When I was 11, my grandmother gave me a boomerang. In a book about her travels to Australia, she wrote of how, in the Barossa Valley, she had gripped an Aboriginal spear that was intended to pass through the body with one thrust. “I was more sure than ever after handling these weapons that Nicholas should not have one.” In Melbourne, she fingered a boomerang, but after testing its hard edges she worried that I might do “untold damage” to my siblings. The Aboriginal owner held a demonstration, throwing it across the road, but the boomerang dropped short on its return flight and “a car belonging to a local inhabitant purposely swerved to run over it and break it in half.” Not a woman normally motivated by guilt, my grandmother was moved to buy a replacement, which she presented to me.
This bent-arm-shaped piece of dark wood, with strange motifs burned into it, soon became a cherished object—like its twin in a television series, “The Magic Boomerang”, which, when thrown by the 13-year-old hero, made time freeze for the length of its flight. It is why, ever since I was a boy, I have felt the emotion Andrei Sinyavsky captures in “A Voice from the Chorus”: “Whenever one sees Australia on the map one’s heart leaps with pleasure: kangaroo, boomerang!”
Boomerangs are not exclusive to Australia: Howard Carter found a throwing-stick in Tutankhamun’s tomb. But Australia claims the longest unbroken association—from the evidence of a returning boomerang found in South Australia’s Wyrie swamp, at least 9,000 years. Clearly, the original was so unimprovably adapted to its purposes that the design had not altered a smidgeon by the time the first recorded European set eyes on one, several millennia later, in 1802. He was a French-born ensign in the New South Wales corps, Francis Louis Barrallier. This is his description: “It is composed of a piece of wood in the form of a half circle which [the natives] make as sharp as a sabre on both sides, and pointed at each end. They throw it on the ground or in the air, making it revolve on itself, with such a velocity that one cannot see it returning towards the ground; only the whizzing of it is heard.” The sound was possibly caused by a hole in one end, so that the boomerang whistled like a hovering hawk, scaring flocks of ducks or cockatoos to fly low and tangle themselves in nets stretched across a lagoon.
As with birds, so with men. “A bomb-shell thrown amongst a company of soldiers cannot create a greater consternation than the flight of a boomerang towards a group,” wrote the missionary Lancelot Threlkeld in 1859; “…it rips up the individual when it strikes, as though done with a knife.”
Fashioned from a hardwood such as mulga or mangrove, about two inches wide and two feet long, curved on top, flat beneath, and either plain or decorated—the engravings often etched by a wallaby tooth, and filled with ochre and pipeclay: no other object crosses so satisfyingly the boundary between indigenous and Western culture, and yet retains its mystery—that of something which spins out of sight and comes back.
The earliest scientist to analyse its aerodynamic properties, the 19th-century explorer Thomas Mitchell, when he first observed the flight of a boomerang, and examined the weapon, exclaimed, “The savage who invented this, in whatever time, was gifted by the Creator with a knowledge which He has withheld from civilised man.”
The boomerang looks simple, but, as Mitchell saw, it is not. Its significance is wide-ranging, says Gaye Sculthorpe, curator of the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition on Australian indigenous art—which will travel, boomerang-fashion, to the National Museum in Canberra. “It’s a really effective weapon or tool, perfectly shaped for diverse purposes.”
A weapon to attack enemies, or to hunt birds and wallabies, a boomerang’s hard edges may also be used as a fire-making tool to rub over a soft beantree and cause a spark. It can function as a ceremonial object, employed to beat out time in secret initiation ceremonies, or as a toy for Aboriginal children to light and hurl, flaming, through the night sky. It has appeared in advertising slogans to encourage returning customers—like the 1960s Boomerang Trips promoted by Qantas/BOAC between Australia and England. It has lent its name to a butter, a brandy, a cigarette paper, a football club. It can be an object of kitsch, a porcelain plate for nibbles—but also an enduring patriotic symbol. The parliament in Canberra is modelled on two boomerangs, suggestive of the intermingling of pre- and post-colonial cultures (for an equivalent, picture Britain’s Houses of Parliament shaped like an oak leaf). More than anything, the boomerang is an example of the constant interaction between the sacred and secular aspects of Aboriginal life.
Even today, more than two centuries after its introduction to Europeans, not all of its ritual meanings and purposes can be explained. But a couple of things may be said with confidence. First, no two boomerangs perform in an identical way. Second, a good one returns to its owner. Regrettably, I never was able to emulate Frank Donnellan, an expert thrower from Sydney who caught his boomerangs blindfolded. I caught mine only once or twice. The last time I hurled my boomerang, above a thicket on Wimbledon Common, it did not come back, and I never found it.
Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation British Museum, London, April 23rd to Aug 2nd