The Spear and The Woomera

Prior to colonisation, the spear was the principle weapon used by First Nations’ people for combat and hunting purposes. Clan Elder Yakar Garimala, from Bickerton Island in eastern Arnhem Land describes that to the Yolngu people:

“the spear is our best weapon. We used them in our fight against the white men who invaded our country and drove us off the land that belonged to us.” -Yakar Garimala

Yakar Garimala goes on further to explain how his people produce spears: 

“In the jungle, we cut flexible rods of bougainvillea, with which we make spears and harpoons for fishing. Once outside the forest, we make a fire and heat the flexible rods to harden them. Then, we remove the bark and cut them to the right size for each man.” -Yakar Garimala

Hunter throwing a three-pronged spear in Mularrmuli Billabong near Bulman and Weemol, south of Arnhem Land. Courtesy of Luido Kuipers, 1983

After these steps, the tip of the shaft is carved into a point and bound with copper wire. This acts as a safety measure to prevent the shaft from splitting when the steel prongs are forced into the shaft head. The multiple pronged spear head is mainly used for fishing as the steel barbs are designed to “spread outward upon contact with the prey, ensuring less chance of loss prior to the spear’s retrieval.” Single-tipped spears and spears equipped with several microliths are also used for fishing, and hunting of land animals. Microliths are small stone barbs hammered into the spear shaft. The sheer impact of this type of spear produces significant tissue damage to the prey, and the shrapnel-like fragments that break off in the process create secondary lacerations (Koori History, 2019).

Traditionally, the steel prongs on the spearhead would have been made from bird or mammal bone, such as emu or kangaroo, stingray spines, shells, fish teeth or hardwood. The binding agent to hold these materials onto the spear shaft would have been made from dried kangaroo tendons or a particular type of bark. On completion of the spear, it would usually be around 270 centimeters long (Koori History, 2019).

Different types of hunting spears. Courtesy of MBantua, 2020

Throughout riverine areas, rushes and reed stems are used, which result in the production of lightweight spears. In dry climates, spears are made from the stem of a Grass Tree, or from the roots of drought tolerant trees such as the acacia tree (Koori History, 2019). Along the coast lines, in east Arnhem Land which is surrounded by red forked cliffs, ironbark tree saplings are sought out as they are hearty and of a heavier-weight for producing more force when thrown at the hunter’s prey. The ironbark tree is significant to the Yolngu people as it has multiple purposes such as making yidakis and hut structures, and for making Larrakitj - painted memorial poles hollowed out for coffins of important clan members (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2020).

Yakar Garimala provides insight into the tactics the Yolngu people - very skilled fishermen - use when spear hunting in the ocean:

“When the tide goes out, we fish for the dangerous stingrays that hide in the sand. It takes practice to find them hidden in the sand and not stand on them. Their stings are very painful, but our fishermen are almost never caught by surprise. They launch their harpoons into them from a distance. When they have caught them, they hold the tail in their mouth and pull out the poisonous sting. After pulling off the skin and gutting them, we pound and knead the flesh with our hands, and eat it raw. It’s a real delicacy.”  -Yakar Garimala

Woomera painted by Albert Namatjira, c.1950. Courtesy of Hermannsburg Mission, NT

Woomera tip, c.1950. Courtesy of Hermannsburg Mission, NT

Spear throwers, also known as the ‘woomera' or ‘miru’, allow hunters to apply more force, speed and distance when launching their spears through the water. A woomera is usually made from Mulga wood, and serves many other purposes such as a: receptacle for mixing ochre for traditional paintings for ceremonies, deflection tool of enemies’ spears in battle, fire making saw, or a utensil for chopping game. This tool is usually 60cm long and 12cm wide, and comes in a concave, elliptical shape. In order to grip the woomera, one end is tapered and covered in a knob of hardened spinifex resin. The upper end forms into a fine point and has a sharp piece of quartz rock inserted into spinifex resin. The end of the spear is pierced into the tip of the quartz rock to hold the spear into place, until it is ready to be launched at prey or an enemy (MBantua, 2020).

Woomeras are traditionally decorated with painted designs, using ochres, or incised designs with clan motifs. Different Indigenous clans had different shapes and styles of woomera. This could determine which region and clan they belonged to. For example, woomeras found in the central desert are very wide with a slight concave shape; whereas those belonging to the Kimberley are narrow, flat and long. A Karajarri woomera has a tight interlocking, complex design, which represents the patterns of womens’ dancing foot drag tracks during open ritual ceremonies. They also represent natural wind patterns of longitudinal dunes, once made by the Creation Heroes from the Great Sandy Desert.