Indigenous Toys and Games




Note: This section is based on material sourced from old newspapers and memoirs and uses phrases of earlier times. Many of the words, like blackfellows, natives and primitives are not acceptable in today’s Australia and however condescending and insensitive they may appear, even for an earlier time, they are a matter of public record. Most of the items come from children’s sections in regional and metro newspapers. Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes.


The Queenslander 4 May 1933
A Toy Boomerang. 2 drawings.
Most of our young readers are too familiar with the boomerang, the national weapon of our aborigines— to need any explanation of its principles and uses, except to say that when properly thrown it will travel a considerable distance and return to the thrower if not interrupted in its flight by some obstacle. The boomerang illustrated is not quite the same shape as those used by the Australian aborigines, but it works on exactly the same
principle. We have illustrated this pattern before, but there are always young readers coming in who are not acquainted with the toy form, and this time we are going to show how it can be thrown much farther than in the ordinary way.

The boomerang can be made of thin wood, metal, or fibre board, and it should be made to the proportions shown in the drawing. The size can easily be calculated by means of the squares, which measure half an inch each way, so that the length of the longer arm is about 4 1/4 in. and of the shorter 3 1/4 in. measuring from the back of the boomerang. It can, of course, be made larger in the same proportion, but if too big may be a little dangerous if the thrower is not an expert. The best plan is to make a small one first, and then if the sport is attractive try a larger one. This size can be operated in a good-sized room, but beware of mother’s vases or the crockery on the shelf! One side is left flat, and the other, which is the upper side in practice, is given a slight camber (angle); in the case of the shape shown this camber would be about 1/2 in. for the width, namely thrower it can be sent over a much longer distance. This method is more suitable for a paddock or in the open where there is plenty of room.

The blackfellow of North Queensland throws his spear by means of a short 13/4 in. in the size shown in Fig. 1. If made of metal or fibre the material can be bent so as to give this cambered shape. The aboriginal method of projecting the boomerang is to throw it with the hand, but with the catapult stick known as a woomera. This is a flat piece of wood, like a boomerang straightened out, with a small hook on the edge at one end and a roughened or string-bound portion at the other end to give a good handhold. The butt of the spear, hollowed out slightly, is placed against the hook, and the spear laid along the top edge of the woomera, which is held by the hand-grip horizontally over the shoulder, the spear being kept from falling off by the fingers of the hand which holds the end. Then the blackfellow projects the woomera forward in the direction in which the spear is to go, holding the handle firmly all the time. As soon as he reaches the limit of his throw the woomera stops, but the spear continues its course towards the target because the fingers are used only to steady the spear on the woomera and do not check its flight. The driving force is the small hook at the back end of the woomera. Using a light reed spear, tipped with a hardwood point, the blackfellow can throw with the woomera to a great distance—far greater than could be done with the unaided arm.

For throwing the toy boomerang we are going to employ the same principle as the woomera, except that a catapult or “shanghai” is used in place of the woomera. In the pattern for the boomerang will be noticed a small notch at one end. This is to fit on the rubber cord of an elastic catapult as in Fig. 2.

This catapult has no leather pocket or bag for the stone like an ordinary “shang,” and left-hand with the usual fork and a piece of elastic cord. If this is not obtainable and flat rubber has to be used a short length of common twine should be inserted in place of the pocket of the ordinary catapult so that the notch on the boomerang will fit over it. It is important to hold the free arm of the boomerang in the correct direction, and also at the correct inclination. These conditions, however, need not deter the user, for after a few trials with different angles and inclinations he will find the correct one at which the boomerang will return to him after its flight. The best kind of return is the one where it passes the thrower in a series of zig zags until it drops at his feet.






