There is something almost magical about the way boomerangs go through the air and return to the caster’s hand. Watching them streak across the sky on their wide trajectories can provide endless fascination for anyone willing to spend the time learning how to cast them correctly. Of course, if you’re a hyperactive chipmunk with mischievous friends like in Hammy’s Boomerang Adventure (now streaming on Peacock!), you may have a completely different experience.
We’ve long known that boomerangs are fun to use and that they played an important role in indigenous Australian cultures as a hunting tool. Now new research confirms what traditional Aboriginal knowledge has long told us, that boomerangs were also used as a carving tool to touch up stone tools. Eva Francesca Martellotta of the Australian Research Center for Human Evolution at Griffith University, in association with colleagues, experimentally reproduced the stone tool tinkering process using boomerangs. Her results were published in the journal PLUS ONE.
As mentioned above, there was traditional knowledge that boomerangs had been used in this way, but it had never been confirmed experimentally. Martellotta met Paul Craft, co-author of the article, who provided invaluable insight into the traditional making and use of boomerangs.
“I published another article on boomerangs at the Sydney Museum and was doing an interview. They also interviewed Paul because he was the boomerang throwing world champion. He is also an Aboriginal man, so he has all this knowledge about making and using boomerangs. He gave me great knowledge about boomerangs and he actually made two of the four boomerangs that we used for this study,” Martellotta told SYFY WIRE.
We know from other parts of the world that humans used bone tools to touch up their stone tools through carving. It is a percussion movement that breaks stone flakes to give the tool a new edge. When the bone is used in this way, it leaves telltale marks on the bone. If wooden tools like boomerangs were used in the same way, the researchers expected to find the same kinds of marks of use on their exteriors.
“When you touch up a stone tool, you create these very peculiar microscopic wear marks that are very diagnostic, very easy to recognize,” Martellotta said.
During those museum searches, the researchers confirmed the existence of wear marks that closely resemble those found on bone tools in other parts of the world. This new study took the hypothesis a step further by replicating the process in the field to confirm that the markings could have come from stone carving.
“In Paleolithic Europe, we have many records of bone tools used to touch up stone tools. Starting from the fact that bone and wood have similar properties and both are organic tools—elasticity and strength are quite similar—the hypothesis was that the wear marks produced during retouching would be similar to those once produced by the bone,” Martellotta said.
They found that using boomerangs in this way did, in fact, create wear marks similar to those found on bone tools and boomerang fragments found in museums. This goes some way to answering a persistent question in archaeology, whether or not wooden tools were used for various functions and to what extent.
“It’s a big unanswered question how important wooden tools were, that’s because we don’t have a lot of preservation of wooden tools… the climate in Australia is very aggressive, which makes preservation of organic material like wood is highly unlikely,” Martellotta said. .
Additionally, evidence of retouching of wear marks on preserved boomerangs is sporadic. Many of the preserved boomerangs are relatively young, having been produced and collected around the time Europeans arrived on the continent. A significant portion of them were not produced for hunting or carving, but for sale or trade.
“Boomerangs were exotic tools and the Europeans were very interested in having them. Most of them, especially after first contact with Europeans, there was a tendency for Aboriginal people to make boomerangs meant to be offered to other people and never meant to be used,” Martellotta said.
This work helps illuminate a part of human history that has been hidden through a combination of material properties, local climate, and the effects of colonization. It highlights the importance and usefulness of traditional knowledge and working collaboratively with indigenous peoples when studying their history. We can paint a richer picture of human history when we look back to the past together. Like a boomerang thrown into the night, we can recover pieces of our collective heritage if we aim correctly and know where to put our hands.
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