This chert biface is from northwest Queensland and dates to the Late Holocene, after 5000 BP. The biface is an heirloom of a Pitta Pitta family from Boulia. Bifacial tools in Australia closely resemble Acheulean handaxes from Africa, Europe, and Western Asia, but were made in the recent past.
The biface in this model is an exceptional example of the type. The biface was made from a large nodule of Barkly Tableland chert by hard-hammer percussion flaking. Both faces were invasively flaked and the last stages involved removing at least two series of thinning flakes, followed by the bifacial removal of small flakes to refine the overall shape. The biface is unusually thin for this type of tool. A small patch of cortex is present on the biface’s proximal end.
Large chert bifaces are found in the Barkly Tableland region of the Northern Territory and northwest Queensland, extending northward to the Gulf of Carpentaria and southward to the Simpson Desert. The English author Alec Rainey first brought them to the attention of archaeologists in the late 1960s. The Australian archaeologist Fred McCarthy subsequently published a photograph of the Rainey bifaces and classified these tools as ‘hand axes’. They range in outline from oval to teardrop-shaped, and even though they were made and used into the recent past, many of them fall within the morphological definition of Palaeolithic handaxes from Africa, Europe, and Western Asia.
George Aiston said in 1924 that ‘a large chipped hand-axe shaped like a gigantic double mussel-shell was used amongst the Wonkonguru and even now can be found.’ The Wonkonguru People are the Traditional Owners of much of the Simpson Desert in Central Australia and they may have obtained these tools from stoneworkers living on the Barkly Tableland to the north. In the 1930s and again in the 1960s the anthropologist Norman Tindale observed the manufacture of large chert bifaces on Bentinck Island and Mornington Island in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria, Queensland. These were first described by Walter Roth in 1904. The Kunhanaamendaa People on Mornington Island call them mariwa or marina, and the Kaiadilt People on Bentinck Island call them tjilangand. The bifaces were made by direct freehand hard-hammer percussion, with the biface sometimes supported on the ground and leaning against the sole of the foot.
These chert or quartzite tools were used by women for shaping digging sticks by charring and scraping, and for digging and chopping out roots when harvesting yams and tubers. They were also used to trim driftwood for use in rafts and cutting and shaping wooden throwing clubs. Both women and men used ‘old ones’ as picks for removing oysters from rocks.
Tindale observed two holding patterns. The ‘cutting hold’ for woodworking involved securing the handaxe with the fingers curled around the butt and the bulk of the tool cushioned on the hand, with the tip extending beyond the hand’s base to above the wrist. A chopping motion was used, with the stone edge contacting the wood near its tip. The chopping gesture involved pushing the edge of the tool away from the body, rather than pulling the tool toward the body. Baler shell knives were used in a similar way, sometimes wrapped with paperbark or hammered eucalyptus bark to protect the hand. The ‘pick hold’ was used for digging and removing oysters. This involved a similar holding pattern as the cutting hold, but without cushioning the edge against the hand during use.
Archaeological work by Mark Moore in Camooweal, Queensland, led to the first technological description of these bifaces in 2003. The Indjilandji Dhidanu People involved in the Camooweal fieldwork no longer retained a direct knowledge of the manufacture and use of these implements, although a visiting Alywarra man from Lake Nash on the Georgina River in the Northern Territory had second-hand traditional knowledge of the tools. He had asked an elder some years ago about biface, and the elder described two functions. First, large bifaces were womens’ tools used to process yams. Second, the biface was hafted with a thin wraparound withy handle about one metre long and used as a weapon in ritual combat. The opponent was hooked behind the neck or knee in the angle formed between the biface and the handle, at which point, it was emphasised, ‘he can’t get away.’ This method of hafting and use is analogous to the fighting picks made from large macroblades.
Corroborating evidence for yam processing emerged from a residue and use-wear analysis conducted by Tom Loy on four of the large bifaces from Camooweal. The study concludes that three of the tools were used for starchy plant processing, as indicated by adhering residues including starch granules and macerated plant tissue. Residues on the fourth tool suggest a butchery function, and include a long hair with a degraded cuticle and root, a bundle of collagen fibrils, and possible red blood cells.
Moore’s analysis concluded that these large bifaces were made by hard-hammer percussion employed in primary thinning. Flattish cobbles were selected of the approximate desired thickness of the finished tool. Flaking focused on maintaining the length of the tool rather than the width, and the proximal (butt) ends of many were covered by cortex and unflaked, much like some Acheulean handaxes. Platforms were sometimes prepared by steep unifacial bevelling, but they were never ground. Large flakes were removed by striking directly into the mass of the biface, perhaps aided by ground support as observed on Bentinck Island in 1963. The flake scars from this are deep and end in a hinge termination with a long inflexed finial. The bifaces were sometimes further trimmed by percussion flaking to remove remnant platforms and create a centred edge.