The Register News Pictorial (Adelaide) 26 Sept 1929
Aboriginal Substitutes for Cricket, Golf and Tops. makers of Ingenious toys.
THE discussion about boomerangs which followed the discovery of such a weapon in Utah the other day, brought out the fact that the Australian blackfellow is the sole manufacturer of boomerangs that actually return to the thrower. It is not every boomerang that comes back, and those that do are mostly playthings. Our aborigines used to be very fond of playing games. They were light-hearted people once, and some of their toys were very original and ingenious.
THE ? blackfellow’s inventive skill was by no means confined to the production of playthings. The fighting boomerang was a very dangerous weapon, and: is still no joke among the few wild natives who are left to use it. It can be thrown so as to fly in a wide circle, but that is not its principal purpose.  The fighting boomerang is thrown to kill, but it can be warded off with a nulla-nulla or shield — so long as it has not got a hook on the end of it. The inventor of the hooked boomerang was an artful fellow. He saw how the ordinary boomerang would ‘ glance off any stick held up to intercept it; so he added the hook, to catch on the shield, and swing the boomerang round it with such force as to dash a man’s brains out.

Throwing Sticks
The come-back boomerang is a very different article, although one of the games in which it used to figure is what -civilized people would call rather rough. No one ever studied the sports and pastimes- of the Australian blackfellow more intelligently than Walter E. Roth, the author of a rare little book called Ethnological Studies Among the North-West Central Queensland aborigines The play boomerang seems to have been evolved from the fighting boomerang and from a highly ingenious toy throwing stick and Roth saw both throwing stick and play boomerang in use. He has left us an interesting description of the games in which they were employed, The throwing stick, he says, is a thin straight stick with a knob on the end of it, which, if cleverly thrown up against some thick foliage, or down at a tussock, can be made to shoot through the air twice as far as it can be thrown in the ordinary way. There is a curved throwing stick which will bound up and whirl about in an astonishing way if thrown against a log on the ground. Nearly related to this is the comeback boomerang, which is quite an entertaining plaything.

But the Queensland blacks, at all events, were not content just to throw the play boomerang and watch it circle in the air and return. They devised games for it — trying to make it come back in such a way as to hit one another, or to fall directly on an agreed spot marked with a peg in the ground— a sort of aboriginal game of quoits. The natives used to have at least three games of ball — catch-ball, stick-and-stone, and spin-ball. The first children with a leather ball, bound with hair-twine, not vastly different in its component parts from the earliest golf balls.
‘Stick-and-stone’ was remotely suggestive of cricket. There were opposing teams of\ from four to six players, armed with sticks and ranged up fifteen or twenty yards apart. ‘The game,’ says Roth, ‘consists in throwing a stone of convenient size from one side to the other, each individual trying to intercept it with his stick as it skips or rolls before him on the’ ground.’

Blackfellows’ Tops
The spin-ball was generally of baked clay. brightly coloured and spun between the fingers on the ground —clearly related to the top of the European boy. Roth’s black friends were also fond of skipping and used a rope made from the roots of a tree, which two persons swung backwards and forwards — and not over and over — while a third did the skipping. then there was ‘hunt the eye,’ something like ‘hunt the slipper’. It was played with a tethered object, often the lens of an opossum’s eye, which was hidden in the sand while the players, sitting round in a ring, held their hands before their faces. Hide and seek, the aborigines used to play just as our children play it today. Throwing a leaf into a column of hot smoke in such a way as to make it ascent in spiral curves, was another innocent pastime. The Australian savages with whom Roth was acquainted, even played a sort of golf, but without clubs.- There was only one hole, and that was a pit, guarded by a cross bunker, in the form of a net. The game was to throw a human shinbone from a prodigious distance, and to ‘hole in one.’ Altogether, the passion for sport seems to have been felt in this country even before white settlement.


The Daily Mail (Brisbane) 16 Aug 1924
By Castlebar
The Australian blacks have impressed many observers as being simply big children,  cheerful, irresponsible, and with no care for tomorrow; and there is no doubt that their lives before the advent of the white man were, in the main, very happy.

