British Boomerang Society Journal

The returning boomerang is such a pervasive icon of Australian Aboriginal culture that it can be hard to realise that not all Aboriginal tribes knew about them, even up to quite recent times. I came across one curious example when I was purchasing boomerangs from Duncan MacLennan, an old-time Australian who has run a boomerang school in Sydney for nearly sixty years. When he started, he wanted aboriginal motifs for the plywood boomerangs that he was manufacturing, and approached the members of a local tribe to do the painting. They were very interested, not only in doing the painting, but also in the boomerangs themselves. It turned out that they had never seen one, and Duncan had the unique pleasure of teaching an aboriginal tribe how to throw boomerangs.

When I told this story to Sean Slade, he promptly topped it with the story of Andy Furniss, who was hitch-hiking across Australia and had been dropped off in the middle of nowhere. While waiting for his next lift, he idly took out a boomerang and began to throw it. A local aboriginal came up and asked “what the feller thing?” Andy told him, and proceeded to teach him how to throw it. Just as the man was getting the hang of it, a bus full of American tourists drew up and proceeded to photograph what they perceived to be an aboriginal teaching a white man how to throw a boomerang.

Among those tribes who did use boomerangs, their purpose, as most BBS members will know, was mainly for sport. I wonder, though, whether those members would have been willing to join in the sport, a bloodthirsty version of the ‘Aussie round’, as the following account from 1881 shows:

“Ten or twelve warriors, painted with white stripes across the cheek and nose, and armed with shields and boomerangs, are met by an equal number at a distance of about twenty paces. Each individual has a right to throw his boomerang at anyone on the other side, and steps out of rank into the intervening space to do so. The opposite party take their turn, and so on alternately, until someone is hit, or all are satisfied. …. As the boomerang is thrown with great force, it requires very great dexterity and quick sight to avoid such an erratic weapon, and affords a fine opportunity for displaying the remarkable activity of the aborigines. This activity is, no doubt, considerably roused by fear of the severe cut which is inflicted by the boomerang.”

The only British thrower that I know who has come close to the Aboriginal experience is (of course!) Sean Slade, who once manufactured a boomerang from transparent polycarbonate plastic. He put some effort into polishing the surfaces and sharpening the edges, and it was only after he launched it that he realised that he had no idea of where it was going to land when it returned. Passers-by were treated to the sight of a man running frantically from a totally invisible pursuer.

Adapted from Len Fisher’s book How to Dunk a Doughnut: Using Science in Everyday Life (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London). Publication Date August, 2002.

© This article is copyright Len Fisher. Please email Len Fisher to seek permission to reproduce part or all of the above article.

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