The Narrabeen Man: Another Post On Death By Spearing

Martin at Aardvarchaeology was kind enough to forward me the Antiquity article on the Narrabeen man. The article touches on several interesting issues.


The find provides convincing evidence that, in Australia, backed artifacts were used as armatures on spears. Backed artifacts have a global distribution, in Australia they are most prevalent around 3,000-4,000 years ago (the Narrabeen man dates to this time as well). What are backed artifacts? Hiscock defines them as flakes with 90 degree retouch along one or several margins made by bipolar techniques on an anvil. The raw material for their production could be any flake with the correct cross section and a straight or undulating margin. The backed artifacts associated with the Narrabeen man, the article argues, provides the first direct evidence of the use of backed artifacts as barbs and tips in composite spears. How do we know?
The Narrabeen man was found 1.5 meters below the current ground level. Some of the bone was charred, but not calcined and the authors of the paper argue that this is consistent with the body being partially covered with burning branches. Features of the pelvis (consult this post for details on determining sex and age from skeletal material) indicate the skeleton belonged to a male. Dental eruption, epiphyseal union, and changes in the pubic symphyses indicate an age of 30-40 years old. Stature was estimated to be around 183 cm. The bones and teeth showed signs of dietary stress or infectious disease. Then there is the trauma. There is a healed depressed fracture on the skull. Seventeen backed artifacts were found interspersed in the skeleton. A number of them displayed signs of head-on tip impact and several more display signs of oblique impact. The skull has several puncture wounds, either of which would likely have caused death. Several of the artifacts were found in situ between the vertebrae:
Narrabeen.JPG(Backed artefacts found with the Narrabeen skeletal remains during excavation. A. The backed artefact (OON1) in situ between L2 and L3 as photographed in the field. B. Damaged L3 vertebra where backed artefact OON1 was lodged.)
All total, it was estimated that three spears were used to dispatch the Narrabeen man. So, one has to ask why this happened:

There are striking similarities between the current find and incidents of ritual punishment by death-spear documented in the ethnohistoric literature. Contemporary and ethnographic studies show that ritual punishments are usually associated with transgressions that occurred during ceremonies or over the visiting of ritual places, fights over women, or pay-backs for previous killings. In these instances multiple spears are used and the intention of the action is to kill the transgressor.

The authors of the paper argue that the death occurred during a period of increased territoriality and social conflict caused by higher sea levels and other climate changes. One final note, stable isotope analysis indicates a diet high in marine foods such as fish, shellfish, seaweed and sea birds.
Literature Cited
The first archaeological evidence for death by spearing in Australia
Josephine J. McDonald, Denise Donlon, Judith H. Field, Richard L.K. Fullagar, Joan Brenner Coltrain, Peter Mitchell & Mark Rawson
Antiquity Volume: 81 Number: 314 Page: 877-885
Blunt and to the Point: Changing Technological Strategies in Holocene Australia
Peter Hiscock in Archaeology of Oceania: Australia and the Pacific Islands, ed by Ian Lilley, Pgs 69-95

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5 Responses

  1. So this appears to be an execution and not something that happened in a raid. Or perhaps a prisoner was being dispatched for the pot – else why the flaming branches?

  2. Yes, definitely an execution. There was no evidence of cannibalism on the skeleton, nor were there any signs of mortuary treatment such as defleshing, etc.

  3. Psittacosaurus skin

  4. I am an AnchHist(hons) Undergraduate at Maquarie and am interested in this particular individual as his remains were found near my home in Ocean st. My purpose for contact is in the hope that you may wish to have additional help in the process of your enqiries, for myself however it is the possibility to gain experience in the Archeological practices relevent to my theoretical studies. At present I am not in the commercial workforce and am available any day except Wednesdays. I am not asking for a paid position only an opportunity to contribute and to learn. Please contact me at your convenience on Mob. 0419870965.
    Thank for your consideration.

  5. You would have to contact the authors of the study…

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