In 1910, Gaston Maspero (1846-1916), a French Egyptologist who was still developing and overseeing the Cairo Museum, sent two Egyptian throwing sticks to the Australian Museum. These sticks are from the site of Gourna (Qurna) village on the west bank, opposite the modern city of Luxor, and believed to be from the 18th Dynasty (1550-1292 BCE).
They “are not real weapons,” wrote Maspero, but votive objects “which the Egyptians put into the tomb for their dead to carry with them.” His intention was to exchange the throwing sticks for two Aboriginal boomerangs, as a comparative reference. “If you could send us in exchange one or two specimens of Australian Boomerangs, we would be thankful for the gift.”
In 1911, William Thorpe, then in charge of the Ethnology Collection at the Australian Museum, sent two boomerangs to the Museum in Cairo - one from the Menzies District of Western Australia, and the other from Arrente Country of Central Australia. It is not fully known whether consent of the First Nations Peoples was obtained, and this is yet another example of the frequent disregard at that time for Indigenous Peoples’ rights across the world.
The Aboriginal boomerangs were placed “in the same case in which we have our own Egyptian Boomerangs for comparison” wrote Mespero. It is interesting how the specific Aboriginal language word “boomerang” was readily adopted – and indeed bandied around – for similar-looking objects in other parts of the world. However, the visitors to Cairo Museum could see that compared to votive throwing sticks, Aboriginal boomerangs were often longer, wider, heavier, and with finished surfaces.
Throwing sticks (resembling a boomerang) are depicted in numerous bird-hunting scenes from the Old Kingdom through to at least the Eighteenth Dynasty. Some scholars speculate if such hunting was a “sport”, an activity with ritualistic intention, or purely an economic activity. It appears that fowling in the marshes has an important role in the lives of New Kingdom (c.1550-1069 BCE) rulers. In fact, the tombs of kings Tutankhamun (c. 1341–1323 BCE) and Ay (ruled possibly 1323–1319 BCE) have been decorated with fowling scenes where throw sticks are depicted. Amenhotep II (c. 1427–1401 BCE) and Tutankhamun had throwing sticks included in their burials. It is interesting that modern replicas of these sticks perform their role as well as Aboriginal boomerangs. They fly a fair distance parallel to the ground in a generally straight line.
Throwing sticks of various types were known and used by people since time immemorial across all inhabited continents. The long perseverance of the throwing stick in Egypt would add some credence to the theory of its symbolic, ritualistic and or leisure function.
From my correspondence with Egyptologists associated with Cairo Museum, I learned that in 1967 the Aboriginal boomerangs were transferred to the Tutankhamun collection in order to use as comparisons for the throwing sticks that were found in his tomb. Recently, the head of the Tutankhamun collection located the Aboriginal boomerangs that have been, for decades, stored in a cupboard within the room where Tutankhamen's mask is displayed. And the boomerangs are exhibited again for the public viewing in a display broadly similar to this originally devised by Maspero in 1911 – in fact, they are the only non-Egyptian artefacts in the Museum in Cairo.
Even these snippets of the boomerang’s history remind us how human cultures are globally intertwined and linked through astonishingly complex and old networks of connections. The throwing stick persisted in Melanesia, prominently in the Solomon Islands, but neither it nor the bow with arrow was adopted by Polynesians. The study of cross-cultural similarities and differences in World Cultures collections can help us understand humanity, with its deep history and complex affinities intertwined in diversity.
Gaston Maspero (1846-1916), a French Egyptologist and Sinologist who worked for over three decades in Egypt as one of the French leading researchers and administrators. He also contributed to the implementation of anti-looting laws and some degree of protection for Egyptian antiquities.