The first archaeological evidence for death by spearing in Australia

Josephine J. McDonald1,2 , Denise Donlon3 , Judith H. Field1,4 , Richard L.K. Fullagar5 , Joan Brenner Coltrain6 , Peter Mitchell7 & Mark Rawson1
An Aboriginal man done to death on the dunes 4000 years ago was recently discovered during excavations beneath a bus shelter in Narrabeen on Sydney’s northern beaches. The presence of backed microliths and the evidence for trauma in the bones showed that he had been killed with stone-tipped spears. Now we know how these backed points were used. A punishment ritual is implied by analogies with contact-period observations made in the eighteenth century AD. Keywords: Australia, Sydney, Aborigine, microliths, ritual punishment, spears

Introduction
This paper documents the first archaeological evidence in Australia both for death by spearing and for the use of backed artefacts as spear armatures. Excavation below a bus shelter in the beachside suburb of Narrabeen in northern Sydney, south-eastern Australia, uncovered the articulated skeletal remains of an adult Aboriginal male (estimated age 3040 years). Analysis showed that he had been slain and abandoned, unburied, in a coastal dune around 4000 years ago. The associated stone artefact assemblage consists of 17 small flaked artefacts including three fragments embedded within or between bones. Several stone fragments were refitted, and all but two artefacts are backed microliths. Usewear on these is consistent with their being hafted armatures on weapons (spears and possibly knives) responsible for the death. Anatomical, forensic and artefact studies indicate death by spearing. Ritual punishment using barbed death spears was witnessed at European contact in the Sydney region. The Narrabeen man provides early archaeological evidence for ritual or payback killing by spearing. The timing of this event is significant for understanding other archaeological indicators of increased social complexity across south-eastern Australia.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management, 77 Justin St., Lilyfield, NSW 2040, Australia (Email: jmcdonald@jmcdchm.com.au) (Author for correspondence) Centre for Cross Cultural Studies, Australian National University, ACT 2600, Australia Department of Anatomy and Histology, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia Australian Key Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis & School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia Department of Archaeology, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia Department of Anthropology, University of Utah, Utah, USA Groundtruth Consulting, PO Box 515, Gladesville, 1675 NSW, Australia

Received: 5 September 2006; Accepted: 7 November 2006; Revised: 30 January 2007 antiquity 81 (2007): 877–885

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Backed artefacts
Backed artefacts form a technological class which is found globally. Standardised forms of backed artefacts, particularly backed microliths, are widely interpreted as barbs on thrown spears, indicating improved hunting capacities from the Late Pleistocene (Barham 2002; Elston & Kuhn 2002). In Australia, backed artefacts are most abundant about 34000 years ago (Hiscock 2002; 2003; Hiscock & Attenbrow 2005), although they first appear at least 15 000 years ago (Slack et al. 2004). Given their technological similarity and despite frequent lack of diagnostic usewear, it has long been assumed that Australian backed microliths had a similar primary function: armatures on composite spears that were used for hunting (McCarthy 1976; Kamminga 1980; McBryde 1984). It has also been proposed that Australian backed microliths functioned as more elaborate barbs on the ethnographically documented ‘death spear’. All current museum collections suggest that the death spear (at European contact) may only have been armed with small unretouched stone flakes and fragments, while ethnohistoric accounts from Sydney are inconclusive (Hunter 1793; Tench 1793; Collins 1798). Convincing evidence that backed artefacts functioned primarily as armatures on spears has been elusive and is sometimes contradictory (McDonald et al. 1994; Robertson 2005). Evidence for death by spearing in prehistoric societies has been reported on other continents (Bocquentin & Bar-Yosef 2004) but has not been found in the archaeological record in Australia. We report here the first prehistoric instance of human death by spearing in Australia, and direct evidence of backed artefacts as barbs and tips from composite spears. We do not suggest that backed artefacts form a function-specific class of tools, but that we have discovered the first definitive evidence for them being used as spear barbs.

