Archaeologists find speared skeleton

A new report led by an ANU archaeologist on the first evidence of death by spearing in Australia has been published in the prestigious British journal Antiquity.

The paper outlines the collaborative detective work that took place following the discovery of the skeletal remains of an Aboriginal male in the Sydney suburb of Narrabeen during excavations for gas works in 2005. A number of stone tools, interpreted as spear barbs, were also discovered at the site.

Lead author Dr Jo McDonald from the Research School of Humanities at ANU said that anatomical, forensic and artefact studies indicate death by spearing and the archaeological evidence showed that that the man was slain and abandoned in a coastal dune around 4000 years ago.

“Ritual punishment using barbed death spears was witnessed at European contact in the Sydney region,” Dr McDonald said. “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.”

A multidisciplinary approach was taken to the salvage. Dr Richard Fullagar and Dr Judith Field from the University of Sydney studied the spear barbs. As well as finding human bone on several of the points, they also discovered signs of head-on tip impact and other damage consistent with the spearing of a human. Dr Denise Donlon, also from the University of Sydney, analysed the slain man’s skeleton and was able to determine that he was aged in his 30s at the time of his death. Altogether 17 pieces of flaked stone, thought to be spear barbs, were found around or embedded in the skeleton.

Dr Joan Brenner Coltrain from the University of Utah analysed the stable isotope chemistry of the man’s bones, which indicated he subsisted on a diet of marine foods including fish, shellfish, seaweed and sea birds. A study of the site’s geomorphology by private consultant Dr Peter Mitchell, combined with the age of the skeleton, indicated that this event took place at a time of higher sea level, suggesting the body was left on the crest of a fore dune.

“This was an example of the type of good research which can be achieved in the context of cultural heritage management – and an example of the exciting nature of archaeology in Sydney – where unique finds can be preserved in urban contexts,” Dr McDonald said. “It also shows how archaeological research can provide Aboriginal communities with the types of information that they want to know about their ancestors.”

Australian Archaeological Association spokesman, Professor Peter Veth from ANU, said the publication of the report in Antiquity was highly significant for archaeology in Australia.  

Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.