Academic journal article Oceania

Enmity and Amity: Reconsidering Stone-Headed Club (Gabagaba) Procurement and Trade in Torres Strait

Academic journal article Oceania

Enmity and Amity: Reconsidering Stone-Headed Club (Gabagaba) Procurement and Trade in Torres Strait

Article excerpt


Torres Strait has long held a special place in anthropology and archaeology due to its strategic position between the Australian and Papua New Guinea mainlands and A.C. Haddon's 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. For the most part, research interests have been directed towards documenting the selective diffusion of so-called higher cultural traits of 'advanced' Papuans to their 'primitive' Aboriginal neighbours across the Torresian divide (e.g. McCarthy 1940, 1970; see also Smith 1930, 1933). These views gave rise to the concept of Torres Strait as a 'cultural filter' for, or 'cultural barrier' to, material culture traits (Walker 1972). This paper examines one particular item of material culture which McCarthy (1940) believed exemplified Torres Strait as a cultural filter. Stone-headed clubs are found throughout Torres Strait and across many parts of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya but not on the Australian mainland. McCarthy (1940) saw Torres Strait as the southern limit of the stone-headed club diffusionary wave and suggested (1953:259) that this limit was set by the failure of Aboriginal Australians to take on a 'useful' addition to local weaponry. However, couching discussions of the distribution of stone-headed clubs in a diffusionary framework drew attention away from questions concerning:

1. the contradictory identification of the Papuan lowlands (a region essentially devoid of stone) as the trade source for stone-headed clubs used across Torres Strait (a region abounding in stone suitable for club manufacture), and

2. the role of stone-headed clubs in social interactions, both hostile and peaceful, between Torres Strait Islanders and lowland Papuans.

While historical records indicate that stone-headed clubs (known mostly as gabagaba in Torres Strait) were traded across Torres Strait, no detailed examination of gabagaba raw material sources has taken place since Alfred Haddon's ethnographic recordings of possible quarry sites (e.g. Haddon 1900, 1935). Following recent fieldwork by the author for the 'Torres Strait Culture Site Project' (Cordell et al. 1996), this paper reconsiders these early [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] recordings in light of new raw material data for ethnographic and archaeological gabagaba. The results of this raw material research set the scene for a reconsideration of the multiple roles of gabagaba in inter-group social relations and a reassessment of the place of ceremonial exchange in Torres Strait trading networks.


Stone-headed clubs were the first indigenous Australian stone tool described by Europeans. In 1606, Captain Luis Vaes de Torres sailed through the straits that now bear his name and his assistant, Captain Don Diego de Prado y Tovar, made the following observation of Central Islanders:

...their arms are very strong bows which we could not bend and clubs of touchstone, with a handle in the middle as thick as the wrist, five quartas [1.14m] long and about forty pounds in weight, and in my opinion there is no helmet arquebuse-proof that could resist the blow (Hilder 1980:76).

In 1845, the survey vessel H.M.S. Fly visited Erub (Darnley Island) in the eastern straits and Jukes made another detailed description of these clubs:

Beside the bow and arrow, their principal weapon is a club, called gabagoob; this is a round, flat piece of stone, bevelled to an edge like a quoit, but with a small hole in the centre, into which a wooden handle is inserted. It thus becomes a most murderous weapon (Jukes 1847, I:209).

Subsequent observers agreed that gabagaba functioned as lethal weapons (e.g. Haddon 1904a:301; MacGillivray 1852, II:19; Sweatman ca. 1850 cited in Allen and Corris 1977:33; Wilkin 1904:312, 318). Gabagaba were used during inter-island feuding and fights between Islanders and their northern Papuan neighbours and it is difficult to escape Williams' (1936:266) observation that they were 'the weapon par excellence of the raider'. …

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