Anatomical description of the Narrabeen man
A partly disturbed human skeleton was found approximately 1.5m below the present ground level (Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management 2005a), and was initially contacted during excavation for electricity cables. The bone is non-greasy, very brittle and a pale cream colour. Some bone is charred, not calcined, consistent with the body being partially covered with burning branches. This fire was not intense, and not an attempt at cremation. The skeleton was found at 9.0m above present sea level in a simple siliceous sand profile with some residual shell carbonate. At the time of death the body would have lain on the dune crest in an active foredune. Vegetation would have been limited (Spinifex hirsutus, Festuca littoralis and Lomandra longifolia) and sand drift would have resulted in the body trapping sand and platy shell fragments such as were found near the ribcage and beneath the cranium. The lower limbs, inferior part of the pelvis, and fragments of the left forearm and hand were disturbed by the initial discovery. The superior part of the pelvis and all bones above this were found in situ. Refitting of the disturbed and in situ pelvic elements indicate that all skeletal material recovered belonged to the one individual. The head was shifted c . 40cm to the right of the first cervical vertebra (Figure 1). The mandible was still occluded with the cranium, suggesting that the head rolled away
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Figure 1. Schematic diagram of the upper torso and the location of the backed artefacts associated with the skeleton. The head has moved approximately 40cm away from the vertebral column; however the mandible is still articulated. Dots on the spinal column indicate the location of the lodged backed artefacts (arrowed) and the placement of the other images indicates schematically the locations in which the artefacts were found. OON14 and 15 are shown where found along the spinal chord; other refitted pieces are shown conjoined.

from the skeleton when at least partially fleshed. There is no forensic evidence to suggest decapitation. The morphology of the skull was consistent with that of NSW coastal Aboriginals (Larnach & Macintosh 1966). The limb bones are long and narrow with narrow epiphyses, muscle attachments are well marked, and the distal tibia have squatting facets on the lateroanterior surfaces. Limited reconstruction of the pelvis showed the male characteristics of a narrow sub-pubic angle, lack of ventral arc, poorly developed pre-auricular sulcus, a small pelvic opening and a J-shaped great sciatic notch. These features and the fact that the skull obtained a score of 18 using an accepted (Larnach & Freedman 1964) sexing method indicate the remains are clearly male. Dental eruption and epiphyseal fusion indicate an adult. The pubic symphyses were scored at phase IV (Brooks & Suchey 1990) indicating a range of 23-57 years (mean = 35.2). Tooth attrition and degenerative changes in the joint surfaces also place the age estimate of the man to between 30-40 years. Height is estimated
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Figure 2. Backed artefacts found with the Narrabeen skeletal remains during excavation. A. The backed artefact (OON1) in situ between L2 and L3 as photographed in the field. B. Damaged L3 vertebra where backed artefact OON1 was lodged.

to be 183.52 + 3.91cm – extremely tall for an Aboriginal man before European contact − (when average height was c .168cm). Bones and teeth show slight signs of dietary stress and/or infectious disease, while severe tooth attrition indicates a diet of gritty rare meat and fibrous plant food.

