Weapons

(a) Spears The spear is without doubt the main deadly weapon of the natives, and its manufacture often requires a great deal of time, especially when the wood has to be hewn off from one side of the tree with a stone axe. Fighting spears are made from thin small trees of hard wood, seven or more feet long, put into hot ash and prepared to the same thickness. The thick end of the small tree was hardened and sharpened in the fire. Sometimes on one or both sides of the spear barbs were attached close to the tip.

Hunting spears were lighter, about seven feet long, made out of firm reed or from the trunk of the grass-tree. The spearheads were produced from hard, heavy wood and carefully tied to the shaft with string and gum. There were two types of spear used to kill fish. The one used for spearing flathead, bream and such like has three or four prongs on one end. A bigger spear made from a small tree with only one head, or perhaps two, was used to kill the kingfish, the cossyphus or other big fish.

During hunting the spears were usually hurled with a wommera or spear thrower, but some heavy ones made from hard wood were thrown directly from the hand by balancing them in the middle. Serrated spears were used for fighting and spearing emus. A deep hole was made at the blunt end of the spear into which the tooth of the spear thrower was inserted when the hunter aimed at a distant object.

When the natives make a spear, a wommera, a shield, a boomerang or any other weapon for which lightness is an important requisite, they first carve it raw into the form wanted and then let it soak for one or two days in water to extract the saps and thus make it lighter. This is particularly so with the long spears made from hard wood, which more than once during the period of their making have to be soaked in water.

(b) Wommeras The wommera or spear thrower is a piece of wood little more than two feet in length, two thirds of an inch thick and two or three inches wide in the middle, running out at one end in a long rough handle, while the other end thins out into a hook or protrusion at the upper side. The surface of the shaft of the wommera is held horizontally when it is put against the end of the spear ready for hurling. The above mentioned hook is sometimes completely cut from the wood like a normal crochet hook. In other cases it is formed from a special piece of hard wood or bone, which is fixed into place with gum and entwined by sinews from wallaby, kangaroo or other animals. When a piece of human bone is used as the hook the natives believe this increases the accuracy and might of the spear.

Apart from being used to throw spears, the wommera also serves in some districts as a chisel and its upper surface is used as a container for blood or other liquids. For the former use the gripping end is furnished with an adze-sharp stone, while, for the latter, the middle part of the utensil is shaped as a leaf, wider in the middle than at the ends. The flat upper side on which the hook is attached is slightly hollowed. Finally, the handle of the weapon can serve to loosen the ground when searching for roots or digging out small animals from their burrow.

In parts of Queensland and at other places the shaft of the wommera is held vertically during use. When such use is intended the hook or pin, which grips into the hollowed end of the spear, is attached on the upper edge of the shaft of the wommera at the distal end (in contrast to the weapon described previously). In North Queensland my son saw some wommeras of a kind that show a bend similar to that of a boomerang with the pin or hook attached to the concave edge of the weapon.

(c) Shields There are two kinds, one for defence during spear fights, the other for skirmishes with clubs. The former consisted of a light piece of wood or bark with a special handle, which was attached on the back in the middle. Sometimes the handle was also carved from the same piece of wood as the shield.

The club shield was thick and hard and made from fine-grained tough wood so that it did not easily crack. The timber left for the handle was cut out from the whole and recessed all around to take in the hand. Some shields, the ones for spears as well as those for clubs, were roughly ornamented with differing recessed patterns cut into the surface. The spear shields were of oval shape with a convex outer and flat inner surface.

(d) Clubs Clubs are of varying kinds and size and can be used in scuffles (hand to hand fights) or for throwing after game. The proximal ending is slightly curbed to provide a firmer grip for the hand.

(e) Axes The stone axe was an indispensable tool. Some of these axes were artfully beaten into shape from pieces of rock formed by the influence of weather and picked up by the native for their appropriate shape. Others were apparently only well-rounded smooth pebbles of the desired size and form, found in the bed of a stream or river. In every case, however, the stone was ground on one end into a cutting edge.

The grinding and sharpening of these axes was done on sandstone rocks at places close to water for easing the work. The grooves resulting from the grinding of the axes on the rocks can be seen at numerous places in different parts of the country. The blacks often also carried a flat piece of sandstone or other suitable stones with them, five to six inches long, three to four inches wide and about one inch thick, which they used as a whetstone to renew the blades of their axes.

