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Aboriginal Stone Trade

Ancient Aboriginal Trade of Stone Axe and Spear Heads

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Ancient Aboriginal Trade of Stone Axe and Spear Heads 

Ethnographic evidence from Australia shows us that the Aboriginal tribes were interconnected with another by a complex network of exchange systems from one side of the continent to the other.  Stone tools, such as axe heads and spearpoints, were particularly popular items to be traded, valued for hunting and butchering animals; cutting, carving, and crafting wood into weapons; and as symbols of prestige.

These tools were generally made from volcanic and metamorphic rock, which are hard and tough. Initially mined as large flakes or cores of stones, they would then be hammered into a useable shape, with one edge sharpened through grinding. As a final step before use, they would also be polished.

While stone of one sort or another can be found frequently all over Australia, only certain deposits were exploited due to their particularly high quality. Ownership of these mines rested with the traditional custodians of the land, who would then trade the stone for items with neighbouring tribes and further afield. The higher the quality, the larger the mining operation and the greater the distance over which the product was traded, sometimes hundreds of kilometres from its source.

This article explores the trade trade of three produced from three especially valued sources: Mount William in south-east Australia, the Kimberley in north Western Australia, and Mount Isa in north-west Queensland. It is intended as practical knowledge for a number of Odyssey Traveller small group tours in Australia, part of a continuing series of pieces on Aboriginal culture, trade, art, and settlement. An appreciation of Indigenous activity is recognised as an important facet of learning in our tours for mature and senior travellers, a part of our commitment to understanding and sharing our knowledge of the history, culture, and landscapes of Australia. Much of the information used for this article is drawn from Dale Kerwin’s Aboriginal Dreaming Paths and Trading Routes, as well as journal and web articles linked to throughout the article.

South-East Australian Stone Axes Heads

Sometime in the last 1,500 years, as woodlands expanded over much of south-east Australia, the local Aboriginal people began to use ground-edged stone axe heads. Attached to a wooden handle, the axes were an essential part of toolkits used for a variety of tasks, including to cut off sheets of bark for huts or canoes, shape wood into shields, clubs or spears, butcher large animals, cut hollows in trees to catch possums, and split open trunks to get honey, grubs, or insect eggs.

Their importance stemmed not just from their utilitarian use, however. As valuable items, they also conferred prestige upon their owners, and served important social functions. Widely traded, they worked to extend the range of social relationships well beyond the local group, while also reinforcing kinship links and birthplace and ceremonial obligations.

The axe heads were made from hard stone, roughly shaped, and then ground against another stone to make a cutting edge. The best stone had to be hard, fine grained, and tough, suitable for grinding and able to withstand repeated hard blows without losing its edge or shattering. This occurred in relatively few places, extracted from specific quarry locations (McBryde 1978).

In Victoria there are at least ten quarries used within the six Cambrian greenstone belts. However, still, stone from only a few were preferred. These were intensively worked, the axe heads then traded over long distances.

Large boulders and mountains on the horizon under beautiful sky. Grampians, Victoria, Australia

Mount William Quarry

The Mount William quarry site is one of the largest and most intensively worked in south-east Australia. It is the only place in Australia where greenstone is found. A superior stone for the manufacture of axe heads, it was highly prized and extensively traded.

Evidence of the exploitation of the outcrop and stone working activity extends for over a kilometre along the ridge on the south-eastern slopes of the mountain (McBryde & Watchman 2010: 168). In 1855, when the site was first described by German explorer Wilhem von Blandowski, quarrying activity extended for more than forty hectares.

Greenstone / James St. John / CC BY 2.0

The stone was sourced in two ways. The stone outcrops could be fractured using fire alternated with cold water, and the stone levered loose with fire-hardened poles. Otherwise, deep pits were dug to reach non-weathered stone.

The archaeologist Isobel McBryde (1984: 273-274) has recorded 268 circular mining pits, eighteen of which have shafts several metres deep where the greenstone has been cut out from the bed rock. The other 250 pits are shallower, but still several meters in diameter and over a metre deep.

The pits are surrounded by 34 distinct flaking floors, some located at the mining pit and others located downhill far away from the main mining pits. A slab of rock outcropping in the centre of the floor was used as an anvil to shape the stones into roughed-out hatchet heads. Some of the floors have associated mounds, up to 20 metres in diameter and a metre high, of accumulated debris from the process.