The archaeological evidence
One of the backed artefacts found during excavation was lodged between the second and third lumbar vertebra slightly anterior to where the intervertebral disc would have been (Figure 2). Assuming the individual was standing in normal anatomical position, this hafted barb would have entered the body on the left-hand side, just above the blade of the left hipbone. This barbed spear may have passed through the small and large intestine, possibly the kidney, and come close to the left renal artery and possibly the aorta. Another backed artefact was found in the position of the (missing) spinous process of the eleventh thoracic (T11) vertebra. A further backed artefact was found next to L1 although this has not damaged the bone in this instance. Given their positions outside the bony protuberances, these latter two artefacts are likely to have been part of a spear that entered the individual from behind. Altogether 17 pieces of flaked stone were found (see Table 1 at http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/ projgall/mcdonald). Three fragments were refitted, resulting in 14 near complete artefacts of which 12 have clear backing retouch. Three artefacts have usewear from head-on tip impact; three have usewear from oblique impact, most likely barb damage; one artefact has a combination of tip and barb damage; six artefacts have snapped tips consistent with either breakage or use impact (Rots 2003; Boot 2005). One artefact found in the vicinity of the cranium has marked edge rounding that is consistent with dominant use as an awl for puncturing or working skin. This artefact may have been used as a weapon or could have been carried in the victim’s hair at time of death (a practice also described in the ethnographic literature for Sydney). Several weapons with different hafting arrangements could be reconstructed from this data. The stone tools with hard impact damage suggest a
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minimum of three weapons; and the three implements with barb damage suggest at least one barb on each of these weapons. Six artefacts have damage consistent with use as barbs, tips or elements in a knife. The cranium of the individual also shows signs of trauma. A cut mark was found over the sagittal suture posterior to the bregma. At the posterior end there is a stepped cut section from which emanate two radiating fractures. These appear to be a peri-mortem feature. Between the bregma and the cut mark was a healed depressed fracture. Also at the rear of the cranium is a puncture mark which may be the impact point of a snapped stone point found nearby (see Figure 3). Either of these head impacts could have been fatal. Death may have been swift if an artery was pierced by a spear or if subdural haematoma resulted from the blow(s) to the head. Death may have been lingering if the bowel was pierced or if the head wounds were not instantly fatal.
Figure 3. The damaged skull and associated artefact from the Narrabeen excavation. The puncture mark on the right parietal bone of the skull (arrowed) is adjacent to an area that is partially burnt. Inset shows the detail of the associated backed artefact, broken on impact and refitted (OON6 and OON8). This is still missing a fragment from the tip. Tip fragment shown is 6mm long. This backed artefact was recovered from beneath the right hand side of the cranium.

Analyses

A direct radiocarbon age determination on fragments of bone from the skeleton confirms that the individual died around 3677 cal BP (3480 + 30 radiocarbon years, − CAMS-120202). This date is consistent with a high sea level stand on the NSW central coast (2-3m above the present level) between 3700 to 3200 BP (Haworth et al. 2002). At this time the dune barrier would have been narrower, the Narrabeen Lagoon higher and probably functioning as a saline estuary. The stable isotope chemistry of the bone clearly indicates a diet high in marine foods – stable carbon isotope ratio: (δ 13 C‰) −11.8‰; stable nitrogen isotope ratio: (δ 15 N‰) 15.9‰. The results indicate that diet consisted mainly of mid-trophic level marine foods: fish, shellfish, seaweed and sea birds (Ambrose et al. 1997; Pate 1998a, 1998b; Pate et al. 2002; Coltrain et al. 2004). The slain individual had probably inhabited the maritime zone throughout his lifetime. The radiocarbon estimate on the human bone provides an unusually precise date for use of the associated backed microliths as violent weapons – during a cultural period when small backed artefacts were most abundant in the local archaeological record (Hiscock 2003; Hiscock & Attenbrow 2005) and when rock art was being used in the region as a mechanism to demonstrate territoriality as broad scale social cohesion (McDonald 1998, 1999; McDonald & Veth 2006). The higher sea-levels with resultant diminishing land mass
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may have increased demographic pressures along the coastline resulting in this individual’s demise during a period of social change and increasing cultural proscription.

