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Aboriginal Messages

Painted handprint stenciled on a rock

How did Australian Aboriginal People Send Messages?

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers. Article part of series about Australia and its first nation people who have settled here for some 120,000 years.

How did Australian Aboriginal People Send Messages?

For thousands of years different Aboriginal nations and clans of Australia communicated with each other over vast distances with incredible speed and for various purposes. When European settlers first realised messages were being effectively sent and received over these distances, they thought the Aboriginals possessed some sort of magical and mysterious powers. It did not seem possible without the ‘advanced’ technology of the Europeans, such as written communication and telegraphs.

Of course, attributing magical powers to Aboriginal people was an unjust and fairly contemptuous characterisation of how they communicated. Rather, these people had developed respectable and efficient means to clearly convey information between different groups over long distances. Message sticks, smoke signals, and chains of walking and shouting were all utilised to share news, extend invitations to ceremonies and gatherings, make requests and arrangements, or for means of war and diplomacy.

This article explores how Australian Aboriginal people sent messages and for what purposes. It covers practices used generally across Australia, as well as drawing from specific examples used by the Worora people in the northern Kimberley region of north Western Australia, as noted in J.R.B. Love’s Kimberley People: Stone Age Bushmen of Today, 1936.

This article is intended as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s 14-day small group tour of the Kimberley, during which we’ll visit Cape Leveque, The Bungles, Bell Gorge, Mitchell Plateau, Halls Creek, and more in the dry season. We’ll also explore the rich history of the region, with a fascinating settler, Indigenous and multi-cultural past.

Aerial mangrove tree patterns, Kimberley coastline

Message Sticks

Wooden message sticks are a form of graphic communication that was traditionally used all over continental Australia between Aboriginal nations, clans, and language groups. Individual messengers would carry the small sticks over vast distances across land or water to convey messages and maintain diplomatic relations with the recipients.

The styles and designs of the message sticks varied but they were generally crafted from wood in a cylindrical or slightly flattened shape and were around 10-30 cm in length so to be easily carried. They were etched and painted with symbols and motifs, some holding fixed meanings to convey messages and information, while others were purely decorative. The message stick’s timber and colours, such as red ochre or white pipeclay, could also add meaning.

Some would be elaborately carved, while others were rather crude and prepared hastily. Either way, the marks were always distinctive to the particular group sending the message. In this way the message stick could be identified and authenticated when taken long distances.

Even so, the marks could not be called writing in any sense, nor even decipherable glyphs. Instead, they were intended to accompany a verbal message. The messenger would refer to the marks on the stick to illustrate and emphasise their oral statement. This would ensure the original message was not misinterpreted, especially when the message was between different language groups.

Message Sticks from Australian Museum Collection / PippaHav / CC BY-SA 4.0

Message sticks could be used to convey varied information and messages on any topic. They were often used to announce and invite neighbouring groups to ceremonies, marriages, burials, and ball games. Or they could be used to declare war, establish political partnerships, and announce the approach of a visiting body – or to request emergency assistance, marriage arrangements, or certain objects. They could also be used to organise hunting or the trading of vital resources.

No matter the reason for the message stick, other nations would acknowledge and show respect to the carrier as someone holding special status. Indeed, the message stick provided a sort of diplomatic immunity to the carrier, guaranteeing a safe and protected passage across long distances and through many other groups’ territories.

Smoke Signals

Smoke signals were used by Aboriginal people across Australia to convey messages for various purposes. In some places this form of communication developed to such a stage to convey so much information that it could even be fairly called a sign language.

People could use smoke signals to notify others of their presence when entering their country, call for a guide to navigate an unfamiliar place, signal for help, arrange meetings between hunting parties of the same tribe, summon an intertribal gathering, or to notify of incursions by hostile tribes. Able to travel with amazing speed in the outback country, smoke signals were the fastest way to send messages.

