Ethnographic information indicates that, prior to British colonisation in 1788, Aboriginal Australians used spears for hunting, fishing, fighting, retribution, punishment, in ceremony and as commodities for trade. Aboriginal peoples understood the seasons and the availability of food resources within their countries. The British colonists, in rapidly developing much of the continent, dispossessed many Indigenous peoples of their land disrupting their way of life, especially access to food resources. Spears were an integral component of the toolkit Aboriginal people used to procure such resources but by the turn of the twentieth century, they increasingly made spears for trade and barter rather than for hunting and fishing. By the mid-twentieth century, spears, often incorporating the use of European technology and materials, were being made for sale in a cash economy.
This study explores whether residue and use-wear analysis can detect traces of spear use as recorded in the ethnographic sources and whether detected residues are indicative of post-contact economic change. The analysed sample of museum-housed northern Australian artefacts comprised ethnographic spears of various morphologies. They are mostly crafted of wood although two have stone heads. The sample also includes archaeological wooden spear tips and an experimental control implement that was manufactured and used by Cyril Moon, an Aboriginal elder, on Mornington Island. Methods of analyses included macroscopic examination of the artefacts and microscopy. Long-term experiments designed to assess the reliability of the biochemical test used to detect blood and better understand residue preservation on shelved and buried wood were also performed.
No residues were detected on the archaeological wooden spear tips indicating that organic residue survival on wood requires anaerobic burial conditions such as extremely desiccated or waterlogged terrestrial environments that are rarely found in Australia. The results of a burial experiment support this conclusion. Hypothesised indications of use-wear observed on the wooden spearheads did not always co-occur with use-related residues. Arguably, wear traces indicative of wooden projectile use may be very difficult to ascertain. Apart from fish scales and adipose tissue, however, a considerable variety of use-related residues were detected on many spears. Considered to be the key indicator of a spear’s past use for hunting, fighting, fishing and in ceremony is the presence of blood. The biochemical test to screen for the presence of blood on wood was assessed as reasonably reliable but only for approximately two years, therefore explanations for the absence of blood residues on this raw material remain problematic. Blood residues, bone, hair and muscle tissue were detected on only one stone-headed spear that was collected in the early twentieth century from the southern Gulf of Carpentaria mainland. This result indicates the spear was likely used to hunt small game rather than made specifically for trade or barter. The remainder of the sample collected at around the turn of the twentieth century displayed many residues, including starch granules, hair, feather, and muscle tissue but no blood. These spears were likely manufactured in campsite environments, possibly as trade items. Most spears collected in the mid-twentieth century displayed few residues, suggesting they were made for sale in workshop enviro nments. Residues indicative of specific manufacturing processes were also observed o n some spears. In addition, the macroscopic examination of spears in tandem with relevant ethnographic information suggests that not all of the spears were made at the places recorded as their collection location in museum documentation.
Although more research involving residue analysis of archaeological wooden material is required, especially to initially ascertain the type/s of burial environments in which organic residues are likely to survive, the results of this study demonstrate that residue analysis can indicate whether a spear was likely to have been used or not. The results also parallel the documentary evidence for economic change to Aboriginal people in northern Australia. More importantly, the variety and quantity of residues detected indicates the great potential for this form of research to provide meaningful additional information about museum collections of Aboriginal wooden artefacts where it will be available to researchers, the public as well as present day Aboriginal communities.