The handle of the utensil was made from a flexible wooden slat of any kind or a piece of creeper, cut flat on one side. It was heated up in warm ash, oiled, and then wound around the stone like a sling. The two loose ends of the wood or vine were placed on top of each other and firmly tied together with a string or some animal sinews. A strong coat of putty prepared from gum over and around the wooden sling served to fasten them. When the gum loosened due to the beating it was softened over the fire and pressed back in its place.

To give the handle a better grip the upper part of the axe where the handle was wound around was roughened up. This was usually done by pecking or beating with a piece of sharp stone, which the worker held in his hand. In some cases this was continued until a groove was formed all around the end of the axe, the depth of which—for a width of one inch—varied in the middle line from about one-eighth to half an inch. A piece of flexible wood or vine was wound around this groove or around the roughened part and bound as already described.

With these rough tools the native gained the material for his shields, spears, clubs, and so on; he peeled bark with it for his gunyah; he cut the branches for his wind-roof; he climbed trees and hewed holes into them to get out animals or bees’ nests. Occasionally the axes were also used as weapons during fighting. When the hunter hewed holes into the trunk or cut branches of trees he always hit parallel to the grain of the wood instead of across the grain as the European would, widening the opening sideways until it was big enough for the desired purpose. This method was followed because it was easier to remove splinters in this way than when hitting across the grain, which would also have been harder with such a primitive tool.

(f) Boomerangs The returning boomerang is a unique weapon. The natives of India and some other regions produce a weapon somewhat similar to the boomerang, which they use for hunting or during war,[18] but no other region in the world has the quality of this instrument, that, after it is thrown, flies through the air and comes back to within a few feet of the thrower. The returning boomerang mostly serves as a toy, but sometimes it is used to kill ducks and other small animals. Keep in mind, however, that the boomerang, in order to return, must not touch anything after it is thrown; as soon as it touches any object it ceases to turn and falls to the ground.

The feature of returning is created by a light, but very distinct, turning on both ends. It can be characterized by imagining that the maker grabs the boomerang at both ends and then turns it, the left hand to the front, the other to the back. In practice the swinging is produced, if it is not already present naturally in the grain of the wood, by heating one side of the weapon, so that it curls in the desired direction. The maker helps the process by using his hands. He scrapes and polishes the wood, testing it repeatedly and altering it until the boomerang is ready. The finished weapon is flat on the underside, the upper side is slightly rounded. The edge of the outer curve, the back of the boomerang, is slightly thicker than the inner edge.

The turning of the wood, together with the flatness of one side and the convexity of the other, produces a difference of air pressure at specific places, which serves to work against gravity so that the boomerang, when the force given to it by the thrower is spent, continues its flight, but in a course towards the point of origin in a downward direction.

There is another kind of boomerang used for hunting and fighting, which in no case returns to the thrower. It is considerably bigger and heavier than the returning one and has a more open curve. It reminds one of the blade of a sabre and its inner edge is sharp and dangerous. It is a very effective weapon when thrown amongst some animals or used in war; it bounces back in a straight line.

The late Edward Palmer stated in his report concerning natives along the Mitchell, Palmer and Walsh rivers of the Cape York Peninsula, that boomerangs are used ‘more for killing wild fowl than for fighting; they are made with only a slight curve, and do not return as do those used by the Wide Bay blacks’.[19] One of my correspondents living on the peninsula wrote to me that the returning boomerang was not produced between the Mitchell River and Cape York. They were unknown there until they were brought in as trading goods during the occupation of the area by whites.

The warridilla, a hunting boomerang about two feet long, is produced by the natives from Sturt Creek and Victoria River in the Northern Territory. It consists of a bent, flat piece of wood with a protruding hook on the end of the convex edge (the back) of the weapon. The hook, which is about five inches long, goes backwards, forming an angle at the nadir of about 30 or 40 degrees. This utensil is in use by the tribes from the Western Australian border, through the Northern Territory and into Queensland, where it was encountered by Dr Roth.[20] It is then mentioned by D. W. Carnegie, who saw it amongst the natives of Western Australia.[21] I myself have described this weapon previously in ‘Ethnological Notes on the Aboriginal Tribes of the Northern Territory’.[22]