Researcher can feel answers in her bones

The state-of-the-art bone technology used by early Indigenous communities may help reveal how they colonised Australia and carved out lives in a new world.

From bone nose ornaments to ceremonial bones and work tools, the so-called bone technology will go under the microscope in a new three-year study.

The study by researcher Michelle Langley at the Australian National University School of Culture, History and Language follows the discovery by archaeologists of a 46,000-year-old kangaroo bone nose ornament in WA’s Kimberley.

Dr Langley said she would work with as many Indigenous communities as possible to get a picture of early bone technology and to catalogue items that have been discovered.

Work on the project will begin next year. Dr Langley hopes the project will provide a better understanding of how early Indigenous inhabitants colonised Australia, interacted with each other and dealt with environmental changes.

“Australia’s interesting in that people got here pretty early, 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, and it took quite a large ocean crossing to get here,” she said.

“Once they were here they had to interact with a whole new environment, strange creatures they had never seen before.

“It tells us a lot about how resilient those early communities were and how innovative they were and how they were good at deducting different things they came across, but also how they were dealing with environmental changes and just how the cultures developed compared to what people were doing elsewhere.”

Dr Langley said the bone technology project would catalogue for the first time the materials collected from archaeological sites.

“From there we’ll be able to look at what’s changed over time and how different technologies were invented or exchanged across the continent,” she said.

Dr Langley said the 13cm bone nose ornament found at Carpenter’s Gap in the Windjana Gorge National Park in WA was significant because it showed Australia’s first inhabitants were making bone tools soon after arriving in Australia.

The ornament had traces of red ochre on each end and had been fashioned from the leg bone of a kangaroo.

“Bone technology is extremely useful,” she said. “In Africa and Europe there’s a lot of bone technology.

“In Europe it was out of deer antler, which is just as good to use and in some cases better, but we don’t have deer here so the best bone to use is a kangaroo leg bone.

“The leg of the kangaroo is placed under all that stress when they are hopping along and is a really resilient bone and something people could easily get.

“They would be hunting the animal for their dinner so they could use the fur, the jaw bone for engraving tools and these leg bones, the largest bone they could get hold of regularly, to make different tools.”

She said whether bone nose ornaments were a tradition — or fashion — that arrived with the inhabitants from Africa or began independently in Australia and other parts of the world was something that researchers did not yet know.

Many of the nose bone ornaments found by archaeologists overseas were no older than 4000 years because they were hard to identify.

In Africa, nose ornaments were commonly fashioned from porcupine quills. Bone nose ornaments were also seen in New Guinea and South East Asia.

They could be purely decorative or statements of war.

“I would think that kind of ornament would have developed quite early in human decorative culture,” she said.

“It probably all started back in Africa but we don’t have any early examples in Africa — but that could be because we just haven’t been able to identify them.

“The other thing is the face is the first thing you look at. The face and the hands are the things that get decorated first.

“I’m sure if it didn’t come from a single source it could have easily been developed multiple times as a really obvious place to put something.”

Dr Langley said nose ornaments only began to disappear in recent history.

“I’ve spoken to people who remember their grandparents wearing them still,” she said.

“And there are lots of photographs of people wearing them into the 1900s. It was only until very recently, and you might find in some areas that people still wear them at least for special occasions.”

Dr Langley said in some areas bone nose ornaments were worn by men, women and children, but in others only certain individuals were allowed to wear them, such as elders who had specific knowledge or entitlements.

Wendy Caccetta

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