Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Weapons and Tools

The Spear and Spear Thrower

The favoured weapon of the Aboriginal People was the spear and spear thrower. The fact that they never adopted the bow and arrow has been debated for a long time. During post-glacial times the bow and arrow were being used in every inhabited part of the world except Australia. A number of reasons for this have been put forward, one of which was that the Aboriginal People were ultra conservative and incapable of change. This suggestion is now known to be wrong, they did adopt items such as the out-rigger canoe, they obviously saw the advantage over their bark canoes, which were not suitable for fishing at sea. When the dugout canoe was adopted by them, being introduced by the Macassans, it allowed them to fish for dugong and turtle further out to sea.

The bow and arrow was assumed to be more efficient than the spear for hunting and fighting, but in Australia this doesn't seem to be the case. It has been suggested that bow and arrow were useful in places like New Guinea where the prey species were not very large. In Australia the animals hunted were often much bigger, several species of kangaroo grow to the height of a man, and their hide would no doubt be tougher than the smaller wallabies hunted in New Guinea.

It is not that they don't embrace change, they have been demonstrated to have been doing that since their first arrival in Australia, it is just that they have been very selective in what that take. If they don't see an improvement over something they already have, they reject the item. This characteristic of the Aboriginal People was commented on by Captain Cook.

Captain Cook saw the bow and arrow being used on an island close to the mainland at Cape York, as it was in the Torres Strait islands and New Guinea. But the Aboriginal People preferred the spear. And it seems they weren't the only ones to think it was a good thing to have. Spears and spear throwers were also appreciated by their neighbours. Cape York was the Switzerland of the prehistoric north, not getting involved in their neighbour's wars, but selling high quality weapons to all. It has been said that the spear and spear thrower were probably Australia's first export item. They had different points for different uses. The 2 main spears traded with the people of the Torres Strait islands were the fishing spear and the fighting spear. The fishing spear had 4 bone barbs. The fighting spear had a barbed bone point. The people of the Torres Strait islands also used them for hunting dugong.

Death spear

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.

Spear thrower - woomera or atlatl

The antiquity of the spear thrower in Australia was pushed back to at least 40,000 BP (some have dates of 60,000 BP), making it possibly the oldest known use of a spear thrower in the world, when it was discovered that Mungo Man, Lake Mungo 3 (WLH 3), had severe osteoarthritis of the right elbow, spear thrower elbow, a sure sign that the gracile Skelton was indeed a man, right handed, and used a spear thrower for a number of years. 


Stone points are usually assumed to have been used hafted to the ends of spears. They have been found trimmed on one side (unifacial) or both sides (bifacial). Neither appears to predate the other, both have been found in the same level at sites such as the Yarar Rockshelter in the Northern Territory. At the Yarar site, the majority of broken points were butts, broken tips being a minority. It appears the rock shelter was a place where spears with broken points were rehafted. Both types of points, which are believed to have been spear points, had similar dimensions of about 3.5 cm long. They are of a size that could be used on arrows, but no evidence of arrows have been found in Australia. At the time of the European colonisation of Australia spears were being used in northwestern Australia that had stone tips. In the Kimberleys, these spear points ranged in size from 3 to more than 10 cm long. Some spears from museums have 3 cm long bifacial points of which 2 cm of point protrudes from the hafting gum. It is assumed the use of very small points meant that the point would be less likely to break on impact than longer points.

The spear points from the Kimberleys are characterised by symmetrical, pressure-flaked bifacial points. These points may have been regarded more as ritual or status objects, as they were traded along the trade routes to distant tribes. After the overland telegraph was established the porcelain insulators became a sort after material for the construction of these points, along with glass. These high quality points were being used by the desert tribes 1000 km away in circumcision rituals.

Symmetrical, unifacial points, Pirri points, were characteristic of South Australia. They were apparently used only in the distant past, Aboriginal People believing they must have been used in the Dreamtime, because they had no knowledge of them. Points occur in a broad north-south belt across the continent. They were not present on the west coast and only a few are known from the east coast.

There may be a long continuity of technological tradition in the Kimberley, in grooved, ground-edge axes and serrated flakes. The Kimberley serrated spear points are renowned for their fine crafting and their symmetry. They were made by the pressure-flaking technique, fine flakes are removed by use of wood or bone. Prior to European occupation fine-grained stone was used. This type of leaf-shaped, bifacially trimmed spear points has been used for at least 3,000 years.

Backed Blades
Pleistocene technology
Wyrie Swamp tools
Adze Flake

Throwing boomerangs

In other situations boomerangs were used as throwing sticks that could be thrown with great accuracy at high speed to knock out or kill the animal or human that was the intended target. The Throwing boomerangs were designed to fly straight and fast by giving them an aerodynamic twist. Boomerangs were cut from branches that already had a bend, then carved, heated and twisted to give them the aerodynamic shape. In plan throwing boomerangs were asymmetrical, the longer end being used for leverage and the shorter end were weight and shaped to cart wheel the blade, enlarge the parameter of the blade and to increase the likelihood of a successful kill. Extremely hard wood was used in their construction which helped make them a deadly blade-like club. Cane1 reports being a man hit on the head by one of these boomerangs which suffered severe brain damage, giving some indication of just how deadly they would have been in battle.


  1. Backed Artefacts in Northwest Queensland
  2. Backed Blades in Northern Australia
  3. Australian indigenous tools and technology
  4. Aboriginal Carved Weapons and Utensils

The technology of the Pleistocene displayed a high degree of homogeneity across Australia, but from about 5,000 years ago this homogeneity is replaced by a very diverse toolkit across the continent. Over the last few thousand years ground edge axes became widespread, replacing pebble tools and horsehoof cores as the tool of choice for chopping throughout the mainland, but in Tasmania it wasn't used.

Thumbnail scrapers, that were finely trimmed, first appear in some of the Pleistocene industries, becoming much more common in the small tool period.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing
  2. Phillip J. Habgood & Natilie R. Franklin, The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul, Journal of Human Evolution, 55, 2008


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 21/12/2013


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