Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Shoes of Invisibility and Invisible Shoes: Australian Hunters and Gatherers and Ideas on the Origins of Footwear

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Shoes of Invisibility and Invisible Shoes: Australian Hunters and Gatherers and Ideas on the Origins of Footwear

Article excerpt

Abstract: Apart from a single brief paper written by DS Davidson and published in 1947, and a detailed description of bark sandals from the Tanami desert region by DF Thomson in 1960, most attention in relation to Aboriginal Australian footwear has focused on the emu-feather and hairstring kadaitcha shoes or slippers of Central Australia. While footwear was lacking among most indigenous Australians, at least five different forms of indigenous footwear or .foot protection have been recorded. A revised distribution of Aboriginal footwear is presented here. Early records draw attention to the use of footwear among the Tasmanian Aborigines and offer insights into the possible origins of the use of footwear.

While traditionally footwear had a limited distribution on the continent, the use of at least one form intimately associated with magical killing and sorcery, the kadaitcha shoe, seems to have been spreading in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is suggested here that internal disruption caused by the impact of Western and Asian societies in the nineteenth century led to an increase in aberrant behaviour, including sorcery, that may account for the spread of this particular type of footwear.


Generally, Australian Aborigines are regarded as maintaining their hunting and gathering existence unshod. The use of footwear, apart from bark sandals, in the Western Desert region of Western Australia, and emu-feather slippers or shoes by sanctioned vengeance parties in Central Australia, is generally unrecognised. DS Davidson, summarising information about the use of footwear in Australia in 1947, failed to incorporate information from the eighteenth century that indicated a wider distribution than normally considered (Davidson 1947).

Early records

The earliest records suggesting that Australian Aborigines used any sort of footwear were made in 1777 on the east coast of Tasmania (then Van Diemen's Land), by surgeons Anderson and Samwell, members of Cook's second voyage into the Pacific. Samwell noted that 'some of them had skins secured to their feet which served to defend them from the stones' (Beaglehole 1967:994). Anderson wrote: 'some bits of kangaroos skin fix'd on their feet with thongs as amongst some labourers of other countries; though it could not be learnt whether these were in use as shoes or only to defend some sore on the feet' (Beaglehole 1967:787).

Further reference to Tasmanian footwear was made in 1793 by Labillardiere (1971:229): 'We observed one, who walked with difficulty, and one of whose feet was wrapped in skin'. This clearly implies that the hide was being used to protect a wound. In 1802, Baudin (1974:345) noted of the Tasmanians, 'Their drinking vessels are made from a type of seaweed with very broad thick leaves. These they also use as shoes when they have sore feet'. The seaweed used to make the carrying vessels is the bull kelp, Durvillaea potatorum.

In 1852, John West (1852:85) wrote: 'The tribes to the westward were the finer race: those from South Cape to Cape Grim had better huts, and they wore moccasins on travel'. West's informant may well have been George Augustus Robinson, who had spent almost 10 years trying to effect a peaceful solution to the conflicts between Tasmanian Aborigines and the colonial interlopers. Robinson himself, while near Waterhouse Point, Ringarooma Bay, northeastern Tasmania, noted in his diary of 7 December 1830 (Plomley 1966:288, 510) that 'The dog chased a brush kangaroo and killed it, the natives taking the skin for moccasins but leaving the carcase'. Later (9 November 1831), he examined an old campsite with 'the remains of native huts, old blankets and moccasins, and numerous other indications of natives having frequented these parts'.

Ethnologists considering the apparently meagre suite of items manufactured by the Tasmanian Aborigines have also failed to note the presence of footwear. …

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