The blacks are naturally optimists, and love of fun, and they had no terrifying doctrines of a future world, few diseases, and no natural enemies, save themselves. There was practically no bickering in the camps of the tribesmen, but endless frolic and laughter. With them time was no object, and, especially in seasons of plenty, every day -was a holiday. The blacks had numerous games, many athletic, and’ all games of skill and everyone, even fine old men and women, joined in the games, which never failed to cause tremendous excitement and emulation. The various corroborees were, of course, the national games or ceremonies, but apart from those unique performances, the many and often clever pastimes of the blacks have never received the attention they deserved. The favourite sport was tug-of-war, which was carried out on .a different plan from that of the white men. A pole, cut from, the bush and trimmed with the stone axe heads, was used instead of a rope, and the contestants pushed instead of pulled, while the onlookers sat in rows and shrieked encouragement to their favourite side.. wrestling bouts, for men only, and these were looked forward to and well prepared for before the great gathering of the tribes for the Priodle Boorah, or. initiation ceremonies. They had also, several ball games, the ball being made from portion of the skin of an old man kangaroo, stuffed with gins’ hair. Two opposing sides or teams had each a captain, and totem played against totem, such as “White Cockatoo v Pelicans. The game was for each side to keep the ball away, from the other, and there the men arid women took part, but it was considered too strenuous for the children. ‘ Another popular game was spearing the kangaroo.” A piece of bark was stripped from a tree, and shaped, into a circle; and then bowled along the ground, while the players from given positions, had to pierce .it was an excellent practice for their hunting.
The blacks, wherever water was plentiful, spent much time in swimming, and they had numerous water games. Besides ordinary swimming diving for objects, and the Imitation
of swans, turtles, etc. Tremendous laughter invariably accompanied the for the grown
ups, both sexes participating. They were also fond of holding sham fights, excellent practice for their extreme quickness of eye for real spears were thrown, and only the watchfulness of the at
tacked one prevented real injury. Much time was spent in teaching the children thoroughly to fight, swim, hunt, track, etc, In these mock battles, a black was upon his honour (not to move off the ground when dodging a spear, and to avoid the hissing missiles by only the slightest possible movement of his body. The children’s games, of course,’ were imitations of those of the adults. The -boomerang was used in several games, usually the returning boomerang, which was’ largely a toy, and seldom used in contestants each lighted a small fire, at which the boomerangs were prepared and rubbed with fat. They were then thrown, and the’ game was to make them return as near as possible to a given spot. At night the blacks were fond of sending
thousands of boomerangs tipped with fire circling through the air together.
Another species of native fireworks was that known as “poolooloomee.” They
peeled off great sheets of green bark from, white gum trees, and shaped hundreds of “poolooloomees,” which re sembled bark spoons with long handles
into the camp fires till they glowed red and then the display began. Each black had a long stick stuck firmly into the ground, and when one agains this; the glowing head was
broken, off and sent whirling through the air. Hundreds were” sent up at once, the lubras rushing backwards and forwards to the fires to keep the men supplied, while the night rang with wild yells of revelry. Skipping was another accomplishment well known to the blacks, and much indulged in, and they had developed the art far in advance of the white man’s methods.-