McBryde and her colleague Alan Watchman (2010: 169) argue that the extent of the site and immense amount of worked stone suggest “a large-scale mining venture extending over long periods of time”. This would mean the quarry’s use may not been confined to the early nineteenth century, at which time ethnographic records begin, but could stretch back hundreds if not thousands of years.

Amazing rock colours at Mount William / WildHeartPioneer / CC BY-SA 4.0

Ownership & Trade of the Mount William Stone

The Mount William quarry was owned by a group of the Wurundjeri of the Yarra Valley (part of the Woiwurrung linguistic group). Their workings as well as the distribution of the products were controlled by strict conventions, with only certain members of the group allowed to procure stone from the outcrops.  (McBryde 1978: 354)

The site was still in use in the immediate contact period with European colonisers, and early ethnographic records show that the quarrying of the outcrops was the responsibility of the main custodian of the site, Billi Billeri. Anyone wishing to obtain axe-stone needed his permission, it being a distinct offence to do otherwise.

People would travel to Mount William to make their requirements known to Billi Billeri, and then negotiate the payment. Only then would he split the stone for them, exchanging it for presents such as possum skin rugs, weapons, ornaments, belts, and necklaces.

Mount William / Beren Ackers / CC BY-SA 3.0

In this way, Mount William served as the main source of axe heads for Victorian tribes, traded over hundreds of kilometres from the location in central Victoria. Using anthropological information, museum collections and petrological studies, Isabel McBride (1978: 355) found that the trade extended along the central Victorian rivers flowing into the Murray and then along the Murray itself.

Stone was also traded in the Riverina and southwestern New South Wales, while to the southwest it reached Millicent and Mt Schank in South Australia. It was either poorly represented or complete absent in the southeast and northwest areas of Victoria, i.e., the Gippsland and Wimmerra/Malle regions (McCarthy 1939: 409).

McBryde’s (1978: 364-65) research also provides evidence that once acquired, the stone hatchets were further exchanged as valuable items at secondary trade centres. “We must consider the possibility that for the majority of recipients stone may have been acquired at these centres,” she writes (p. 364). The prime motive here for exchange may have been social, i.e., to extent and cement relationships and kinship ties. The centres would have also acted as sites for intertribal meetings and ceremonies.

Once traded, the axe heads were shaped by their new owners to meet their exact needs. They underwent a process of finer flaking, were grinded against abrasive sandstone to create a cutting edge, and as a final step were polished.

Kimberley Points

Aboriginal people of the Kimberley region in Western Australia also utilised stone as part of a long tradition of production and exchange likely spanning millennia (Akerman et al. 2002: 79). The most well-known tools are the arrow-like Kimberley points, made from chalcedony, opalescent and similar stone, which date back at least 1,500 years.

Varying widely in style and size, at least four uniquely designed types of Kimberley points have been identified. The best known are long points with toothlike edges created by a sophisticated ‘pressure-flaking’ technique, in which tool makers would apply pressure to the material being shaped using bone indenters to remove small flakes. While originally only made of stone, after contact with the Europeans in the late nineteenth century, glass and porcelain materials became more commonly used as they were easier to work with.

The four types of Kimberley Points / Tim Maloney / CC BY 4.0

The Kimberley points were primarily used as spearheads for hunting and fighting. A lighter weight than other spearheads, they could easily attach to long and light wooden shafts and be launched at high speed. The glass and porcelain points also had the potential to break off in the body of a hunted animal, causing haemorrhaging and, as a result, a faster kill. They were also used as knives, to cut up meat for example, and sometimes for ceremonial purposes such as circumcision.

Stone cutting tools

Researchers have further speculated that the unique pressure flaking design of the points were associated with prestige and social signalling (Maloney 2020; Moore 2015). They argue the tools were deliberately created to be highly visible and highly distinct within a complex and strictly mediated production process amongst initiated male social groups. Ownership of the tools thus would signal social belonging and prestige in public contexts.

