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The boomerang is one of Australia's most unique and distinctive emblems.
While most of us would imagine that a boomerang's curve is essential for its flying properties, less well-known is that the surface shape of a boomerang's arms are just as important.
The main technological secret of the boomerang is not its curve, but the surface shape of its arms. Find out how the improbable idea of making such an extraordinary implement was developed by the First Nation peoples of Australia.
The enormous assortment of boomerang types seems to impress observers almost as much as their ability to come back. This multitude of forms has both intrigued and confused the public and scholars alike for well over a century.
Boomerang types can be defined only to the degree where some distinct, but not unique, features are put together. Take the boomerang's curve. It may differ not only between distinct types but also within the same type. Conversely, different kinds of boomerangs may have the same curvature.
As well, these types grade into each other. They are not exclusive like animal species. Each type, at the fringes, overlaps with other forms. In practice, the boomerang can be made into hundreds of different types, - ‘the number of combinations is infinite.’ Just to name a few varieties: club boomerangs, hooked boomerangs, bossed boomerangs, sword boomerangs, pegged boomerangs, cross boomerangs, lill-lill boomerangs.
Not surprisingly, scientific classification of boomerangs into types and varieties proved difficult. ‘The effort is futile’ complained Daniel Davidson in 1936. Not that it stopped him trying. The task became easier once the boomerang's geography was looked at more closely. Some forms of boomerang were relatively distinct and common in, although rarely exclusive to, particular regions of Australia. Finally, Davidson identified several types, named after the areas where they were most prevalent, such as the Kimberley, Western Australia, Central Australian, South Australia and Coopers Creek.
Daniel Davidson, Australian throwing sticks, throwing clubs and boomerangs. American Anthropologist 38, 1936, 76-100
Boomerangs around the world
Think of Australia and a boomerang may well come to mind as one of the country's most unique and distinctive emblems. In the shorthand of our memories the boomerang is as Australian as the kangaroo, koala or Vegemite. No-one was surprised to see Australia's 2000 Olympics logo featuring boomerangs.
More surprising, for some, is the fact that boomerangs were used for many thousands of years in other parts of the world as well. A wooden boomerang found by archaeologists in Little Salt Spring in Florida, USA, was broken and discarded by its owner some 9,000 years ago. In the 1986 excavation of a limestone cave in southern Poland, a complete boomerang, carved from mammoth tusk and about 23,000 years old, was recovered (see reference). Remember, Central Europe was then in the grip of the last Ice Age with a climate similar to northern Siberia or the north of Canada today. Trees were absent and people used bones and tusks of animals to make their tools, implements and weapons.
Few of us associate the boomerang with ancient Egypt in Northern Africa or Sumer at the head of the Persian Gulf. Yet the boomerang was used in these countries. The Sumerians, who invented the first writing system, had the graphic symbol for such an object some three thousand years before Christ was born. In 624 the Isidore of Sevilla, Archbishop and Christian scholar of late antiquity, wrote about boomerangs used at that time around the Mediterranean Sea and possibly in southern Europe. In fact, the boomerang was known outside Australia at least until the nineteenth century. The Hopi people of Arizona, USA hunted rabbits with it. The Indian boomerang, known as valai tadis, was used in several areas of the Subcontinent for hunting hares, deer and partridges. It was also used as a weapon of war.
P. Valde-Nowak, A. Nadachowski & M. Wolsan, Upper Palaeolithic boomerang made of a mammoth tusk in south Poland, Nature 329 1987, 436 - 438
Boomerangs for hunting
A word ‘Boo-mer-rit,’ used by Indigenous people of Sydney to describe the ‘Scimiter’ (or scimitar - sword with curved blade) was recorded first in 1790. Captain David Collins, an officer of the First Fleet, recorded the similar word, ‘Wo-mur-rang’ in his diary in 1798 as the name of one of the Aboriginal clubs . The word boomerang probably entered the English vocabulary in the early 1800s when proper boomerangs appeared in the Sydney region.
It appears that the boomerang as a toy, souvenir or symbol obscured its major original role as a hunting weapon. Over the years its original purpose has become increasingly distorted. Most of us still tend to see the boomerang as an ‘ethnological curiosity’ - a brilliant yet needless invention of the indigenous mind, mostly seen as a toy and an icon. In his popular book, ‘Triumph of the Nomads’, Professor Geoffrey Blainey dismisses the boomerang as an insignificant hunting implement. Benjamin Ruhe, in his 1977 book ‘Many Happy Returns’, goes even further, asserting that the boomerang could have never been a hunting weapon. The boomerang has made a long journey from the hands of Aboriginal hunters to national iconography. During this voyage its history has become distorted.
Those who witnessed Aboriginal cultures in the early colonial times left us different accounts. For example, the marine explorer Phillip Parker King observed in 1818 that a boomerang ‘is used by the natives with success in killing the kangaroo.’ Indigenous people throw the boomerang ‘making it revolve on itself, and with such a velocity that one cannot see it ... only the whizzing of it is heard’ reported Francis Barrallier in 1802. An average hunting boomerang of about 500 grams looks like a thin soaring edge in flight, ‘but where it strikes, it breaks through with excessive impetus.’ It is an effective missile within a range of 200 metres. This is nearly three times the range of a hand-thrown spear. In experienced hands the boomerang can be a deadly weapon.
The boomerang - as a hunting weapon - helps us expose some universal aspects of distant human history which, before agriculture, were shared widely across the world.
Francis Luis Barrallier ‘Expedition into the Interior of New South Wales 1802.’