A vine was often used for a rope, and
the two turners tried by every means to catch the performer, man or woman,
off his or her guard. At first the skipper went through the ordinary steps but this was soon followed by amazing variations, such as taking thorns out of feet, digging for yams, grinding seed, imitating a frog, or other, creature, striking an attitude as distance, snatching up a child, or lying flat on the ground, measuring the full length in that position, and recovering in time to jump the rope, which was kept going constantly during the whole pantomime. Many of the
oldest warriors and gins were excellent performers.. The blacks also spent much time in carving implements and even whole trees, in decorating with differently coloured ochres, and in painting figures in caves. The famous gigantic painting of’ “hell-firs” at Nardoo Creek, in which hundreds of human hands appear to be lifted out of a sea of flames, is well known. They were also fond of fireside stories, mostly tales of wonder and magic, and were adept in meruit of oratory, in -which their, eloquence was wonderful. Singing or chanting look up much of their time, and, according to that, first of all authorities on
the aborigines, Mr J Mathew, almost every blackfcllow is a maker of lyric
verse, and while away the hour in expressing the poetry and music thai is in
him. The special bards or song-makers of each tribe were held in great esteem,
aud they were over eager to learn new songs. They had songs to the dawn, and to the kookaburra; songs for various occasions, and many humorous chants or action-songs. Whenever the successful game they came in chanting the emu
song, or the kangaroo aong, as the case I mignt be. – Some wero magic or cere-
nto;,uil songs for the corroboree.  Whether in far-off tunes, the blncks,
with”, ihoir gonius for immcry, evolved trie con oboree iiom tho marvellous dawn-
dun.’ie of the biolgas, or native com-puiiions, cannot be known; but they do-
ciaretl thnt the .brolgas learnt their quaint quidrilfes from /the unlives’ corroborecs,
and. for. thnt reason these birds were never molested. Apart from the way. , hnd ceremonial dunces of the Roorah, nnd rthcr , semi-religious functions, the blncks had an unlimited rcpctoiru of . corroborecs, which were thi.e native plays or operas. Most of
these were humorous nnd imitative of some bird, animal, or event. The
dancing grounds were lit by great nrm- fuls- of dead timber, placed in forks
of surrounding trees, and fired, and the. gins sat in rows nnd did (ho singing, keeping time on their ‘pos- EUm rug “drums.” It was always a
wild and impressive spectacle, and seemed express all ‘the weirdness
and mysiery of the Australian bush- Among the favourite performance wore the sick baby dance,
st at tied “birds, the last of tho poi
soned dingo, cattle raided by the
blacks, the coming of the first steamer,,
and. the imitation of different birds
and their cries. AH were in rcnlity
dramas, nnd each had its appropriate
music. Numerous riddles were also |
acted in pantomime. who uuhouuiw
I was” called “the wild dog dance,” and
began by the life-like howling of hid
den dingoes in the darkness answering
each other, and then they finally came
to tho fire, running about, snarling and
snapping, et« Another was the
“imitation of a stormy shore,” in
which the performers imitated to per
fection the long rhythmic sweep of
tit wnvt> nnd their recoil, together
with t he hiss of spray and the boom
of breakers. In the ennoe dance also
there was the same perfect- rhythm of
..the swaying bodies. Among, the
humorous pieces were “an old man -tor
mented by ‘possums,” nnd ”crossing a
river in a leaky canoe.” ‘

