AUSTRALIANS ARE famous for being fanatical about sport, but few people realise that the land's original inhabitants were also sport mad.
Thousands of years before the arrival of the first convict ships, Aborigines were carving sticks out of wood and fashioning balls from bark, coconuts and kangaroo skins. They played at least 700 games, all of which died out soon after white settlement and the breakdown of traditional Aboriginal society.
There are now plans to revive some of the ancient sports in an effort to relieve boredom and despair in Aboriginal communities, as well as promoting a healthier lifestyle. Indigenous Australians suffer high rates of diabetes and heart disease, and men have a life expectancy 20 years lower than their white counterparts.
The sports included competitive hide-and-seek and boomerang- throwing contests; others evoke contemporary games. Turlurlu, which was played in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia, is reminiscent of cricket; two teams took turns to bowl a kamikami, or underarm ball, with players wielding a mukurru - or fighting stick - as a bat.
Millim baeyeetch, played by tribes in Victoria, is similar to Australian Rules football; it was a kicking-catching game with teams of 20 players and a possum-skin ball filled with ground charcoal.
The campaign to introduce the sports to schools and remote desert settlements is headed by Ken Edwards, an academic at the Queensland University of Technology. He has studied letters and manuscripts from the early days of white settlement and examined cave paintings in western New South Wales, which depict Aborigines wrestling and playing ball games.
Dr Edwards, a lecturer in human movement, hopes that Aboriginal elders will take the lead in resurrecting the sporting culture and thereby regain some of their traditional authority, much eroded in recent decades. At one of his workshops, elders were in tears. …