Prongs of an Indigenous fishing spear, pre-1884
Prongs of an Aboriginal fishing spear
These are the prongs of a four-pronged Indigenous fishing spear. Bone points are bound to each prong with plant fibre and secured with resin. On the lowest prong, both of the exposed ends of the bone point - the tip and the barb - can be seen. The prongs are 56 cm long and the shaft is 200 cm long. The spear was purchased by the Australian Museum in 1884.
These four prongs are typical of those found in multipronged spears used on the eastern and northern coasts of Australia. Although this example was collected in the north of what is now Queensland, early British colonists observed fishing spears such as this one in use in the Sydney area and called them 'fizz-gigs'. They reported that spears could reach up to 6 m in length. The length of such spears depended on the depth of the water in which they were to be used.
The points and barbs of fishing spears were generally made from pieces of bird or mammal bone, stingray spines, shell, fish teeth or hardwood. Here they are made from local bird bone, which was easily replaceable if the point were broken. A piece of rib, leg or wing bone was sharpened at both ends and fixed to the prong, leaving both ends exposed. One end of the bone point pierced the fish and the other end acted as barb to prevent the fish from escaping.
Connecting the points to the prongs involved the collection and treatment of a range of materials. The prongs were made from wood that had been shaped with a sharp blade. The twine was made from plant fibres, although sometimes animal sinew was used. The resin came from the base of the leaves of a 'Xanthorrhoea' grass tree. The resin was used as an adhesive because it can be melted and moulded, and is hard and waterproof when cooled.
Multipronged spears such as this one were used by the men of the eastern and northern coastal areas of Australia when fishing from canoes or rock platforms or in shallow water. Unlike net or trap fishing, spearfishing allowed the men to select a particular species or size of fish. Multipronged spears were especially useful with fast-moving fish and those that present a narrow profile when seen from above. Women usually used lines with hooks and sinkers when fishing from canoes.
Fishing equipment was designed to be portable. It was lightweight, and most objects except spears were small. Fishing spears were used in different forms around Australia. They were made from wood, cane and flowering stems and sometimes had single shafts or no barbs. Baskets or net bags were used by men and women throughout Australia to carry their equipment and the fish they caught.
Bone implements were made and used by Aboriginal people throughout Australia. As well as being used for fishhooks and spears, bone was used to make needles, awls, knives and chisels. Kangaroo, wallaby, possum, bandicoot and other small mammal bones as well as bird bones were used depending on the girth, shape and strength required.
Ms Helen Wheeler , Education Project Officer