Four summers ago, Katheryn Litherland, a Yandruwandha Yawarrawarrka woman from north-eastern South Australia, and Jason Litherland, a National Parks and Wildlife Service worker, discovered something remarkable as they explored the unseasonably dry creek bed of Kinipapa (Cooper Creek). It was a time of drought, and as they cleared rubbish left by visitors among the river red gums and coolibahs lining the dry banks, the pair found an assemblage of four extraordinarily rare non-returning boomerangs buried in the creek bed, hinting at the region’s rich, pre-European past.
Now, an analysis of the boomerangs led by the Yandruwandha Yawarrawarrka Traditional Landowners Corporation, in collaboration with Australian Heritage Services, Flinders University and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), has dated the artefacts. It has found that the boomerangs span AD 1650 to AD 1830, being used in the centuries leading up to European incursions into the region by Sturt, Burke and Wills.
The boomerang is an iconic tool used by Traditional Owners across Australia since time immemorial – the oldest discovered boomerang is at least 10,000 years old, and boomerangs are depicted in cave art in the Kimberley painted around 20,000 years ago.
But since they’re made from perishable wood, finding them preserved in the soil is rare.
“Such assemblages are rarely found, and even less are published,” says Amy Roberts, co-author of the new study in Australian Archaeology and a researcher at Flinders University. The four Kinipapa boomerangs, one of just six known boomerang assemblages across Australia, thus offer an exceedingly rare window into the past.
“The assemblage reveals a variety of form and function representative of the diverse cultural activities and daily lives of the Aboriginal people who lived near significant waterholes in the Cooper Creek region during this period,” says Roberts.
Beyond use as projectiles, the analysis of the boomerangs found that they were likely used for fighting, hunting, digging, fire management and potentially in ceremonies, too – but figuring out what these degraded wooden tools were used for required expert sleuthing.
“We did some microscopic imaging and inspected them at a macro level,” says Roberts. “We look for cracks from impact, manufacturing traces, we look for things like charring, and also the shape – some are flatter, some are curved, some have a different cross section.”
Study co-author Daryl Wesley from Flinders University notes that “this range of activities goes well beyond the stereotype of the returning boomerang known to most Australians.”
But the authors warn that as the climate changes, the unique conditions of the region, which preserved these artefacts, are also changing, making discoveries of this type increasingly unusual.
“The area where they were found is a near-permanent waterhole within the creek itself,” says Roberts. “In extreme drought, some of those places will dry out, and with predictions of climate change that increase aridity, it’s going to increase the drying of those places, and for wooden objects that’s not ideal preservation.”
For Roberts, educating people about the variety and diversity of ancient material culture in the region is of paramount importance as these rare glimpses of ancient life look set to become even rarer.
“Part of the reason we do this is about educating people about how diverse Aboriginal material culture was in the past, to give people a greater awareness to protect that heritage,” she says.
For the local Traditional Owners, the find is an opportunity to learn about their ancestors from their own landscape.
“For Yandruwandha and Yawarrawarrka people, the finds provide another example of how their Country continues to tell the stories of their ancestors, as well as affording a tangible connection to the knowledge passed down from their families,” says Joshua Haynes, a Yandruwandha Yawarrawarrka traditional owner and co-author.
Katheryn Litherland, the boomerangs’ original discoverer and co-author of the study, says that “when you see them old people in whirly winds you know they are here watching and protecting our Country. We will continue to protect and preserve our artefacts on Country; that’s what our ancestors would want us to do.”