The Origins of the Boomerang

For First Nations people the boomerang is a symbol of cultural endurance and serves as a tangible link to their millennia-long presence on this continent. Similarly to the yidaki, the ‘boomerang’ is an English term coined through the European colonists’ interpretation of this ancient hunting tool. This term was first documented in 1822 and recorded as “bou-mar-rang;” a phrase adopted from the Dharuk language of the Turuwal people from George’s River near Port Jackson, New South Wales (Queensland Museum, 2011). According to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies there are “more than 250 Indigenous Australian languages including 800 dialectal varieties...and another 100 or so spoken to various degrees by older generations” (AIATSIS, 2020). As a result, it is understandable that the First Nations peoples’ term for ‘boomerang’ varies across the continent. This is seen where the Butchulla people from Fraser Island call them ‘barcan,’ and on North Stradbroke Island the Geonpul people call them ‘barragun’ (McCarthy, F.D. 1961).

Pigmented, wooden and painted non-returning boomerang (Courtesy of NMA, 2020)

In the remote Kimberley region of north-west Western Australia, evidence of how boomerangs were used can be found on rock paintings that are 20,000 years old. Carbon dating has proven that a 10,000 year old boomerang was discovered in 1973 in a peat bog in South Australia (NMA, 2020). Clan Elder Yakar Garimala, from Bickerton Island in eastern Arnhem Land, provides insight into how the First Nations people utilised the boomerang:

“Hunting and war have always been mens’ work and they have always made their own weapons. Without a doubt the boomerang is the best known of these. They are pieces of wood carved with a slight curve, which makes them more accurate when they are thrown. The heavier they are, the more effective they will be in bringing down prey.” -Yakar Garimal

Boomerangs have a wide variety of uses such as being a weapon for hunting birds and kangaroos, emus and other marsupials.This is evident where Yakar Garimala continues:

“Our most expert hunters are capable of hitting an animal from over 160 metres. Normally they hunt small animals, though the most sought after prey, which brings the hunter the greatest prestige, is the red kangaroo, the biggest of all.” -Yakar Garimala

There are two types of boomerang: returning and non-returning. A returning or non-returning boomerang can be used for hunting birds. The technique employed by First Nations people to capture birds with boomerangs involved hanging nets between grouping trees, and then waiting until a flock of birds flew above the nets. Then they would throw their boomerangs above the flock to simulate a hovering hawk; a predator. The frightened birds would then swoop and dive to miss the ‘predator,’ only to fly into the nets set up in their flight path (NMA, 2020). Non-returning boomerangs were used to kill fish in high tidal areas where they would become trapped in rock or beach pools. These boomerangs had none of the aerodynamic qualities of returning boomerangs as they were designed to be heavier and wider so that they could slice through the water easily. The boomerang is thrown either “directly at the victim, or in such a way that one end hits the ground and the boomerang bounds in a giant stride towards it target, confused by the whistling and whirring of the foreign object flying into its existence” (McCarthy, F.D. 1961). Non-returning boomerangs could also be used as a digging stick to forage for root vegetables, and to scrape ashes away from a fire (NMA, 2020).

Due to the wide arc of flight in the returning boomerang, it was never used in warfare. As a fighting weapon, medium-weight non-returning boomerangs were thrown at enemies for close quarter skirmishing, and large boomerangs of up to two metres long were used as deadly fighting sticks (NMA, 2020). The hunting boomerang was either the same width from end to end, or had a broad middle and tapered at either end. In the hands of a skilful thrower, these thin-edged weapons travelling at a high speed, were effective and dangerous weapons, causing death or serious injuries. (McCarthy, F.D. 1961). 

Boomerangs also play an important role in formal dance ceremonies, whereby they are used as percussion instruments and accessories in interpretive dance. Two boomerangs are “striked together as clapsticks to mark the rhythm of a song or dance” (McCarthy, F.D. 1961). The style of carving and decoration of boomerangs are also a significant element in these ceremonies. Here, the boomerangs are incredibly varied just like the individual makers and the different clans across the continent (NMA, 2020).

