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Ancient artefacts suggest Australian ritual endured for 12,000 years


Ancient ritual stick discovered in Cloggs cave, Australia

Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation

Wooden artefacts found in an Australian cave suggest that an Indigenous ceremony documented in the 19th century may have been practised 12,000 years ago, making it possibly the oldest known cultural ritual anywhere in the world.

Between 2019 and 2020, a team of archaeologists and members of a local Indigenous community called the GunaiKurnai from south-eastern Australia conducted an excavation at Cloggs cave, near the Snowy river in Victoria.

The site had been partly dug in the 1970s, but during the new work the team discovered two preserved fireplaces, which contained mostly unburnt artefacts made of wood from local Casuarina trees. Chemical analysis revealed these artefacts were smeared with animal or human fat and dated to between 11,000 and 12,000 years ago, making them among the oldest wooden artefacts found in Australia.

On its own, this would have been a major but mysterious discovery. However, the researchers and community members were at the same time examining an ethnographic report by 19th-century anthropologist Alfred Howitt, who researched the customs and traditions of tribes in south-eastern Australia in the 1880s.

In 1887, very close to Cloggs cave, he recorded the practices of Indigenous “wizards”, now referred to as “mulla-mullung”, who are powerful GunaiKurnai medicine men and women. He wrote a detailed account of one ceremony that involved smearing animal or human fat on throwing sticks made of Casuarina wood and placing them in small ceremonial fires as a magic charm or curse. He understood the ritual to be used against an enemy or someone whom those conducting the ritual wished to harm.

“The wizard has during this time been singing his charm; as it is usually expressed, he ‘sings the man’s name,’ and when the stick falls the charm is complete. The practice still exists,” wrote Howitt.

Bruno David at Monash University in Melbourne and Russell Mullett, a GunaiKurnai elder, say the similarities between the archaeological discoveries and the ethnographic account have convinced them that the same ritual was used for up to 12,000 years.

Mullett says he was convinced of the connection because Howitt’s account so closely matched what they had found in the cave – the type of wood and the fats smeared on the stick, positioned exactly as Howitt had described.

“This cements the longevity of our oral traditions and knowledge and the transferral of that knowledge from generation to generation,” says Mullett.

David says the conclusions grew slowly following the discovery of such rare timber artefacts.

“Archaeologists never get to see the performances behind such ancient deposits,” he says. “To me, it’s absolutely remarkable the physical evidence that corresponds so closely to the cultural knowledge has survived virtually intact, and for so long. It exactly matches the practices described by Howitt.”

“The team’s methods are meticulous and remarkable,” says Paul Taçon at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.

There were lots of changes to these communities over time, says Taçon, but this ritual seems to have stayed the same. “What strikes me about this case is that this same form of ritual practice must have been considered to have been important and effective to have been perpetuated over such a long period of time.”

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