The Gundagai Independent and Pastoral, Agricultural and Mining Advocate 9 Dec 1926

SMH 4 Dec 1926 G V Stanley Science Research Scholar. Uni of Sydney
Cat’s Cradle

Aboriginal String Games
It is not generally realised that the
study of aboriginal folk lore, fairy
stories, and children’s games, is fo
any scientific value. In consequence,
these are often neglected for the ap
parently more profitable collecting of
primitive tools and weapons, and the
compilation of anthropometrie data.
Nevertheless, such subjects are of
very great interest, and ‘their study
by anyone who is in a position to do
so is to be strongly urged. When
Charles Lamb described the scholars
of Christ’s Hospital as ‘weaving those
ingenious parentheses, called cat
cradles,’ he was referring to a most
ancient pastime. Not only do’British
children — even to the present day —
play these peculiar string games, but
many little savages in all parts of ‘the
world know how to form complicated
patterns which would throw, such
well-known figures as the ‘candles,’
the ‘soldier’s bed,’ and the like quite
into the shade.
The Australian aborigines are no
exception to the rule. They possess
many complex patterns (probably sev
eral hundred) which have practically
never been recorded. With the ex
ception of Dr. Roth’s excellent bul
letin on the amusements of the North
Queensland aborigines, and an ac
count by Spencer and Gillen of a pat
tern representing a dugong, from the
Gulf of Carpentaria, the writer has
been unable to find more than passing
reference to this widely-spread cus
tom. Any information relating, to
these games would be very welcome.
At present the writer has collected
more than sixty patterns, chiefly from
the children at the Yarrabah Mission
Station, near Cairns, N.Q. Several
have been gathered at odd times from
natives of Darnley Island, in Torres
Straits, near Darwin. Although es
sentially a game played by the child
ren, many women and men remember
the patterns, and delight in teaching
them to anyone who is patient enough
to write them down. The collecting
of cats’ cradles is a delightful pas
time: In the first place the shyness of
the children must be overcome. They
seem to be stricken dumb when the
strange white man asks them a ques
tion, and it is appalling to see a pret
ty little, curly-headed brown girl dis
solve into tears of fright. The value
of lollies cannot be over-estimated.
Presently the storm subsides, and be
yond wriggling the toes and averting
the face if suddenly looked at, there
is no further sign of embarrassment.
Confidence once gained there is us
ually no more trouble. The kiddies
compete to show ‘new patterns, and
are never tired of guiding clumsy fin
gers through the complicated manipu
The patterns represent in most cas
es animals, or familiar objects or ac
tions. At Yarrabah, the wallaby, the
I crocodile, the turtle, and various kinds
il of fish and birds are each represented
! by a figure. The sun, moon and the
I, constellation of the Pleiades — which
ij is believed to represent seven girls —
j; are shown by complicated but beauti
Ij ful patterns. Again, other designs
\ show a canoe, a boomerang, a fishing
net, a round rock, two men walking
towards each other, girls bathing, wild
men fighting, and so on through a
score of patterns. This endless var
iety is at first bewildering, but soon
it becomes an incentive to learn more.
It is, really, very easy to collect these
Earlier in the year the writer was
camped for some weeks at Michaelmas
Cay, on the Great Barrier Reef, near
Cairns. Late one afternoon a beche
.de-mer lugger came in and cast an
chor for the night. A skiff put. out,
and the Darnley Island ‘boys’ who
comprised the crew, came to the hut
and asked to be allowed to gather
some sea-birds’ eggs, for this (Sep
tember) was the nesting season, and
the cay was populated by many thou
sands of noisy terns and noddies. Al
though the lugger boys had in the past
always collected as many eggs and
chicks as they wanted, they now po
litely asked permission, — the island
Vinvino- hefnrp been nroelaimed
a bird sanctuary by the Government
— it was believed that if a boy were
caught stealing he would be fined a
pound for every egg. The fresh eggs
were very good — we ate a lot of
them ourselves — and permission was
readily given, for the proclamation
aims not to prevent such legitimate
use of the eggs, but to put a stop to
the wanton destruction of eggs and
chicks which often coincides with the
visits of ‘pleasure parties’ to the
Later in the evening the boys again
came ashore, this time bringing some
trumpet shells which they hoped we
might buy. We. tried by signs and
questions to get them to show us some
string figures. With the exception of
a rather good-looking half-caste they
appeared to be unable — more prob
ably they were too shy — to say very
much, but at length one of them, a
slim, delicate-looking youth dressed
only in a sarong, made a pattern
which the consciously superior half
caste interpreted as ‘the sun.’ The
interpreter, because of his white
blood, was rather disdainful of such
childish amusements, but he was ex
tremely useful when it came to find
ing out the significance of the pat
All went well until we came to a
pattern . which depicted ‘oo-zhie.’
We were helpless. What is oo-zhie?
The boy wrinkled his nose and shuf
fled his bare feet, but try as he might,
he could not explain. At last, after
a time, he. suggested that the pattern
denoted a butterfly, to which the
younger boy assented. .Unfortunately
the figure did not in the least denote
a butterfly. Then it occurred to us
to get the boy to _ sketch the
oo-zhie. He did so — rather. well — and
at once we discovered that we were
dealing really with a caterpillar sus
pended by two delicate threads to the
leaf of a tree.
Never laugh at, or make fun of the
‘ children. Beware also of making sug
gestions when trying to interpret the
figure. To questions there is a ten
dency to simply answer ‘yes,’ partly
from shyness, and partly from a desire .
to avoid the appearance of disagree- i
ing. For example, to the question: :
‘What is that one, Micky? that one
feller wallaby?’ one is quite likely to
be answered ‘yes,’ when in reality
the figure may represent a young
wallaby in the pouch — a very differ- ‘
ent thing. ‘ i
There is reason to believe that the
accounts of the earlier investigators
contain inaccuracies, because they
failed to realise that such affirma
tives could not always be relied upon.
Folk lore, under which term are
included superstitious beliefs, witch
craft, ceremonial customs, children’s
games, dances, sagas, nursery tales,
rhymes and riddles — the organised
study of which is of comparatively re
cent growth, is of great value in help
ing to decide racial relationships. At
present, probably owing to lack of
sufficient data, the precise significance
of cats’-cradles in this respect has not
yet been fully determined by the eth
nologists, j
-Additional information about these
games is required, and would be glad
ly welcomed by the writer at the De
partment of Geography, University of