Discussion
These human remains and associated backed artefacts provide the first archaeological evidence in Australia of death by spearing. The archaeological assemblage of 14 (mostly) backed artefacts found in association with a human skeleton is unique. While backed artefacts have previously been found in association with burials (Haglund 1976) these have usually been in the context of grave goods and not indicative of artefacts used to maximise soft tissue damage. Certainly this is the first evidence that backed artefacts have been used as spear barbs – and this is the first time that barbs have been found lodged in human bones demonstrably as the cause of death. The front and rear entry direction of the points embedded in the spine indicates that a minimum of two spears were used, while the impact puncture on the skull suggests a third weapon – either a barbed spear or club. The unhealed cut mark on the top of the skull is consistent with a peri-mortem stone axe wound. The age determination of 3677 cal BP indicates that this individual died during a period of peak backed artefact production (Hiscock & Attenbrow 2005; Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management 2005b) generally known as the Early Bondaian cultural phase. It is possible that territorial adjustments due to higher sea-level and other climatic changes may have resulted in increased territoriality and social conflict at this time. These are currently the oldest dated skeletal remains in the Sydney Basin and this is the only evidence for death by ritual spearing in Australia. By analogy with recent and ethnohistorical data, such killings may have been a consequence of dispute settlement, a ritual spearing, or it may represent violent group conflict (Keeley 1996). Australian Aboriginal skeletal remains have previously been identified as bearing witness to violent disputation, with depressed cranial fractures and shield fractures to the forearms, on both males and females, found in numerous burial contexts (Haglund 1976; Pardoe 1988; Brown 1989; Webb 1989; 1995). These patterns of trauma have been interpreted as the direct result of intra-communal dispute settlement (Knuckey 1991; 1992). A spear point embedded in the knee joint of an elderly man was found during the examination of Ngarrindjeri skeletal remains from South Australia and is interpreted as evidence of spearing (Pardoe 2003; 2004). The tip of a spear point had entered the inside of the right knee from the side. The tip was all that remained and this Ngarrindjeri man had survived being speared, bone having all but grown over the buried projectile. Pardoe (1988) has argued previously that levels of violence evident along the Murray River have the appearance of organised warfare, and that boundary maintenance, population pressure, alliance networks and warfare characterised the prehistoric society arrayed along the resource-rich riverine corridor, possibly from as early as 7000 years ago (see also Brown 1989: 176, who similarly argues for consistent patterns of skeletal trauma over the last 7000 years; Webb 1995). The Narrabeen man was killed, partially burnt and abandoned. Although the body orientation is north-south (the orientation for skeletons consistently recorded in the region’s ethnographic evidence and historic records), the final resting posture of the body is not consistent with any known burial practices and attests to the body being abandoned on
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the surface of the dune soon after death. As well as the head being displaced from the top of the spine, the arms were flexed at the elbows with the left arm flung across the neck, a ¨ similar posture to the 5300 year old frozen corpse of Otzi, which also had a stone arrowhead embedded in its back (zur Nedden et al. 1994; Gostner & Egarter Vigl 2002). There are striking similarities between the current find and incidents of ritual punishment by death-spear documented in the ethnohistoric literature. Contemporary and ethnographic studies show that ritual punishments are usually associated with transgressions that occurred during ceremonies or over the visiting of ritual places, fights over women, or pay-backs for previous killings. In these instances multiple spears are used and the intention of the action is to kill the transgressor. This is usually considered a last resort: a less serious infraction for which spearing is the punishment usually involved the spear being thrown at the legs and rarely resulted in death (Gould 1969). The healed depressed skull fracture on the Narrabeen man suggests that this individual was involved in previous (non-fatal) dispute resolution. The use of spears with armatures in the slaying of the Narrabeen man suggests that backed microliths have been used to arm death spears from as early as the mid-Holocene in Australia. At this time in the Sydney region, backed artefact production was at its peak and rock art had begun to play an important role in mediating social contact. Ritual or payback spearing documented at the time of European contact in this region in the eighteenth century (Tench 1793; Collins 1798) would appear to be one of a series of social mechanisms already in place here between 3000 and 4000 years ago. As well as being the only evidence for death by spearing in Australia, the timing of this evidence is important in understanding the increasing social complexity which is evident in other archaeological manifestations. Acknowledgements
The Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council supported and approved this research. The fieldwork for this salvage excavation was undertaken by Jo McDonald, Denise Donlon, Amy Stevens, Pip Rath, Mark Rawson and Peter Veth. The authors thank Peter Veth, Claire Smith and Grahame Knuckey for their insightful comments on the draft. Energy Australia was the client for the salvage excavation.

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