Spears and Spear-Throwers of the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia
By Richard A. Gould
Assistant Curator of North American Archeology, the American Museum of Natural History
Article review by Chris Oberg
Dr Gould presents a unique picture of aboriginal life that would be impossible to record today. His thorough presentation of spear use represents only a fraction of Australian aboriginal information he and his wife have collected and published. An even more comprehensive account of Australian aboriginal life can be found in Dr. Gould's book Yiwara; foragers of the Australian desert. The following review attempts to highlight only a small portion of information found in the 42 page article Spears and Spear-Throwers of the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia published in American Museum Novitates number 2403, February 18, 1970. I have indicated direct quotes in italic, the remainder is simply reworded information from Dr. Gould's article in a feeble attempt to avoid the wrath of the copyright gods. All photographs and illustrations used in this review are are included for educational pruposes only. Do yourself a favor and check book out at your local library! You won't be sorry.
In February 1966 Dr. Gould and his wife began a 16 month study of the Western Desert Australian aborigines. Their extensive ethnographic study included an in-depth examination of spears and spear throwers as they are used in spiritual, cultural and survival settings. Dr. Gould provides a glimpse of aboriginal life among people at a time when they still depended on the spear-thrower for survival. He begins his artilce with some of the earliest accounts of spear use date back to 1872 were Ernest Giles described his observations. "Each carried two enormously long spears, two-thirds mulga wood and one-third reed at the throwing end, of course having the instrument with which they project these spears called by some tribes of natives only, but indiscriminately all over the country by whites, a woomerah. It is in the form of a flat ellipse, elongated to a sort of tail at the holding end, and short-pointed at the projecting end; a kangaroo's claw or wild dog's tooth is firmly fixed by gum and gut-strings. The projectile force of this implement is enormous, and these spears can be thrown with the greatest precision for more than a hundred yards." (Liles, 1889, p. 114) Another account from 1874 by John Forrest described, "Each had two spears, very long and thick, and made out of three pieces spliced together, with large barbs on them." (Forrest, 1875, p.229) Another, more complete and accurate report came from Richard Helms, a member of the Elder Exploring Expedition of 1891. "SPEAR, Winda. Two kinds: the one with a barb near the point, and the other with a smooth, flattened, and pointed head of hard wood about eight inches in length fastened to them. Some of the shafts are whole, and others made of two pieces, and spliced together. Sinews are used for the splicing of the shafts and the fastening of the barbs, etc.
"SPEAR-THROWER, Mira nakata. In shape this implement differs considerably from all others of its kind. It is slightly curved backwards, convex at the back, and deeply concave on the upper side. On account of this hollowness, that will allow the spear to lie perfectly free between the hook and the hand, it is probably better adapted for its purpose than any other known. Length about two feet two inches, with three and a half inches in its widest part, narrowly tapering towards the handle. The hook is fastened with sinew and cement, and at the other end a piece of flint, that serves as a chisel, is attached with a lump of cement, which prevents the hand from sliping when the spear is thrown. The implement it will be seen, serves for making weapons and tools, as well as for flinging the spear." (Helms, 1896, p. 269). Goulds observations and attention to detail in the daily use of the spear-thrower is enhanced by his ethnographic background durring his extended interaction with the people of the Western desert.