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What's the Point? Volume 61 Number 5, September/October 2008
by Eric A. Powell

The debate over Australia's magnificent spearheads


Beginning in the late 19th century, spearpoints from Australia's Kimberley region were made from glass as well as stone. A mainstay in museums, large Kimberley points are rare at prehistoric archaeological sites. (Courtesy Western Australian Museum)

Delicately flaked spearpoints from northwest Australia's Kimberley region are widely recognized for their superb craftsmanship. "They really are considered the pinnacle of Aboriginal stone tool working," says Rodney Harrison, an archaeologist who has excavated in the Kimberley and worked with Aborigines who have made the points. Varying widely in style and size, at least four types of these spearheads have been identified. The best known are long points with toothlike edges created by precise removal of small flakes along the points' sides. These finely worked examples of Kimberley points are a fixture in Australian museums, but are virtually absent in ancient sites. Just when they first appeared in large numbers has been the subject of spirited debate in Australian archaeological circles.

Harrison and others suggest that while these "classic" spearheads may have been made in limited numbers before the late 19th century, Aborigines focused on their manufacture only after 1885 to satisfy the appetites of European collectors bewitched by exotic artifacts. According to this theory, classic Kimberley points were in essence "virtuoso tourist art," rather than an enduring prehistoric artifact type. Indeed, in historic times they were often made from glass bottles or ceramic telegraph-wire insulators instead of stone. But archaeologist Kim Akerman, who knows Aborigines who hunted with Kimberley points until the 1970s, argues that the classic spearheads were probably common in prehistoric times as well.


Approximate area of Kimberley point manufacture

Hunter-gatherers first made small Kimberley points some 1,500 years ago, and likely used them as trading items as well as for hunting and warfare. According to some Kimberley traditions, the mythological figure of Wodoi, the spotted nightjar (a nocturnal bird), invented the first stone-tipped spears. Other legends credit the frilled lizard with introducing pressure flaking, the technique used to create classic Kimberley points.


Male bowerbirds sometimes collect them to line their bowers, nestlike structures that attract mates (below). This stone point was found in just such a bower. (Courtesy Kim Akerman)


For Harrison, the virtual absence of these spectacular, pressure-flaked spearpoints in the archaeological record is evidence that prehistoric Aborigines did not invest the time and effort to make these beautiful objects that their descendants did. Akerman, however, counters that extremely refined Kimberley points are depicted in illustrations dating to 1810 (several decades before this part of Australia was settled by Europeans), which means they were probably common in prehistory. Moreover, "complete [classic] Kimberley points are rare on sites because they are usually carefully curated by their owners," notes Akerman, who while conducting ethnographic research in the Kimberley observed that hunters in the field rarely discard their points. He also thinks there's another culprit in the mysterious absence of the classic spearheads at ancient sites. "Points [are also] stolen by male bowerbirds," he says. Common in northern Australia, bowerbirds covet objects of various colors and shapes and use them to decorate their bowers, which are made of twigs. Flakes of stone and even complete artifacts have found their way into these structures, which the male bowerbirds use to lure prospective mates into an elaborate courting ritual. Akerman has recovered several Kimberley points from these twig chambers.

But it isn't just the relative absence of finely worked Kimberley points from archaeological sites that has Harrison convinced the artifacts are largely a historic phenomenon. "After contact, you see the people get access to metal, and artifacts drop out of the record: scrapers, adzes, hardwood tools," says Harrison, "but at the same time, there is a revival of spearpoints." In addition to their value as trade commodities, Harrison thinks Kimberley points satisfied another need. As Aborigines were forced by the government into sedentary communities, or "pastoral stations," traditional means of displaying masculinity and accomplishment, such as tracking or hunting, decreased in importance. According to Harrison, the ability to manufacture a spectacular Kimberley point, which had monetary value, became a way to assert oneself in the community hierarchy.

Whether they were abundant in prehistory or made primarily in the last 100 years for exchange with European collectors, there is no question that the very best classic Kimberley points are works of art. Crafted from stone, glass, and even porcelain, they are the creations of tool-making masters.

Eric A. Powell is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

Further Reading

Harrison, R. 2007 Kimberley points and the politics of enchantment - a reply to Akerman. Current Anthropology 48(1): pp. 133-134.

Harrison, R. 2006 An artefact of colonial desire? Kimberley points and the technologies of enchantment. Current Anthropology 47(1): pp. 63-88.

Harrison, R. 2004 Kimberley points and colonial preference: new insights into the chronology of pressure flaked point forms from the southeast Kimberley, Western Australia. Archaeology in Oceania 39(1): pp. 1-11.

Harrison, R. 2002 Archaeology and the colonial encounter: Kimberley spear points, cultural identity and masculinity in the north of Australia. Journal of Social Archaeology 2(3): pp. 352-377.