Academic journal article Antiquity

The Death of Kaakutja: A Case of Peri-Mortem Weapon Trauma in an Aboriginal Man from North-Western New South Wales, Australia

Academic journal article Antiquity

The Death of Kaakutja: A Case of Peri-Mortem Weapon Trauma in an Aboriginal Man from North-Western New South Wales, Australia

Article excerpt


There are numerous instances of non-fatal trauma recorded in the skeletal remains of pre-contact Aboriginal Australians (e.g. Webb 1991; Knuckey 1992), but only one case has previously been documented that shows evidence of fatal injuries (McDonald et al. 2007; Fullagar et al. 2009). This single case, dated to about 1600 BC (3829-3594 cal BP; CAMS-120202), had a pattern of trauma that corresponds with ethnographic accounts of inter-tribal violence, providing a rare account from the Australian archaeological record of an individual killed during conflict. Following consultation, excavation and analysis, we can now report a second discovery of skeletal remains with fatal injuries from north-western New South Wales (NSW). Traditional Owners from the area refer to the individual as 'Kaakutja', a Baakantji word for 'Older Brother'. His remains show a pattern of sharp-force trauma indicative of an edged metal weapon, yet radiocarbon dating of the skeletal remains and optical dating of the grave infill indicate that he lived during the pre-European-contact period. The nature of the trauma to Kaakutja's skeletal remains suggests that sharp-edged weapons from traditional Aboriginal culture could inflict injuries similar to those resulting from later, metal blades.

Archaeological context

The colonisation of Australia is generally considered to have occurred around 50 000 years ago (Bowler et al. 2003; Allen & O'Connell 2014; Clarkson et al. 2015), with Aboriginal populations maintaining a hunter-gatherer lifestyle until forced to abandon it due to European pressures including violence, disease and dispossession. In the south-east of the continent, this had occurred by the mid to late nineteenth century.

Evidence for inter-tribal conflict in the area is documented in rock art at the Gundabooka ranges, approximately 25km to the east of the site where Kaakutja was buried. Two distinct groups of people are distinguished using different orange and white ochre, and they are shown brandishing parrying shields, fighting clubs and boomerangs (Figure 1).

Burial site

The burial was found during an archaeological survey in Toorale National Park. Straddling the junction of the Darling and Warrego Rivers, and around 50km south-west of Bourke, the park is a historic pastoral property in the country of the Kurnu Baakantji Aboriginal people (Figure 2). At the time of discovery, only the cranium was visible, protruding from the steep and actively eroding bank of the Darling River. Excavation revealed that the remains lay 565-700mm below the present surface of the river bank. The burial was exceptionally well preserved. Kaakutja was interred in a tightly flexed position, lying on the right-hand side with the spinal column oriented north-east to south-west, and facing upstream in a northwesterly direction (Figure 3). This positioning indicates that he had received a respectful interment by his people, and that his burial did not represent the clandestine disposal of a murder victim. The location of the burial in a sandy/silty levee adjacent to the river, close to visible areas of midden, heat retainer ovens, ashy deposit, charcoal and rare stone artefacts, is typical of traditional burials in this region. A nearby ethnohistoric account states that preferred burial places were "campsites isolated by floods adjacent to or on sandhills" (Dunbar 1943: 146). The tightly flexed position is also typical: six of nine burials in one survey at Kinchega National Park were fully flexed on the side (Martin 2007).

Preservation of the bones was excellent, probably as a result of the calcareous soils in which they were buried. With the exception of two middle phalanges from the left and right foot, the entire skeleton was recovered. A number of teeth were lost post-mortem from both the mandible and maxilla, but these were recovered during the salvage excavation and from material eroding down the adjacent slope. …

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