‘Boomerangs’ from the annex of Tutankhamen tomb

The Non Australian Boomerang

‘weapons thrown by the hand’

The Boomerang is one of the most iconic symbols of Australia; it adorns countless government, commercial and private insignia, its symbolic function and interpretation is as diverse as the many different types and functions of the Australian Boomerang . Increasingly, the boomerangs international interpretation largely overwrites its cultural purpose among hundreds of different language groups across Australia as weapon, tool, musical instrument or object of trade.

What differentiates Australian Boomerangs from other similar shaped ‘throwing sticks’ from around the world is the returning of the Australian boomerang. Before modern aerodynamics, one of the defining features that made the Australian returning Boomerang so unique is that the returning boomerang incorporates knowledge of the aerodynamic properties that was preserved over many generations of people.

The slanting contour with irregular curvatures that is embedded in the teaching and making of Aboriginal returning boomerangs shows the existence in pre-contact Aboriginal society of shared knowledge of an complex aspect of modern aerodynamics - asymmetrical lift , it is an example of the preservation of complex information and how this can be preserved without textbooks.


In some ways Boomerangs are iconic of early colonial Australia in itself — transported convicts from Britain that were the foundation population in 1788, and their longing to return home, echoes the functional properties of the returning boomerang, ‘like the Boomerang may you come back’ and a longing to return home become symbols of the early convict experience in Australia, embodied in the souvenir of the Boomerang.

Still today it symbolically used as souvenir that embodies the sentiment of “Please return someday” when saying goodbye to visitors and friends, many international dignitaries in Australia receiving them as gifts. Applying a comparative study to such an iconic emblem of Aboriginal Australia shows the similarities among cultural practices in different parts of the world, how they adapted tools for specific purpose in ways that do not reinforce the singularity of a homogeneous Aboriginal Australia.

Among Aboriginal Australian Boomerangs, the returning boomerang is only one among many types of boomerang that perform all manner of functions other than returning. As a technology or weapon in itself it is not unique to Australia, in purely technical terms its typology represents an advancement in the throwing of a club, its top sided curvature and flat base creates a greater wind resistance that was unique, but strictly as a hunting weapon the returning boomerang was of very limited use when compared to heavier, boomerangs.

Two international examples of the technology, from Egypt, and India, when put in comparison with the Aboriginal Boomerang show that this particular technology is found along what is believed to be one of the earliest branches of migration — out of Africa and into Australia between 80 000 BP and 60 000 BP.

In the 19th century the aerodynamic properties of Boomerangs were widely explored — facsimiles of models from museums being tested for their aerodynamic properties to classify the different stages of a Boomerangs purpose and ability. Displays of Boomerang throwing being a common feature of public events.

Variations on the shape and purpose can be found in many different cultures throughout different periods of history. International examples, one from Poland dated at 23 000 BP and another from Florida in the United states dated at 9 000 BP show that the one aspect that may be particular to both Egyptian and Aboriginal Boomerangs is the returning boomerang where as the examples from India, Poland and The United states are examples of the spread of the non returning Boomerang. The returning boomerang has even found itself entwined in the arsenal of American comic book superheroes and its metaphoric interpretation in language, there have been movies, video games, even a feature of gmail named Boomerang.


The Egyptian Boomerang

In the 19th century, thousands of Boomerangs were transported into the collections of museums and private collections throughout the world. One of these collectors, Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers, forms the basis of Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK. In the present online database of Pitt Rivers collection that there are currently listed 256 items under the category of boomerang from Australia. The earliest Boomerangs in Pitt Rivers collection as listed in Catalogue of Arms belonging to Lt Col A. Lane Fox. Gren Guards taken at Park Hill House Clapham 21st August 1862 show that by 1862 there were at least 2.

  • 160. Boomerang Australia [Possibly 1884.12.59]
  • 161. Do. [ditto] Do. [ie Boomerang Australia] [Can’t match]

In 1883 founder of the Pitt Rivers Museum Lieutenant General Pitt rivers published a paper in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland on the Egyptian Boomerang and its affinities that proposed a theory of the diffusion of the Boomerang from Egypt through sub continental India and into Australia that described the technology as having been spread through a great migration. Pitt Rivers researched many types of weapons, their use, and their production.

“incised ceremonial boomerang made out of a hippopotamus tooth. The boomerang was made during the Moyen Empire period which lasted from approximately 2033 to 1710 BC. Karnak was the Pharoah during this period. Hippo teeth are a lousy material for making boomerangs but the airfoiling is extraordinary and very much like what you would find on a good returner.material for making boomerangs but the airfoiling is extraordinary and very much like what you would find on a good returner.”

Pitt Rivers compares several examples of Egyptian boomerangs found at Thebes Egypt and held in collections of British museums that date to the 11th and 12th dynasties that he estimates to around 3064 BC (5000 years before present) and uses a comparative analysis of the similarities of its design and purpose.By 1883 Augustus Pitt Rivers by his own account already owned ‘…a suffient number in my collection’ of examples of the Australian boomerang and he had published a fascinating paper on ‘On the Egyptian Boomerang and its Affinities.’

Ancient Egyptian and African Boomerangs from Pitt Rivers Article

Egyptian boomerangs were of interest to Pitt Rivers and he would make copies of rare objects such as his examples from Thebes that were held in the British Museum.

‘I had a facsimile made of it for experiment some years ago, and found that by throwing it against the wind I could make it return to my feet several times running:’

Pitt River mentions that in his youth, 40 years prior to the the delivery of his paper he had played with copies (‘facsimiles’)of Australian Boomerangs and that knowledge of there returning properties was quite common among his peers. Nine of these facsimiles are today hold in the Pitt Rivers Museum collections.

As regard Egyptian boomerangs, Pitt Rivers concludes in On the Egyptian Boomerang and its Affinities:

‘the Egyptian boomerang is not merely a bent stick, but a real flat boomerang. It is what I call the third stage of development , and therefore its affinity to the returning boomerang of the Australians is greater than has been supposed’ [Pitt Rivers, 1883: 463]

Curators comments from the collection search of Egyptian Boomerangs in the British Museum also add an symbolic dimension to the interpretations of the Egyptian Boomerang:

“Beginning in the Old Kingdom and continuing at least through the Eighteenth Dynasty, scenes of kings and commoners hunting birds in the marshes decorated tomb and temple walls. To bring down their prey these ancient hunters used throwsticks, some of which resemble the modern boomerang; others were fashioned in the form of snakes.The meaning of these hunting scenes remains debatable. A number of scholars interpret them as representing leisure activities that the deceased wished to continue in the afterlife; others see them as charged with religious symbolism.”
‘Boomerangs’ from the annex of Tutankhamen tomb

the evolutionary classification of weapons technology

Pitt rivers collections largely illustrate the progression of hand made, hand thrown projectiles in an evolutionary context all the way up until the late 19th century mechanical projectiles of riffles muskets and guns. The more ‘evolved’ and sophisticated weapons of colonising nations in the 18th and 19th century are the very tools that represented the imbalance of power relationships that were used to colonise places like Australia and to dispossess the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people of the lands they had occupied for millennia.

Bryan Cranstone’s diagram of boomerangs

Pitt Rivers and boomerang technology by Alison Petch, Researcher ‘The Other Within’ project shows that it was not only the evolution of weapons throughout history but it was also a marker of the evolution of culture.

“Pitt Rivers was interested in his artefacts mostly for what he believed they could tell him about the evolution of people from the ‘simple to the complex’, from the earliest man to modern Victorian Englishman.”

The returning boomerang so widely known in popular culture is only one type of the larger spectrum of boomerang shaped hunting implements that were used across the Australian continent and looking internationally there are many other examples from all continents that show similar implements were designed and used by many other cultures in many other era’s. the returning boomerang is supposed as not particularly useful and

The boomerang shows the acquired knowledge among peoples of the aerodynamics of hunting implements. the weight and the shape of a hunting tool impacts on its accuracy and precision when thrown. The throwing club acts along side the spear as a part of the tool kit of the ancient hunter and while mistakenly used to represent the primitiveness of a culture in its own time was the


Dravidian ‘Boomerang’ (Southwest India)

Controversial genetic research into the Australian Aboriginal genome suggest contact between Northern Australian Aboriginal people and peoples from Southern India occurred around 4000 years ago.

“Some aboriginal Australians can trace as much as 11% of their genomes to migrants who reached the island around 4,000 years ago from India, a study suggests. Along with their genes, the migrants brought different tool-making techniques and the ancestors of the dingo, researchers say”

This time period coincides with the arrival of the Dingo in Australia and archaeologists have also postulated that this arrival is indicated in an explosion of new technologies seen in stone tool assemblages that trace the path of this migration. But there is no real consensus on how these events fit together. What is known is that the great migration out of Africa through the fertile crescent passing along the coastline of Southern India, into south eastern Asia and ultimately into North West Australia.

Beyond physical resemblance another fascinating shared cultural practices among those such as the Dravidian of Southern India and the Australian Aboriginal people is that of snake worship.

Beyond physical resemblance another fascinating shared cultural practices among those such as the Dravidian of Southern India and the Australian Aboriginal people is that of snake worship. As a hunting implement, technologically there is a similarity between the Australian Boomerang and the The Indian boomerang, known as valai tadis, that was used in several areas of the Subcontinent for hunting hares, deer and partridges. It was also used as a weapon of war.

Poland

The oldest example of a boomerang shaped hunting tool was discovered in Poland.

“the 1986 excavation of a limestone cave in southern Poland, a complete boomerang, beautifully carved from mammoth tusk and about 23,000 years old, was recovered. One boomerang that was discovered in Jaskinia Obłazowa in the Carpathian Mountains in Poland was made of mammoth’s tusk and is believed, based on AMS dating of objects found with it, to be about 30,000 years old”
23,000 years old throwstick made of mammoth tusk

North America

Located in Florida in South Eastern North America, Little Salt Spring is a archaeological site which opens an incredible window on ancient civilizations who lived on the cusp of the last ice age 10–15 ooo years ago. the sink hole was freshwater and regularly used by the animals and people that frequented the area.

“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. The portion of an oak throwing stick archaeologists call a “non-returning boomerang.” It is at least 9,000 years old and is similar to weapons found in Australia, ancient Egypt, and Western Europe.”

it is thought to have been used by The Hopi people of Arizona, hunted rabbits with it although there is very little literature about this type of weapon from north America in anthropological literature.


The Boomerang is an icon of Australia, it is a technology that is defined by its ability to return to the thrower. But the cultural and social knowledge embodied in the fear of many people that someday technology will overcome our ability as humans to control it, probably best exemplified in the terminator movies and the Schwarzenegger iconic quote “I’ll be back” :)

further reference material