The First Archaeological Evidence for Death by Spearing in Australia

Article excerpt


This paper documents the first archaeological evidence in Australia both for death by spearing and for the use of backed artefacts as spear armatures. Excavation below a bus shelter in the beachside suburb of Narrabeen in northern Sydney, south-eastern Australia, uncovered the articulated skeletal remains of an adult Aboriginal male (estimated age 30-40 years). Analysis showed that he had been slain and abandoned, unburied, in a coastal dune around 4000 years ago. The associated stone artefact assemblage consists of 17 small flaked artefacts including three fragments embedded within or between bones. Several stone fragments were refitted, and all but two artefacts are backed microliths. Use-wear on these is consistent with their being hafted armatures on weapons (spears and possibly knives) responsible for the death. Anatomical, forensic and artefact studies indicate death by spearing. Ritual punishment using barbed death spears was witnessed at European contact in the Sydney region. The Narrabeen man provides early archaeological evidence for ritual or payback killing by spearing. The timing of this event is significant for understanding other archaeological indicators of increased social complexity across south-eastern Australia.

Backed artefacts

Backed artefacts form a technological class which is found globally. Standardised forms of backed artefacts, particularly backed microliths, are widely interpreted as barbs on thrown spears, indicating improved hunting capacities from the Late Pleistocene (Barham 2002; Elston & Kuhn 2002). In Australia, backed artefacts are most abundant about 3-4000 years ago (Hiscock 2002; 2003; Hiscock & Attenbrow 2005), although they first appear at least 15 000 years ago (Slack et al. 2004). Given their technological similarity and despite frequent lack of diagnostic usewear, it has long been assumed that Australian backed microliths had a similar primary function: armatures on composite spears that were used for hunting (McCarthy 1976; Kamminga 1980; McBryde 1984). It has also been proposed that Australian backed microliths functioned as more elaborate barbs on the ethnographically documented 'death spear'. All current museum collections suggest that the death spear (at European contact) may only have been armed with small unretouched stone flakes and fragments, while ethnohistoric accounts from Sydney are inconclusive (Hunter 1793; Tench 1793; Collins 1798). Convincing evidence that backed artefacts functioned primarily as armatures on spears has been elusive and is sometimes contradictory (McDonald et al. 1994; gobertson 2005). Evidence for death by spearing in prehistoric societies has been reported on other continents (Bocquentin & Bar-Yosef 2004) but has not been found in the archaeological record in Australia. We report here the first prehistoric instance of human death by spearing in Australia, and direct evidence of backed artefacts as barbs and tips from composite spears. We do not suggest that backed artefacts form a function-specific class of tools, but that we have discovered the first definitive evidence for them being used as spear barbs.

Anatomical description of the Narrabeen man

A partly disturbed human skeleton was found approximately 1.5m below the present ground level (Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management 2005a), and was initially contacted during excavation for electricity cables. The bone is non-greasy, very brittle and a pale cream colour. Some bone is charred, not calcined, consistent with the body being partially covered with burning branches. This fire was not intense, and not an attempt at cremation. The skeleton was found at 9.0m above present sea level in a simple siliceous sand profile with some residual shell carbonate. At the time of death the body would have lain on the dune crest in an active foredune. Vegetation would have been limited (Spinifex hirsutus, Festuca littoralis and Lomandra longifolia) and sand drift would have resulted in the body trapping sand and platy shell fragments such as were found near the ribcage and beneath the cranium. …