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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 an 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 natural 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 attacked 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 resembled bark spoons with long handles
into the campfires till they glowed red and then the display began. Each black had a long stick stuck firmly into the ground, and when one against 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-fire” 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 merit 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 blackfellow 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,
and they were overeager 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 along, as the case I might be. – Some were magic or ceremonial songs for the corroboree.  Whether in far-off tunes, the blacks, with their genius for mimicry, evolved the corroboree from the marvellous dawn-dance of the brolgas, or native companions, cannot be known; but they declare that the .brolgas learnt their quaint quadrilles from /the unlives’ corroborees, and. for. thnt reason these birds were never molested. Apart from the way. , hnd ceremonial dances of the boorah, and other semi-religious functions, the blacks had an unlimited repertoire of corroborees, which were the native plays or operas. Most of
these were humorous and imitative of some bird, animal, or event. The dancing grounds were lit by great armfuls- of dead timber, placed in forks of surrounding trees, and fired, and the. gins sat in rows and did (ho singing, keeping time on their ‘possum rug “drums.” It was always a wild and impressive spectacle, and seemed express all ‘the weirdness
and mystery of the Australian bush- Among the favourite performance were the sick baby dance, startled “birds, the last the tho poisoned dingo, cattle raided by the blacks, the coming of the first steamer, and. the imitation of different birds and their cries.and were in reality 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 perfection 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 -tormented 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 apparently more profitable collecting of primitive tools and weapons, and the compilation of anthropometric 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 several hundred) which have practically never been recorded. With the exception of Dr. Roth’s excellent bulletin on the amusements of the North Queensland aborigines, and an account by Spencer and Gillen of a pattern representing a dugong, from the Gulf of Carpentaria, the writer has been unable to find more than passing reference to this widely-spread custom. 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 essentially a game played by the children, many women and men remember the patterns, and delight in teachingthem to anyone who is patient enough to write them down. The collecting of cats’ cradles is a delightful pastime: In the first place the shyness of the children must be overcome. Theyseem to be stricken dumb when the strange white man asks them a question, and it is appalling to see a pretty little, curly-headed brown girl dissolve into tears of fright. The value of lollies cannot be over-estimated. Presently the storm subsides, and beyond wriggling the toes and averting
the face if suddenly looked at, there is no further sign of embarrassment.
Confidence once gained there is usually no more trouble. The kiddies compete to show ‘new patterns, and are never tired of guiding clumsy fingers through the complicated manipulation.
The patterns represent in most cases animals, or familiar objects or actions. At Yarrabah, the wallaby, the crocodile, the turtle, and various kinds of fish and birds are each represented
by a figure. The sun, moon and the constellation of the Pleiades — whic j is believed to represent seven girls — are shown by complicated but beautiful 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 variety is at first bewildering, but soon it becomes an incentive to learn more.It is, really, very easy to collect these games.

Earlier in the year the writer was camped for some weeks at Michaelmas Bay, on the Great Barrier Reef, near Cairns. Late one afternoon a beche de-mer lugger came in and cast anchor 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 (September) was the nesting season, and the cay was populated by many thousands of noisy terns and noddies. Although the lugger boys had in the past always collected as many eggs and chicks as they wanted, they now politely asked permission, — the island having been proclaimed
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 island.
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 probably 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 halfcaste interpreted as ‘the sun.’ The interpreter, because of his white blood, was rather disdainful of such childish amusements, but he was extremely useful when it came to find ing out the significance of the patterns.
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 shuffled 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 suspended by two delicate threads to the leaf of a tree.


Never laugh at, or make fun of the children. Beware also of making suggestions when trying to interpret the figure. To questions there is a tendency to simply answer ‘yes,’ partly from shyness, and partly from a desire .to avoid the appearance of disagreeing. 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 different thing. ‘
There is reason to believe that the accounts of the earlier investigators contain inaccuracies because they failed to realise that such affirmatives could not always be relied upon.
Folk lore, under which term are included superstitious beliefs, witchcraft, ceremonial customs, children’s games, dances, sagas, nursery tales, rhymes and riddles — the organised
study of which is of comparatively recent growth, is of great value in helping 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 ethnologists,