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Art, Country and the DreamingBoomerang


Boomerangs are throwing sticks which come in a wide variety of shapes. The term 'boomerang' apparently derives from a word in the Dharug language of eastern New South Wales, though it has also been identified as coming from a Tharawal word.

Boomerangs are often thought of as essentially Australian, but in fact it is only the returning boomerang that is unique to this continent - throwing sticks have been used for thousands of years by many hunter gatherer societies. Boomerang making has been happening for at least 10 000 years in Australia. For example, Mimi figures are shown holding boomerangs in ancient rock art from Arnhem Land, and at Wyrie Swamp, South Australia, three boomerangs have been found which are dated at between 9 000 and 10 000 years old.

Boomerang from central Australia

Boomerangs come in three types: returning, non-returning and ceremonial. Returning boomerangs were most commonly used in south eastern and south western Australia, and only rarely used in Central Australia and the Lake Eyre Basin. They were not used at all in a large part of the Western Desert, in much of northern Australia, Cape York Peninsula and in Tasmania. In Cape York, however, rock art suggests that boomerangs were once used there, and they are still used in ceremonies.

As a general rule, larger and heavier boomerangs tended to be used by Aboriginal people of the inland plains and deserts. Shorter and lighter boomerangs were used by people from the higher country and coastal areas. Those from inland areas tended to be decorated with red ochre or carving, while those from coastal regions tended to be undecorated.

Boomerangs are mainly used in hunting for animals. They are also used as blades for carving meat, for digging, for fire making, for scraping other tools, and in music making (as clapsticks). Boomerangs have important uses in rituals and ceremonies, and particular forms may be used in these.

Aboriginal men holding boomerangs
Aboriginal men from central Australia,
holding boomerangs of various shapes,
photographed in the the early 1930s.

The returning variety is usually 30 to 75 cm long, with two straight arms joining in a sharp-angled curve; the sides may be flat or slightly convex, with one end twisted up slightly and the other down. It is often thrown with a run-up, and then with a flick of the wrist. It is held at one end, above and behind the thrower's shoulder, with the concave edge to the front, and swung forward rapidly with the flatter side underneath. Just before release, added movement is given by the strong wrist flick. It is this spin, together with its special shape, that gives boomerangs their remarkable flight.

If thrown downward or parallel to the ground, it sweeps upward to a height of 15 metres or more. When thrown so that one end strikes the ground, it ricochets into the air at great speed, spinning endwise. It flies in a wide circle and is used to frighten animals towards traps or for sport.

The non-returning type is longer and heavier with a shallower curve - it can be ricocheted from the ground towards its quarry, or used as a hand club. A hooked variety, used in Central Australia and the Northern Territory, was designed to catch on a shield then spin round to strike the enemy.

Boomerangs for music and ceremonial purposes were also important. This significance is reflected, for example, in the fact that most central Australian Aboriginal languages have a particular word for the sound of boomerangs being rattled together in music and ceremonies.


For more information, the best reference is the book "Boomerang: Behind an Australian Icon" by Philip Jones, Ten Speed Press 1997. For an interesting article on the physics of how boomerangs fly, see Unspinning the Boomerang.


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