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These are five toy propellers, each made from strips of pandanus leaf plaited or knotted and folded together in the centre to form a cross. The propellers range in size from 20 cm to 25 cm in length and they are a light brown colour.

Toy propellers
Five toy propellers E52951 Image: unknown
© Australian Museum

Pandanus propellers such as these were used as toys by Aboriginal children from Yirrkala in Arnhem Land. They were used in two different ways. Firstly, they were spun through the air in throwing competitions to judge both the skill of the player and the quality of their propeller's construction. The child whose propeller flew the furthest was the winner. Secondly, a propeller was attached to a spindle and a child would hold it up and run against the wind with it to make it spin.

Toys such as these were made from strips of leaf from the screw pine tree ('Pandanus tectorius)' and were used in tropical and subtropical coastal areas and moist tropical inland areas of northern Australia where the screw pine tree grows. Its strong leaves can be used as strips for weaving mats and baskets as well as for making toys.

The propellers are symmetrical, light and flat to assist their flight. They were designed to be thrown high and to descend spirally, the speed making them appear as a solid disc. Their light weight meant children could also attempt to make them drift upwards in hot air currents. In some places children knotted pandanus in the shape of the letter 'z' and threw these strips as boomerangs that would return to the thrower.

These are examples of toys used for entertainment. Toys had an important role in preparing Aboriginal children for adulthood. Games were invented by adults using small-scale models of tools and weapons made with light materials and blunt edges. The toys were used to teach children survival skills related to hunting for food and defence. Traditionally rattles, dolls, spinning tops, balls and string were also used as toys.

These pandanus propellers were made by Aboriginal children from the Yolngu language group. They were collected in 1948 by Fred McCarthy, the Australian Museum's curator of anthropology, during the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in that year. The Expedition was funded by the Australian Government and the National Geographic Society of America.