Aboriginal Tools

Olman Walley, of the Nyoogar Tribe, gave a very different demonstration of Aboriginal toolmaking on Saturday from the ECU one.


Let’s face it! Any demonstration that should be beside a camp fire is not going to be entirely authentic on a plastic tablecloth on a trestle table at a venue in the city.

pounding grasstree resin to dustJason chose to use a camping gas burner, and that seems reasonable when it is impossible to be authentic. Olman chose to use firelighters in a piece of Aboriginal pottery as a rather inferior source of heat. If it had worked well, it would have heated the pottery and melted through the plastic tablecloth. The demonstration took much longer because of this, and didn’t get as much done, but what Olman said was eye opening. I learned a lot.

Using Resin for Tools

Grinding resin between two stonesThe old recipe for cooking a hare says “First catch your hare.”

You can find globules of gum that have melted in bushfires and run down to the foot of the tree. I asked Olman why I couldn’t find them, and he explained that there are many species of Xanthorrhoea locally, and I would just have to look around for a species that did dribble molten gum during a fire.

Aborigines use Grasstree (blackboy) gum (resin) in the same way that we would use fiberglass putty or superglue.

Wally started his demonstration by pounding and grinding some resin between two stones. You can also see two more lumps of resin to his left (yes he is using his left hand) on the tablecloth. To his right is a tool that he already made, with a quartz knife stuck in a blob of resin.

Jason brought to life details of his audiences. “If the quartz knife is so blunt – how can you cut with it?” Answer: “If I made it sharp, all the little children would be cutting themselves with it to see if it worked.” If you would like a sharp stone blade (or broken glass) Google flint knapping.

Strengthening Resin

Ground resinOn the left, Walley is is ready to transfer some powdered resin.

Resin by itself is very brittle and unsuitable for tools. The little boys in the audiences are usually delighted to hear that you add about 50% by volume of kangaroo droppings, and are eager to help crumble the dry droppings into the resin dust.

There were no little boys in this audience, so the Wally had to do it himself. If you have never seen kangaroo droppings, they are like very large rabbit droppings – entirely fibrous, and not at all messy.

Grinding resin between two stonesYou can see how fibrous the mixture is on the plate at the right. Up North people use Spinnifex grass for fiber instead of kangaroo droppings. It is just the fiber that makes the gum less brittle.

It can still be brittle in a spearhead. When you spear a kangaroo, the quartz shatters free of the gum, and the spear drops out, leaving the stones behind to kill the animal.

Heat Moulding

3D printers build up shapes a layer at a time with hot plastic, and we would do something similar if we only had a camp fire.

Flaming the tip of a stickWalley heats the tip of the short wooden rod. Rolling hot stick in gumThis could represent a spear, or a cutting knife – the technique is the same.

Then he rolls the hot wood into the resin/fiber mix, which sticks to the hot wood and melts. Then he goes to heat the result, but the fire has gone out. When it’s going again, he melts the resin on the stick and rolls it again in the gum dust. He kneads the softened resin when it is thick enough in the palm of his hand.

The shape of the kneaded gum depends on what the craftsman is making and how he squeezes it when it is still soft. When there is enough gum, Walley will embed a quartz flake or flakes into the resin for cutting purposes, if the fire would just stay alight.

You may wonder why should you stick the stone flakes into the gum. Well, if you don’t value your fingers too much, try this: chip a flake of glass from a broken bottle, and try to slice some raw meat with it. Was the “raw meat” you sliced your fingers? Don’t worry; they will probably heal up again in a couple of weeks.

How Can an Inferior Hunter Live?

I’ve always felt very inferior to the Aboriginal hunters. I can’t even see the kangaroos until I am almost on top of them because they remain motionless until you almost tread on them, hoping that you won’t see them.

One afternoon at a wildlife sanctuary with no cages, a tourist near me was talking about demanding her money back because there were no kangaroos. I sympathized with her – there were kangaroos in the sanctuary, just not where we were looking. They obviously weren’t in the big patch of bare ground under a tree just in front of us, because there was nothing for them to hide behind.

Then a kangaroo flicked a fly from her ear – about two paces in front of me. When I had spotted one, we all started seeing them. There were about fifteen lying in the patch of totally bare ground, and we hadn’t seen any of them.

I was imagining going hunting. A kangaroo bounds across in front of me. By the time I jerk around towards it, I’m too late to use my spear. So I go hungry for another day.

Ganging Up on The Beasts

I got it all wrong. Humans beat the beasts because we can organize to work together so well. The men and boys travel in a group. It doesn’t matter if you don’t catch anything. Other people will. If a kangaroo escapes you, another hunter will be waiting for it to bound into the reach of his spear.

Here is how you hunt waterbirds. The hunters spread around banks of the billabong (lake). Each has a handful of returning boomerangs. Two people throw boomerangs to circle the lake. That frightens the waterbirds into a group in the center of the water, and they fly up from there.

Then, depending on how big the hunter’s hand is, he throws a handful of boomerangs at once towards the center of the flying birds. A handful of boomerangs each takes a slightly different flight path. Suddenly the air is full of birds and boomerangs, and not even the best air-traffic-controller could find his way through that lot. You then swim out to retrieve downed birds and boomerangs that failed to come back.

Seniors examine small killer boomerangIf you don’t know what a returning boomerang looks like, see my earlier post. To give your boomerang the correct aerodynamic twist, you twist it between heavy stones and leave it to dry out for a few days. Returning boomerangs are toys that can come in useful sometimes.

Killer Boomerangs

Killer boomerangs fly in a straight line. They weigh a lot more and are not always the well-known boomerang shape. When your killer boomerang hits a kangaroo, bones break. Even if your target is only stunned for an instant, it gives the nearest hunter time to run up and kill it.


When the hunters get home, the eldest has the first choice of food. You may think that children will miss out, but they have been snacking all day.

If you throw six boomerangs at once, how do you sort out which are yours? Aborigines don’t own anything, so when they go to jail for stealing anything, it is against their culture.

When a group moves on, they leave nearly all their tools behind, perhaps only taking a spear and a killer boomerang in case they happen to come across prey half-way between camps. The tools for camping in woodlands are different from the tools for the grasslands and different again from the tools for the seaside. Your tools for that area will still be there probably next time you return, and if they aren’t you can make more.

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