Boomerangs out of the past

Boomerangs out of the past
Dr Duncan Wright and Mr Dave Johnston. Image: Jamie Kidston/ANU.
Tuesday 22 December 2020

By Evana Ho


The first boomerang that Dave Johnston was told about was uncovered by the 6 year old daughter of his friend and colleague, Jason Brailey. The pair were fishing at Brighton Beach in Melbourne, on Boon Wurrung country.

“She picked it up and said, 'Here you go dad',” Mr Johnston recalls. “And at first he dismissed it.”

“Then she said, 'Dad, look!' and he looked at it and realised it was an old, ancient boomerang.”

This caused great excitement amongst the community. Aunty Caroline Briggs, senior elder of the Boon Wurrung, was delighted. She said: “From the shores of Port Phillip Bay, an ancient boomerang will be able to offer all Victorians a tangible artefact from the past, representing the way of life for Boon Wurrung”

A second boomerang appeared on Boon Wurrung country. In the far south coast of New South Wales, in the wake of the bushfires that tore through the region another boomerang was found in a creek bed on a burnt out property by custodian Graham Kelly. And in Ulladulla,  the local land council had three old boomerangs collected over the last 10 years..

All up, six boomerangs have appeared and been brought to the attention of Mr Johnston, Director of the Australian Indigenous Archaeologists' Association and ANU archaeology alumnus.

They have all been carbon dated at the ANU, thanks to funding support from the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology (SoAA) and dating expertise from the Research School of Earth Science. Mr Johnston and fellow archaeologist Dr Duncan Wright say that the dates will be released by the communities and SoAA at an appropriate time. In the meantime, they will see what other information they can glean about the boomerangs, including type of wood used and what parts of the tree were used. 

The size and shape of each boomerang also offers information about what the boomerangs were created and used for: “Some boomerangs, up to two metres in size, were used as fighting sticks. Other smaller ones might be used for hunting game or to hover above flocks of birds and scare them into nets. Even to slice through water to kill fish!” says Dr Wright. “Out of a swamp in South Australia came 10,000 year old boomerangs, one of which was apparently made out of tree roots. This was so small that some people suggested it may have been used by kids as a toy.”

Mr Johnston adds, “Boomerangs don't come back unless they're recreational or used for bird hunting; for example making ducks fly low into nets.” 

He describes how you would use a big boomerang to hunt a kangaroo or wombat, spearing it after it has been maimed. But for catching ducks and birds, which were a popular food source, you would use a thin and light boomerang that would be skimmed across the water.

At least three of the boomerangs that have been referred to Mr Johnston are thin and light, preserved in the oxygen-neutral zones of bogs and ponds. When the landscape was disturbed by fires and modern development, they were washed out.

“That's a really nice thing about boomerangs as a cultural object,” Dr Wright says. “You can resurrect a whole bunch of information.”

“We can look at how old it is, we can look at the purpose behind the boomerang. And then of course, there's these recent cultural stories about the appropriation of boomerangs by today’s communities.”

In terms of the boomerangs finding the community, Mr Johnston describes it as being an affirmation of connection to country.

“These artefacts have come out of the past. From natural swamps or things that have preserved them, and here they are being found – a lot of them,” he says.

“From an Aboriginal [perspective], that's the Country speaking back via the old people with their artefacts.”

Dr Wright likens the boomerangs to the objects in the British Museum's A History of the World in 100 Objects project.

“In a way, we've got a history of Australia in these objects that all of a sudden are coming out of the Eucalypt woods”

Four of the six boomerangs have so far been received by Mr Johnston, turned in to him in recognition of his position and reputation as an Indigenous archaeologist.

“I wear two hats. Being in the white man world as well as the Indigenous,” he says. “I have cultural responsibility for these, we could almost call them secret, sacred objects that have exposed themselves.”

“Having not just one, my thoughts are, 'Oh my God I cannot lose these or I'll have all the old spirits [and the communities] chasing me'. We make a joke of it. But as a cultural leader, I'm honoured to be chosen to do it.”

This project of analysing the boomerangs discovered around Victoria and New South Wales
is the first in a series of anticipated partnerships instigated by community, assisted by the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology. It comes on the heels of a similar initiative started by Wayne Brennan (a Kamilaroi man) and the School, dubbed 'Communiversity', responding to bushfire damage of cultural heritage in the Blue Mountains. Both initiatives have some urgency, attempting to protect threatened cultural heritage in the build up to the next bushfire season.

The first Communiversity forum in Dargan brought together a broad range of stakeholders who shared viewpoints, experiences, and strategies for the protection of rock art in the face of future bushfires.

Mr Wayne Brennan, a Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Museum in Sydney who has helped record many cultural heritage sites in Wollemi National Park, said the forum recognised the real-world benefits of sharing expertise, with local communities taking leadership roles and a holistic approach to the protection and promotion of “at risk” cultural features.

“Science and culture, side by side, two ways of walking together,” he said. “This is particularly important in the Blue Mountains, a region that boasts a remarkable record of human presence dating back at least 40,000 years and faces a significant bushfire risk.”

“It’s a project that’s not just important for descendant, First Nations communities but there are European custodians who call the Blue Mountains and Wollemi home.”

As for the boomerang project, once the data is in from the carbon dating and all the boomerangs have been properly preserved, Mr Johnston and Dr Wright want to invite the associated communities to ANU for a handing back ceremony.

“I want to celebrate the archaeology department for funding this,” says Mr Johnston. “And create potential partnerships in the future.”

“Things don't just happen – they happen for a reason. With the communities, we can talk and ask them. We don't know where this journey's going to go, but it's quite exciting.”

This news story was originally published on the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences website.

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Updated:  22 December 2020/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications