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Spinifex And Sand by David W. Carnegie




(Letters (A to O) refer to the illustrations)

1. SPEARS.—A. Of Desert native; B. Of Kimberley native; C. Method of throwing.

Illustration 30: A,B Spears

A. The spear of the desert man is either sharp pointed, spatulate pointed, or barbed. They vary in length from 8 feet to 10 feet, and in diameter, at the head (the thickest portion), from 1/2 inch to 1 inch. As a rule, a man carries a sheaf of half a dozen or more.

B. In the Kimberley District the spears are of superior manufacture and much more deadly. The heads are made of quartz, or glass, or insulators from the telegraph line. Before the advent of the white man quartz only was used, and from it most delicately shaped spear-heads were made, the stone being either chipped or pressed. I fancy the former method is the one employed—so I have been told, though I never saw any spear-heads in process of manufacture.

Since the white man has settled a portion of Kimberley, glass bottles have come into great request amongst the natives, and most deadly weapons are made—spears that, I am told, will penetrate right through a cattle-beast, and which are themselves unimpaired unless they strike on a bone. When first the telegraph line from Derby to Hall's Creek and thence to Wyndham was constructed, constant damage used to be done to it by the natives who climbed the poles and smashed the insulators for spear-head making. So great a nuisance did this become that the Warden actually recommended the Government to place heaps of broken bottles at the foot of each pole, hoping by this means to save the insulators by supplying the natives with glass!

The stone or glass heads are firmly fixed in a lump of spinifex gum, and this is held firm on the shaft by kangaroo tail sinews. The shaft is of cane for half its length, the upper part being of bamboo, which is found on the banks of the northern rivers.

Up to a distance of eighty to one hundred yards the spears can be thrown with fair accuracy and great velocity.

The length of these spears varies from 10 feet to 15 feet. The one shown in sketch is of glass, and is one-half actual size.

In the Nor'-West (that is, the country lying between the Gascoyne and Oakover rivers), wooden spear-heads with enormous barbs are used. Sometimes the barbs are placed back to back, so that on entering a body they can be pulled neither forward nor back.

Illustration 31: C Woomera

C. THE WOOMERA (or Wommera)—the throwing-board—held in the hand as in sketch. The spears rest on the board, and are kept in place by the first finger and thumb and by the bone point A, which fits into a little hollow on the end of the shaft. The action of throwing resembles that of slinging a stone from a handkerchief. As the hand moves forward the spear is released by uplifting the forefinger, and the woomera remains in the hand. These boards vary in size and shape considerably; that shown in the sketch is from the northern portion of the desert. In the central portion the weapons are more crude and unfinished. In the handle end of the woomera a sharp flint is often set, forming a sort of chisel.

In Kimberley the long spears are thrown with narrow and light boards varying from 2 feet 6 inches to 3 feet 6 inches in length.

I believe that the method of holding the spear varies somewhat, some natives placing the handle of the woomera between the first and remaining fingers.

2. TOMAHAWKS.—D. Iron-headed; E. Stone-headed.

Illustration 32: D Iron Tomahawks

D. Pieces of iron, such as horseshoes, fragments of the tyres of wheels, and so forth, are traded from tribe to tribe for many hundreds of miles. Those shown in sketch were found about lat. 21° 50´, long. 126° 30´.

E. Stone Tomahawk—from Sturt Creek—given to me by Mr. Stretch.

Illustration 33: E Stone Tomahawks

The head is of a very dark and hard green stone, ground to a fine edge, and is set between the two arms of the handle and held in place with spinifex gum.

The handle is formed by bending round (probably by means of fire) a single strip of wood.

The two arms of the handle are sometimes held together by a band of hair-string.

The iron tomahawks are similarly made.

3. BOOMERANGS.—These weapons are now so well known that a description of the ordinary pattern would be superfluous. However, near Dwarf Well we found one of uncommon shape; and until reading a book on a Queensland tribe I was unaware of its use, nor could I find any one who had seen one of like shape. The weapon in question is the Beaked or Hooked boomerang (F).

Mr. W. Roth, in his Ethnological Studies Among the North-West Central Queensland Aborigines, says:—

It appears that when warding off a blow from a boomerang of any description the defence consists in holding forwards and vertically any stick or shield that comes to hand, and moving it more or less outwards, right or left as the case may be, thus causing the missile on contact to glance to one or the other side. The hook is intended to counteract the movement of defence by catching on the defending stick around which it swings and, with the increased impetus so produced, making sure of striking the one attacked.
Illustration 34: F Boomerangs
Illustration 35: G Clubs and throwing-sticks


1. The uses of these are sufficiently obvious to make a description unnecessary.

2. The throwing-sticks are used chiefly in hunting, and for guarding a blow from a boomerang. Most that I have seen were made of mulga (acacia) hardened by fire.

5. SHIELDS.—H. Of hard wood (Mulga); I. Of soft wood (Cork bark).

Illustration 36: H,I Shields

H. The hard-wood shields are carved from a solid piece of mulga, are grooved to turn spears, and slightly curved for the same purpose. The handles stand out from the back. These were found as far North as lat. 25°S.

I. The soft-wood shields found North of lat. 25° are of about the same size, but are not grooved. Their faces are rounded; the handles are gouged out. It is interesting to notice how in each example the most serviceable shield has been made in the easiest way. The mulga splits into boards, and so cannot be obtained of any thickness, so flat shields are made; whereas the cork wood is a soft and very readily worked tree and can be carved and hacked into shape with the rudest implements, such as that shown in sketch (J).

Illustration 37: J,K Quartz knife

6. QUARTZ KNIFE (K). With this exceedingly rough implement self-inflicted gashes on the chest and arms (presumably for ornamentation) are made. The rites of circumcision, and other initiatory operations, for the proper performance of which one would suppose the skill of a trained surgeon necessary, are carried out by means of this crude blade.


Illustration 38: L Ceremonial sticks

In almost every camp flat sticks of various sizes, shapes, and carvings, similar to those shown above, were found. They were always carefully wrapped up in bark secured by hair-string. They are said to be used by the blacks in their several initiation ceremonies, but what their use or significance is, is not known. No tame boy (i.e., native who can speak English) will divulge their mysterious meaning. I have repeatedly asked about them, but have never succeeded in getting any answer beyond “I dunno, gin (or lubra) no more see 'em; gin see 'em, she tumble down quick fella.” There must be some very queer superstition connected with them, since the ladies die on seeing them. Indeed, the black fellow has a somewhat arbitrary method of dealing with his gins, and should they be ill-advised enough to attempt to argue with him, does not wait to produce a flat stick, but silences them with a club.


M. Three of similar pattern found at Alexander Spring.

N. Found at Empress Spring hidden away with two similar to M.

Illustration 39: M,N Rain-making boards

With reference to these queer and rudely carved boards I received a letter from Mr. W. H. Cusack, of Roebourne, North-West Australia, in which he says:—

The implement you allude to is used by the “Mopongullera,” or Rain-doctor, at their ceremony which they hold annually when they are making the rain. They are very rare, as there is only one every two hundred miles or so in the country. They are generally left at the rain ground, where you found yours, or placed in a cave, where the only one I have seen IN TWENTY-FIVE YEARS was found. They are the most sacred implements they possess

It would seem from the foregoing that we were specially lucky in seeing so many of these boards—viz., six within a distance of fifty miles—though it is possible that of the three found at Alexander Spring (on the occasion of our second visit) two might be identical with two of the three found at Empress Spring. Between our two visits to Alexander Spring there had evidently been a considerable gathering of blacks, and, considering the droughty appearance of the country, it seems feasible that on this occasion every available rain-making board was brought into use.

We were unfortunately unable to carry the Empress Spring boards, owing to their bulk and unwieldy shape.

From the other spot, however, seeing that we were nearing our journey's end, I brought one board—the only one unbroken—into civilisation. This I gave to Sir John Forrest, who in his journey across the Colony in 1874 found a similar board at the same place. In his journal he writes:—

I named it Alexander Spring, after my brother. . . . We also found about a dozen pieces of wood, some 6 feet long and 3 to 7 inches wide, and carved and trimmed up. All around were stones put up in forked trees. I believe it is the place where the right of circumcision is performed.

Mr. Cusack's statement as to their extreme rarity in the Nor'-West, taken in conjunction with Sir John's experience and ours, would point to the strong reliance the natives must place on their Rain-doctor's abilities, for where the rainfall is comparatively great these boards are rare, while in the almost waterless interior, at a spot almost exactly in the centre of the Colony, nearly a dozen have been found. I would respectfully point out to the black-fellows how little their efforts have been successful, and would suggest the importation of several gross of boards, for the climate at present falls a long way short of perfection!

In the McDonnell Ranges (Central Australia) performers in the rain-dance wear on their heads a “long, erect, and ornamented structure of wood” (Horn Scientific Expedition, part iv.). This structure is not carved, but picked out with down made to adhere by blood, and is apparently some 3 to 4 feet long. From the length of the boards we found (one being 10 feet), I should say that some other method of using them must be in vogue amongst the desert tribes.


Illustration 40: O Message sticks

These little sticks, rounded, carved, and painted with grease and red ochre, are known as either letter sticks or message sticks, and are common all over the continent. The carvings are supposed by some to represent the actual words of the message; by others it is held—and to this view I am inclined—that the sticks are tokens carried by a messenger to show that his words are authentic, and each stick belongs to one tribe or individual whose identity is shown by the carvings. They vary in length from 2 1/2 to 8 inches.

The sketch (O) shows the same stick turned three times.