Preparation of a smoking ceremony. Bark and twigs are lit in a bark container and then leaves are added to create the cleansing smoke.

To convey distinct information, Aboriginal people would vary the colour and shape of the smoke. Depending on the material being burnt – including wet grass, dry grass, reeds, and others – the smoke could be black, white, or blue. The shape of the smoke meanwhile could be manipulated by branches of a tree to be a column, ball, or smoke ring – all either heavy or slender in shape.

The smoke signal could be in one of these forms, or a combination of two or more of these forms merged. It could be continuous, interrupted, or intermittent, for example in puffs or parallels.

The signal could be sent from a fixed lookout on a ridge or from a mobile band of tribesmen. Often nearby individuals or groups would then reply with their own signals.

J.R.B. Love wrote in 1936 of smoke signals used by the Worora people in the northern Kimberley region of north Western Australia. He explained the general rule of visitors making smoke by pitting a fire stick to the highly inflammable spinifex grass to advertise their coming. A couple envoys would then be sent ahead of the group to announce the approach of the main body.  This was the rule among not only the Worora and visitors of other tribes, but also among visiting parties of fellow-tribesmen who have been separated from each other for any length of time.

Walking & Shouting

One of the most effective ways to send a message over vast distances was simply to walk. If a messenger wished to speed on the sharing of news, he could walk a great distance in a single day. The foot-walker could then relay the news to another who could then pass it on to another and another, ensuring the speedy travelling of news.

This was rendered the speedier because the messenger, walking on foot, could take many a short cut over rugged ridges and across mangrove-lined and boggy arms of the sea, where other transport could not travel. After Europeans arrived in Australia,  what may have taken a hundred kilometres for a European man on horseback, for example, may have only been eighty kilometres for an Aboriginal man taking shortcuts.

J.R.B. Love describes another effective technique of sending messages long distances utilised by the Worora people: shouting. It was hard for Love and other white men to understand the long shrilly shouted sentences, ending in a high-pitched shout. But the Worora, who were used to this way of communicating, could easily pick up the words and pass them on in turn. Similar to walking, the messages would be sent from person to person over long distances.

Odyssey Traveller’s Tour of the Kimberley

Windjana Gorge on the Lennard River, Kimberley, Western Australia

Odyssey Traveller visits explores rich Indigenous history and culture on our Tour of the Kimberley. Known as the place where the ‘red dirt meets the sea’, the must-see Kimberley region melds the quintessential outback Australia of red sand and rock formations with a stunning Indian Ocean coast to rival the Great Barrier Reef.

Our outback tours begin in Broome, home to beautiful Cable Beach, Roebuck Bay and Gantheaume Point, before winding up the Kimberley Coast, through the Dampier Peninsula and Cape Leveque, Yampi Sound, and Cygnet Bay. We then head inland from the Indian Ocean on the Gibb River Road, stopping off at beautiful Bell Gorge and Windjana Gorge National Park, home to a significant population of freshwater crocodiles (also found in Lake Argyle, near the Northern Territory border). We make a day tour to remote Purnululu National Park in the East Kimberley, where we take a scenic flight over Bungle Bungle Range, Cathedral Gorge, Echidna Chasm, and Piccaninny Creek.

Our Kimberley tour also stops in at El Questro, a former cattle station converted into a wilderness park centred around Emma Gorge, Chamberlain Gorge, and the Pentecost River. El Questro offers a range of accommodations, from tented cabins by the gorge to luxury suites in the former El Questro station.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving world travellers since 1983. Like all our tours, our Kimberley outback tours come with a difference: an authentic and culturally informed travel experience, that goes beyond the tourist sites in favour of drawing out the hidden histories of our destinations. Our guides are chosen for their local expertise, and we move in genuinely small groups: usually 6-12 per tour. Our tours are all-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport.

If this sounds ideal, why not join our tour of the Kimberley, or take a look at our other Australia and outback tours?

Articles about the Kimberley and Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to the Kimberley:

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