A Boomerang Killed Kaakutja

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^Top image: The skeletal remains of Kaakutja, an Aboriginal man felled by a boomerang, were found in New South Wales, Australia, and recently excavated and examined. Credit: © Antiquity Publications

Australian forensic science experts recently helped solve a centuries-old murder mystery when they determined that wounds on a prehistoric skeleton were inflicted by a boomerang. The skeleton of the unfortunate victim, nicknamed Kaakutja (an Aboriginal word meaning older brother), was discovered in 2014 buried in what is now Australia’s Toorale National Park in New South Wales. Kaakutja was quickly identified as an Aboriginal man, so archaeologists were called to excavate the remains. During the excavation, archaeologists noticed several sharp gashes across the skeleton’s skull, suggesting Kaakutja was the victim of homicide.

The sharp wounds on Kaakutja’s skull appeared to be caused by a metal object like a sword. The wounds were almost certainly fatal because they showed no signs of healing. The scientists at first thought Kaakutja may have been killed in a hostile encounter with European colonists. Metal tools and weapons such as swords were unknown to Aboriginal people of Australia before the arrival of Europeans in the late 1700’s. But radiocarbon dating showed Kaakutja was buried around A.D.1260, about 500 years before the first Europeans stepped foot in Australia.

Forensic scientists then used computed tomography (CT) scans to closely examine the wounds on Kaakutja’s skull. The weapon that best fit the dimensions of Kaakutja’s wounds was found to be a sharp-edged, 18-inch- (46-centimeter-) long wonna, a type of wooden fighting boomerang. Boomerangs have played an important part in the culture of Aboriginal people of Australia through the centuries. A spinning boomerang hits a target with more force than a thrown rock or stick. For this reason, boomerangs are useful weapons for hunting and fighting. Fighting boomerangs like the wonna were often swung in close combat like a club.

^Rock art depicting warring Aboriginal people holding shields, clubs, and boomerangs was discovered close to Kaakutja’s burial site in New South Wales, Australia. Credit: © Antiquity Publications

The scientists suspect Kaakutja was killed in an ancient territorial conflict between Aboriginal groups. Archaeologists know little about relations between different groups of Aboriginal people in Australia before the arrival of European colonists. But Kaakutja’s skeleton shows that violent conflict did occur. Also, nearby cave paintings made by prehistoric Aboriginal people depict people wielding shields, clubs, and the same type of fighting wonna that probably killed Kaakutja. With their examination completed, the archaeologists returned Kaakutja’s remains to a local Aboriginal group for traditional burial.

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