According to some oral tradition and stories in the Kimberley, the stone point production is associated with certain moieties (Akerman et al. 2002: 15-17). The moiety figure of Wodoi (spotted nightjar) is said to have made the first stone-tipped spears with simple pointed flakes and blades with coarse toothed or steep edge. Another moiety figure Tjungkun (owlet nightjar) meanwhile invented the first spear thrower. Both then bequeathed the art of making such weapons to the ancestors of the Worora, Wunambal and Ngarinjin people of the North Kimberley.

Miriuwung legends in the east Kimberley credit the introduction of pressure flaking to the ‘blanket lizard’ (frilled neck lizard), while the nightjar Panangka, produced Kimberley dentate points, and the eagle Kanbira, created uniface points. Archaeological finds of uniface points are said to be Kanbira’s talons used as spearpoints.

Kimberley Points Trade

Some Kimberley Points were produced solely for gifting and exchange, with the manufacturing technique making the spearhead a unique and highly sought-after product (Kerwin 2010: 108). Points measuring longer than 50mm were made specifically for exchange by master craftsmen and were particularly related to signalling prestige (Maloney 2020: 21).

Anthropologists and archaeologists have traced their distribution from the Kimberley to areas such as Wardaman Country, Port Keats, and the Alligator Rivers in the north of the Northern Territory; Tennant Creek and the Central Desert, Western Desert and Gibson Desert regions in central Australia; and as far east as central Queensland and the Gulf of Carpentaria (Maloney 2020: 2).

Map of northern Australia showing approximate boundary of Kimberley Point distribution / Tim Maloney  / CC BY 4.0

Further manufacturing then took place after the initial trading, specialised to the region (Kerwin 2010: 108). The people of the Victoria and Wickham Rivers of Western Australia for example added the spearpoints to bamboo to then be traded into the community and further afield as a finished bamboo spear.

Kalkadoon Stone & The Lake Eyre Basin Trade Route

The Kalkadoon people, the traditional owners of the Mount Isa region of Queensland, excavated hard black basalt rock from various quarries in their country for thousands of years. One Kalkadoon mining quarry is estimated to be over 6,000 years old, which would make the Kalkadoon miners the very first miners in Australia.

To mine the basalt rocks, the Kalkadoon people had a production line factory system in place, in which groups of people specialised in a certain area of the operation. One groups would lever large rocks out of the ground using long wooden poles, which were then broken into smaller pieces by another group. These rocks were then moved to another place to be shaped into axe and spear heads, before a final group of women sharpened the weapons on grinding stones down by the river.

The Kalkadoons manufactured the stone implements not only for self-use, but also to be traded at markets, being famous for their large size and quality (Kerwin 2010: 97-98).  Extensive trade systems travelled for hundreds of kilometres around Kalkadoon territory through the Lake Eyre Basin, which includes much of inland Queensland, large portions of South Australia and the Northern Territory, and a part of western New South Wales. Some of the stone artefacts have even been found beyond the Basin as far as southern and Western Australia.

The Lake Eyre basin aerial view, South Australia

In his analysis of the stone axe exchange in the Lake Eyre Basin, the Australian anthropologist Kevin Tibbett (2002) suggests that they were brought from Mt Isa towards the Glenormiston region along the Mulligan river before reaching Boulia. Here they were exchanged particularly for pituri (a tobacco stimulant made from the dried leaves and twigs of the Duboisia Hopwoodi tree), as well as shields, red ochre and boomerangs.

Tibbit hypothesises that the Rungarungawa, Wongkadjera and Julaolinja groups who populated the Glenormiston region then monopolised the southwards distribution of the stone axes, redistributing them via reciprocal networks. The axes travelled through the channel country on the Georgina and Diamantina Rivers, exchanged at a trading centre at Koppermana, South Australia, and then into markets further afield.

Tour of Aboriginal Australia

Travellers with an interest in learning more about the Aboriginal heritage of Australia may want to check out our various outback Australia tours.

These include visits to:

Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu.

Every Odyssey guided tour is designed especially for mature and senior travellers, who want an authentic and informed experience of their destinations. Our tours aren’t the typical tourism Australia holiday – Blue Mountains, the Great Barrier Reef, and the penguin parade on Port Phillip Island. Instead, we pride ourselves on getting of the beaten path and making you think about Australia and New Zealand in new ways. We move in genuinely small groups – usually 6-12 per tour – and all tours are cost-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

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External articles to assist you on your visit to Australia: