. and K. Akerman (2015). "Innovation and change in northern Australian Aboriginal spear technologies: the case for reed spears." Archaeology in Oceania 50: 83-93.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 14/07/2015
Journey Back Through Time
Experience Australia
Aboriginal Australia
National Parks
Photo Galleries
Site Map
                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading