Teacher background information
Year 2 Science Content Description
The many and varied utensils of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long been carefully constructed to fulfil specific purposes. Often, for implements to possess particular properties such as strength, flexibility and durability, different materials need to be combined. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples use a range of techniques to construct composite utensils including hafting, weaving, sewing and gluing. Prior to colonisation, all the required resources to construct such implements were carefully and considerately acquired from the environment. Today, the construction of utensils continues, sometimes using natural and contemporary materials that are combined using knowledges and techniques passed down through generations for thousands of years. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to investigate the ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples combine materials to produce utensils such as spears, drills, blankets, spear-throwers, nets, axes and adzes.
For many thousands of years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have constructed utensils using a variety of methods to combine materials. Techniques such as hafting, weaving, sewing and gluing have long been essential skills required for the construction of implements that fulfil particular purposes. The combination of materials utilises their individual properties to improve the function of an implement or to confer desirable or additional properties to an implement. For example, hafting is the process of fitting a handle to a tool. This combination improves the function of the implement by increasing leverage. The many procedures that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have used to combine materials in the construction of utensils for thousands of years have been carefully considered to improve the properties of an implement.
Hafting is a process that has long been used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to attach stone blades to wooden handles in the manufacture of axes, adzes, spears, drills and knives. By combining materials to add a handle to such implements, the resulting tool has a wider range of functions and can be used with greater leverage. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have in-depth knowledge of the materials and combining techniques that are involved in hafting, to ensure a handle is firmly attached to a blade and can withstand the impact forces imparted during its use. Resins obtained from particular plant species are often used to cement or glue components together in the hafting process; the resins are shock absorbent and render the finished product fit for purpose.
The Djargurd Wurrung Peoples of south-west Victoria have been described as constructing stone axes by combining a wedge of green stone, ground at one end to produce a sharp edge, with a sturdy handle formed from a folded length of sapling branch looped around the stone. The components are hafted together by binding with kangaroo sinew and cemented into place with wattle (Acacia spp.) gum. The Kalkadoon Peoples of western Queensland construct a wa-rum-per-ta, a stone axe manufactured by hafting a ground stone edge onto a wooden handle. The handle is manufactured by bending a single length of wood in the middle and binding this wooden haft above and below with possum sinew. The stone head is then cemented into the wooden loop with spinifex resin or bloodwood gum.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples also manufactured adzes, cutting tools with the blade hafted at right angles to the handle, by combining different materials. A particular type of adze known as a tula adze, has been recorded as being made by the Wongkanguru Peoples of South Australia. The edge of this adze is crafted from a material, such as chert, that is flaked into a sharp blade. A wide flat top allows for easy hafting and the prepared edges are hafted into the ends of a length of wood. The sharp edge is hafted to the handle using a mixture of grass tree resin combined with ash and kangaroo dung to strengthen the cement.
Hafted utensils are widely documented across Australia. An interesting example of hafting is demonstrated in the tooth drills of the Lamalama Peoples of the eastern Cape York Peninsula. These drills are constructed by incising one end of a wooden handle with two cuts at right angles. String is used to bind the distal ends of the incision to prevent it splitting further up the wooden handle. The tooth of a large animal, such as a kangaroo, is wedged into the incision and firmly fixed into place by binding with strong twine and cementing with plant resin. This hafting technique looks remarkably similar to a contemporary drill chuck. The combination of materials by hafting blades to handles using binders, adhesives and cement mixtures to secure the components in place, confers the properties of strength and durability; this makes the tool more useful as it can be used with increased force and leverage.
Spears and spear-throwers have long been constructed by combining different materials in a variety of ways. Composite spears are constructed using several different materials; the type of material depends on its intended function. Hunting spears for large game must be strong, heavy and durable for maximum impact, while fishing spears need to be buoyant, lightweight and barbed for easy recovery after discharge and to prevent the fish from escaping. An advantage of composite spears is that a damaged component, such as a broken tip, can be easily replaced rather than constructing an entirely new implement.
The Pitta Pitta Peoples of western Queensland use three different timbers to construct a per-cha ma-ro (Pitta Pitta language that describes a type of composite spear that translates to “peg possessor” in English, as it is thrown with a spear-thrower). A heavy wood such as Acacia spp. is selected for the main shaft and a lighter wood, such as pine, is used for the rear shaft to give the spear strength, optimal mass distribution and flexibility. The two shaft components are firmly attached by splicing the woods together and gluing with spinifex resin. A hook is mounted into a wooden tip, and then bound to the shaft with sinew or fibre. In the Musgrave Ranges region of the Western Desert, the Yankunytjatjara Peoples construct oiritchanna (composite hunting spears) from different woods to construct spears that have a flexible shaft and a hard, durable tip. A light flexible wood, obtained from plants such as the wonga wonga vine, is used for the spear shaft, and a hard, heavy material such as mulga is used to construct the spear head. The components of the spear are bound together using kangaroo sinew.
Spear-throwers are implements that increase the velocity and accuracy of projectiles using lever mechanisms. They consist of a shaft, with a grip at one end and a small peg at the other, that is designed to fit the base of the spear to be launched. The shaft and peg are often made out of different materials to withstand the impact of different physical stresses on the components. The shaft is often constructed from timber, while the peg that holds and launches the spear and is subjected to stress forces, may be constructed from bone, tooth, stone or wood. The components are bound together using material such as animal sinew or plant fibre, and the join is reinforced with resin, gum or wax. Spear-throwers were reportedly constructed by the Ngarrindjeri Peoples of the lower Murray River region in South Australia with a small, elongated wooden shaft and a peg made of animal bone or tooth, deeply embedded in resin. The Larrakia Peoples of the coastal region of the Northern Territory near Darwin construct long wooden spear-throwers with a wooden peg attached with plant fibre and beeswax. The combination of materials and the processes used in the construction of spear-throwers ensures that they are effective levers that can withstand the stress forces associated with launching a spear.
Weaving fibres with other materials is a technique that has long been used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to construct utensils, and is widely evident across Australia. The Dyirbal Peoples of far north Queensland construct animal nets and traps from a range of materials. Bala warrany (that translates to turkey net in English) and bala mugarru (that translates to butterfly net in English, due to its winged shape), are constructed from lengths of lawyer cane onto which the net is woven. Bala warrany is a turkey trap that is constructed by setting several lengths of lawyer cane into the ground and bending the cane over into a semi-circular shape. The netting is then placed over the top of the frame and knotted or fixed to the frame. One end is closed while the other remains open to capture the turkey that enters the net. Bala mugarru is a folded fishing net that is shaped like the wings of a butterfly, giving the net its name. It is constructed by combining two lengths of lawyer cane, bent into a curved shape, with netting that is knotted along each length of cane from one end to the other. The net is used to catch fish, turtles, eels and other aquatic animals. The net is held ajar and dragged through the water so that fish and other organisms swim into the net. The two wings of the net are then brought together to close the net, thus entrapping the catch. Combining materials creates a net with a strong and flexible frame and a fine fibre mesh to capture important resources effectively.
Other woven utensils, such as baskets and bags, are also made by combining different materials. In the Alligator River region of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, the lands of the Gaagudju, Jawoyn and Kunwinjku Peoples, watertight baskets were reportedly constructed by weaving a combination of Pandanus and Livistonia fibres, sealing the inside with a thin layer of wax, and decorating the outside with a mixture of ochre and other pigments. The Lamalama Peoples of the eastern Cape York Peninsula weave the reddish coloured fibres from Acacia latifolia alternately with white coloured fibres from Brachychiton diversifolium to produce a horizontally striped woven bag.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long utilised the gluing process, using adhesives derived from gums, resins and beeswax, to manufacture and repair utensils. Adhesive cements can alter the qualities of an implement to make it fit for purpose. For example, applying adhesive cement can ensure that an item is waterproof and improve its durability. Sheaths for fire drill sticks are manufactured to protect the sticks from moisture and are constructed by combining a number of materials. Aboriginal Peoples of northern Queensland constructed and decorated protective sheaths for fire sticks. The adhesive used in the construction of the sheath acted to provide a waterproof cover for the sticks and as an adhesive to attach the ornamental seeds. In parts of the Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland, the sheath for fire sticks is made using Pandanus spp. leaves bent over the sticks, bound with twine, and sealed with beeswax. These covers are decorated using the adhesive property of the beeswax to glue bright red jequirity bean (Abrus precatorius). On the central Queensland–Northern Territory border, the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu Peoples crafted hafted blade knives and sheaths to protect the blades. The knives were constructed with flaked stone points embedded in resin and hafted onto a wooden handle. Sheaths of paperbark sheets, wrapped tightly with fibre and bird down inserted into the end, protected and preserved the blade. The Meriam Peoples of the Island of Mer in the Torres Strait, and Peoples of the western Cape York region, crafted knives using shark teeth fixed onto a length of wood with gum-cement or resin.
Body adornments and regalia required the use of adhesives; feathers, down, seeds and leaves were glued to items such as headdresses or attached directly to the body. The Awngthim Peoples of the western Cape York Peninsula reportedly used beeswax to attach the bright feathers of the lorikeet and flowers of the batwing coral tree to their body. The Peoples of the Eora Nation in the region now known as Sydney reportedly used grass tree resin to attach animal bones and teeth into hair or onto a decorative headband.
The utensils and clothing manufactured by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples prior to colonisation provided physical protection and were manufactured from a range of materials that were sewn together. For warmth and for protection from wet weather, skin cloaks were typically manufactured. Waterproof protection was provided by the oily, water-repellent hairs which were further enhanced when the cloaks were rubbed with fat; this combination improved the insulating properties of the materials. The cloaks were large and could also be used to sleep on at night, acting as both mattress and blanket. Possum skin cloaks have long been a culturally important, essential item of clothing, particularly for Peoples whose Country/Place encompasses the colder climates across the south east of Australia. Often, the inner surface of each cloak was incised and painted with ochre to depict themes from nature or stories of identity, kinship, family group and Country. As cloaks were worn from a young age the cloaks are initially small with only a few skins sewn together. Additional skins are sewn onto the cloak as the individual grows. Kangaroo sinew was frequently used to sew the skins together, with up to 70 skins required to manufacture an adult sized cloak. After European colonisation the manufacture of possum skin cloaks was prohibited. However, revival of the practice is providing a significant way for many Aboriginal Peoples, including the Gunditjmara and Yorta Yorta Peoples of Victoria, to reconnect with traditional sewing practices and restore their cultures.
This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to investigate the variety of ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples combine materials for particular purposes. Processes such as hafting, weaving, sewing and gluing have long been used, and in many cases continue to be used, to combine materials in the manufacture of utensils. Through combining materials the properties of implements can be enhanced, thus improving the functionality of the utensil for its intended purpose. Students can learn how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long carefully considered the selection of suitable materials used in the production of utensils.
In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:
Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.
I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.
The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (2017). Possum Skin Cloak. Retrieved from https://aiatsis.gov.au/exhibitions/possum-skin-cloak
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Blacklock, F. (n.d.) Aboriginal skin cloaks. Retrieved from https://www.nationalquiltregister.org.au/aboriginal-skin-cloaks/
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McCarthy, F. D. (1944). Adzes and adze-like implements from eastern Australia. Records of the Australian Museum, 21(5), 267-271.
Moore, M. W. (2003). Australian aboriginal blade production methods on the Georgina River, Camooweal, Queensland. Lithic Technology, 28(1), 35-63.
Moore, M. W. (2004). The tula adze: Manufacture and purpose. Antiquity, 78(299), 61-73.
Powell, O., Fensham, R. J., & Memmott, P. (2013). Indigenous use of spinifex resin for hafting in north-eastern Australia. Economic botany, 67(3), 210-224.
Roth, W. (1897). Ethnological studies among the North-West-Central Queensland Aborigines. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Roth, W. E. (1901). North Queensland ethnography: String and other forms of strand: Basketry-, woven bag-, and net-work (Bulletin No. 1). Brisbane: G. A. Vaughan, Government Printer.
Roth, W. E. (1904). North Queensland ethnography: Domestic implements, arts, and manufactures (Bulletin No. 7). Brisbane: G.A. Vaughan, Government Printer.
Rots, V. (2016). Projectiles and hafting technology. In R. Iovita and K. Sano (Eds.), Multidisciplinary approaches to the study of Stone Age weaponry (pp. 167-185). Dordrecht: Springer.
Spencer, B. (1922). Guide to the Australian ethnographical collection in the National Museum of Victoria. Melbourne: Government Printer.