Spears: Form & Function
Prior to invasion, the spear was the principle weapon used in Australia by Aboriginal people for hunting and combat purposes.
In its simplest form a traditionally produced spear is a weapon consisting of a pointed tip and a shaft made of wood. The tip of a spear is produced by sharpening the utility end of the shaft, or attaching a point made of stone, wood or bone, with the aid of a resin adhesive.
A common alternative to the production of a shaft made of wood is one made with the stem of a Grass Tree (Xanthorrhoea), or part of one of several plants belonging to the grass family (Poaceae), inclusive of rushes, reeds and bamboo.
The manufacture of a spear will often be influenced by the quality of local materials and their availability. Tree saplings are the most commonly used material employed in making spear shafts throughout Australia, except in riverine locations where reeds and other useful grasses are available. Such materials are valued as they enable the production of lightweight spears, which are an important consideration when carrying a heavy hunting kit over long distances.
Where the Grass Tree, reeds and other grasses may be available, a composite spear comprising a shaft made of two or three distinct materials may be produced. Such a spear will typically feature a shortened hardwood shaft inserted into lengths of lightweight material. Benefits to be gained from the production of such a spear are that it is light, isn’t as likely to break as one produced entirely from a lightweight material and it also requires less time and effort to produce.
Throughout dryer climes spears are sometimes made from the roots of drought tolerant trees, including several species of acacia. In rainforest regions some varieties of vines are utilised. In many areas across the continent spears are also sometimes manufactured using hardwood split from a timber core. This method produces spears which generally are not thrown with the aid of a woomera, owing to their weight and rigidity.
In order to straighten a spear shaft, the maker must apply enough heat to it to make the timber more flexible. This is done by alternating between placing the shaft into a bed of hot coals and straightening the material before it has cooled. Straightening can only be successfully achieved where sufficient moisture remains within the materials being worked on. Otherwise, the reintroduction of moisture may be done by several methods, including rubbing animal fat onto the spear shaft during the heating process
To bind a spear point to a shaft, or connect two shaft sections, a stable mount is produced by making either a socket or lap joint. Animal sinew and plant resin is then used to cement the sections together. The two most common resins are harvested from the Grass Tree (Xanthorrhoea) and Spinifex grass (Triodia).
A spear like any other weapon may be adapted for a variety of purposes. A common preference for spears used in combat was to ensure they were heavier, hand-propelled hardwood specimens, rather than the light-weight models preferred for hunting.
For hunting in open plains the spear was paired with a spear-thrower, or as it is also commonly known via one of its traditional names, the ‘woomera’. This is an object which acts as a basic form of lever, effectively extending the spear throwers arm length, thus propelling the spear a considerably further distance than previously possible.
Dedicated fishing spears are designed as a lightweight form of the weapon, modified to ensure that the hunter’s prey is not dislodged from the spear upon impact, as may often the case with land based hunting. The distinctive feature of such a spear is its multiple prongs, rather than a singular point. The barbs are designed to spread outward upon contact with the prey, ensuring less chance of loss prior to the spear’s retrieval. Single tipped spears are also used for fishing and are also barbed to ensure less chance of being dislodged.
Some spears are equipped with a number of microliths. These are small stone barbs cemented into the spear shaft. Microliths are designed to cause significant tissue damage, which may be achieved upon impact with the chosen quarry or via secondary lacerations resulting from some of the shrapnel like fragments remaining inside the wound.
Whilst still employed in limited usage today, as an affirmation of cultural maintenance, the spear has generally been superseded in hunting practices by the rifle.