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Colonel Fox, who observed Aborigines on numerous occasions, believed that ‘a well-made boomerang thrown by a skilful native will ... certainly return to him.’
On the other hand, the American anthropologist Daniel Davidson argued that the returning boomerang represents only a small portion of Aboriginal boomerangs.
They cannot both be right. Which one is mistaken? Until now, this question has not been answered. Let us work out this contradiction.
What we do know is that boomerangs have an inherent potential for returning. The very principle with which it flies tells us so. This goes right back to the boomerang's invention. Some scientists argue that a throwing-stick, commonly used by indigenous hunters around the world, is the precursor of the boomerang. ‘A curved stick, when thrown from the hand rotates of its own accord, and it would soon be discovered that a flat curved stick formed by splitting a branch in half down the centre would fly further than a round one. ... And this really constitutes the generic characteristic of the boomerang.’
Through trial-and-error the boomerang was refined to a point where the most desirable size, proportions and curvature were established. This refinement brought one serious problem: any improvement in flying resulted in a tendency to return. There is little doubt that indigenous hunters brought this experiment to its ultimate conclusion, by producing the perfect returning boomerang.
However, this was not what they wanted. Returning ability, no matter how amusing, did not help on the hunt. A hunting boomerang needs to fly well and nearly straight to strike prey some 200 metres away. The trouble is that the best-flying boomerangs tend to return, rarely departing beyond fifty metres from the thrower. With the returning form ‘there is no certainty of hitting the mark. It may come back too quickly and may hit your own friends standing near you.’ While recognising that the best-flying boomerangs do return, Aborigines defined a technological problem. They needed to strike a compromise between flying ability and hunting requirements.
They also recognised that the difference between returning and non-returning boomerangs was a matter of degree. 'It is often difficult to determine whether a particular boomerang is of the returning kind or not, by just inspecting its shape.' A returning boomerang is not a type, but a quality. Many forms carry this property, some more, some less so.
Returning forms are quite common and they grade into non-returning ones. In practice, some returning forms may not return when thrown by a novice. On the other hand, some primarily non-returning boomerangs can be thrown to return by an expert.
So, in Aboriginal culture the need for the returning boomerang, as we know it in recent recreational use, was minimal. However, it was probably inevitable that its supreme flying qualities were used for play and amusement. The returning boomerang was made and used as a toy, 'usually regarded as plaything.' This is the boomerang that Daniel Davidson must have had in mind while claiming its rarity.
The returning boomerang was invented, or rather realised, in a process of perfecting the flying ability of a throwing stick. The potential for this came about from the moment the first boomerang was carved. So the boomerang came into being with great promise, but burdened with this most awkward returning behaviour.
C. Fox, Some notice of the Kilee or Boomerang. American Journal of Science 36, 1839, 164
Daniel Davidson, Australian throwing sticks, throwing clubs and boomerangs. American Anthropologist 38, 1936, 76-100