Tools and Blackboy Resin

Australian Aborigines made extensive use of “blackboy gum” (Xanthorrhoea species) which is really a resin not a gum, for building tools and weapons.


Modules of blackboy gumI visited the local bush land this morning to take a photograph showing blackened modules of resin like the ones in the picture on the left here, but couldn’t find any.

If anybody can tell me where in Wanneroo I could find resin module on the ground beside a blackboy tree, please leave a comment. I would like to get a photograph showing the modules with the trunk of the blackboy in the background to replace this picture.

OK. I now know why I couldn’t find resin modules. Xanthorrhoea preissii Endl called “balga” by the local Aborigines doesn’t drip resin during a fire. You can still boil an old tree trunk and collect the resin that melts into the water.

Anyhow, the Aborigines used this resin to make all sorts of tools, and the rest of this post describes a demonstration put on by Edith Cowan University. The methods are slightly modernized.

city of Perth, W. AustraliaThe picture on the right shows the idea behind the exhibition. Jason Barrow gave us a competent and entertaining demonstration. Demonstrators believe in Murphy’s Law “If something can go wrong it will.” Jason beat the law, and everything went very smoothly.

Pounding and grinding resin to powderOn the left the children enjoy being destructive, pounding lumps of resin small then grinding them under the stones to get fine dust.

Jason is going to demonstrate a method that has been modernized to make resin pliable like putty for a short time.

What is different is that the Aborigines never discovered how to boil water in a container over a fire. Their method was much more fun.

You put stones into the fire. Stones explode if there is too much water in them. Then you drop the very hot stones into the water in a container, which boils instantly if the stones are hot enough.

city of Perth, W. AustraliaThe picture on the right shows Jason getting ready to drop powdered blackboy “gum” into a beaker of hot water. Gum melts at a little below the boiling point of water.

Manipulating hot gum

Gum is hydrophobic – and tries to get as far away from water as possible – like little boys. This is very difficult when you are heavier than water and sink to the bottom. All the gum can do is clump together and stick to anything that you use to stir it.

You can see on the left how yellow the water is in the beaker because Jason has just stirred most of the gum out. You can see a little black lump still left at the bottom of the beaker.

Children watch kneading resin.Now Jason has a limited time to knead the gum into the shape that he wants, before it cools to a hard glassy mass.

Blackboy gum handle on cutting tool.The children in the picture at the left seem to think that they don’t see things going on like that every day.

That is one way to use the gum. Jason used it to make the tool pictured on the right. The dark mass of gum forms a good handle to avoid cutting yourself on the sharp flint knife.

There is another way that doesn’t use water at all. A young lady demonstrated the start of using fire instead of water; then Jason took over. The fire came from a camping gas burner instead of a campfire.

Rolling hot stick in powdered gum.Flaming the resin lumpThe first step is to heat up the tip of your spear – imagine the little stick is a spear. Then you roll the hot tip in powdered gum as in the picture on the left.

You keep holding the stick and the gum in the flame, then rolling the mass in the powder, until you have a big enough lump of gum on the end of the stick.

Rolling the resin lump in powderYou can see the gum looks black in the photograph on the left.

Embedding a flint bladeAt this point Jason took over to do what I think would be the decidedly uncomfortable job of shaping hot resin with his bare hands. On the right you can see he has flattened out the mass and embedded one flint blade in it.

Don’t get the idea that because flint blades are stone age artifacts they will be blunt. They are as sharp as broken glass. If you were handling broken glass, you too would be as careful as Jason.

Jason then embedded the second blade. Aboriginal spears often had a row of blades along the edge of the spear point. All my photos of that stage failed because his hands were in the way, so you’ll just have to imagine it.

The last two photographs are of other artifacts on the same table as the demonstration, together with the Aboriginal names for them.

You should bear in mind that there are many Aboriginal tribes, each with their own language, so the names of the artifacts are only correct for one tribe.

Aboriginal artifacts and their namesAboriginal artifacts and their names

Please leave a comment – especially if you can help me to find where to take a photo of blackboy gum nodules in the bush near Wanneroo.

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