Frederick David McCarthy (1961), Australian archaeologist and anthropologist, states that the non-returning boomerang was:

“made all over Australia except in Cape York, Arnhem Land, the northern Kimberleys and parts of the border region of South and Western Australia, localities...It is flat on one side, convex on the other, painted red and sometimes decorated with a panel of red dots on a white field at one end...another type is a dark brown boomerang used in the region extending from northern New South Wales to western and central Queensland. The incised line designs on the convex side of this smoothly polished boomerang are highly varied and among the most skilfully executed decorative work of the Aborigines. ” -Frederick David McCarthy

Hooked or ‘number 7’ non-returning boomerang used for hunting and digging for roots (Courtesy of NMA, 2020)

The returning boomerangs were smaller, lighter and narrower than the local non-returning types. Specifically, the ‘kaili’ boomerangs of Western Australia are known for being one of the best at returning to the owner. They ranged from 30cm to 76cm in length, had one convex and one concave arm, and were angled with straight, sharp ends where one edge was longer than the other. The most important technical feature was the twisting of both ends in opposite directions - one forward and one backward, which enabled it to cut through the air (McCarthy, F.D. 1961).

Returning and Non-returning boomerang purposes (Courtesy of McCarthy, F.D. 1961)

Dr Shayne T Williams (2014), from the Aboriginal community of La Perouse located on the northern side of Botany Bay in Sydney, describes the making process of the boomerang:

“People would...take the boomerang knee or elbow from the tree, get the shape they want, dry it out in the shade, and then, you know, they could sit there for a few weeks or so before it’s dried properly, and then they would actually use bits of glass and spend days and days just scraping it back, till you’ve got this smooth shape..People didn’t rush either...they had pride in what they was doing...And because this was all done by hand, you’ll always get each item quite different to the next one, because they’re not mass produced like from factories...they’ve been done by hand, actually unique. And I think that is what probably makes these things special…”

During this making process, the right degree of longitudinal twist so that the two arms were in different planes, was obtained by either heating the boomerang in hot ashy sand, and bending it over the fire, or beating it after being soaked in water. The curve and thickness of the boomerang could also be changed later on to serve its wide variety of uses, and to serve the different environmental conditions the First Nations people inhabit (NMA, 2020).

Nowadays, there aren’t many regions where First Nations people make and use boomerangs in traditional ways. This is due to colonisation, industrialisation and globalisation. However, boomerangs may still be obtained in the desert areas of Western Australia, Northern Territory, the southern portion of Cape York, and parts of the Kimberleys. The majority of these are non-returning boomerangs because the returning type are useless for hunting. Although, the returning boomerangs are still produced in places like La Perouse and Palm Island, where they are sold for souvenir trade. In the 21st century, the boomerang has become a kitsch symbol for Australian culture worldwide, and they are even modified into modern materials for hi-tech sports. Unfortunately, this process has “contributed to the cultural diversity of distinct Aboriginal nations being replaced in the popular imagination by a more homogenized identity” (NMA, 2020).

Boomerang Installation "A National Symbol" at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery (Courtesy of CIRCUIT, 2019)

If you’re interested in discovering authentic Aboriginal boomerangs, visit a small gallery or studio that supports the local Indigenous community. You can find traditional hand-painted boomerangs at places like the Boomerang Art Gallery at the Gold Coast link or the Dreamtime Kullilla Art Gallery/Shop in Clontarf, QLD.  

Additionally, if you would like to read the Dreamtime story of the creation of the boomerang as told by Bulku from Dharug land, whose ancestors were traditional custodians of much of what is modern day Parramatta, Sydney, you can find out here. However, please respect the sacredness of passing on Dreamtime stories told by Elders of First Nations communities, and do not copy the story from this page and post elsewhere.