Plate from Pitt-Rivers' 1883 article on boomerangs in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute

Peter Rivière

At the Anthropological Institute meeting on 11 July 1882, held at his home 4 Grosvenor Gardens, Pitt-Rivers exhibited an Ancient Egyptian boomerang from Thebes. This, he explained in his ensuing talk, [1] had come into his possession recently when a Samson Gemmell [2] had written to him to say that a friend of his who had recently died had left Pitt-Rivers a boomerang.  The person was a Dr Pinkerton [3] and the boomerang had been found by him in Egypt. Pitt-Rivers had heard about it but not seen it when he was in Thebes in 1881. Although Pitt-Rivers acquired it in 1882, it was not included in the Founding Collection but was retained by him and formed part of the Second Collection. [4] Pitt-Rivers apparently had an interest in boomerangs from an early age as he recalled in 1882 that:

More than forty years ago, when a boy, I practised with one of them copied from an Australian specimen, and acquired some skill in throwing it so as to return to me repeatedly, and also to pass behind me in its return flight. [5]

As it is his remarks on boomerangs over two decades highlight two problems in the 19th century approach to primitive technology: the first is an unwillingness to credit ‘savages’ with the ability to design and the second is a failure to pay attention to what they had to say about the objects they made.

Pinkerton’s Ancient Egyptian boomerang which Pitt-Rivers inherited was not the first example of such an artefact that he had seen. The Rev. Greville Chester [6] had presented two similar items, probably from the same tomb as that where Pinkerton’s was found, to the British Museum. [7] Although the Pinkerton specimen is not in the Pitt Rivers Museum, and it is not currently known where it is, there are three reproductions of Ancient Egyptian boomerangs in the Founding Collection (1884.25.30-32). They are facsimiles of a boomerang collected by James Burton and acquired by the British Museum in 1837. [8] The reason why Pitt-Rivers had facsimiles of the Burton Egyptian boomerang made was to experiment with them, although there is uncertainty about when he did this. In a lecture to the Royal United Service Institution in 1868 (to which we return below) he mentioned having practised with boomerangs, although it is not clear whether he was referring to his experiment with the Egyptian facsimiles. [9] By August 1872, however, he had carried out his experiment because he reported it at the British Association meeting that month in these words:

I have practised with the boomerangs of different nations. I made a fac simile of the Egyptian boomerang in the British Museum, and practised with it for some time upon Wormwood Scrubs, and found that in time I could increase the range from fifty to one hundred paces, which is much further than I could throw an ordinary stick of the same size with accuracy. I also succeeded in at last obtaining a return flight, so that the weapon, after flying seventy paces forward, returned to within seven paces of the position in which I was standing. [10]

This emphasis on his own experience with boomerangs is to support his contention that the Australian returning form of the boomerang is not unique but simply a particular form of a generic type. This position is quite clear in the following statement:

This [his experiment] settles the question of the identity of the Egyptian boomerang; in fact it flies better than many Australian boomerangs; for they vary considerably in size, weight, and form, and many will not return when thrown [11]

Pitt-Rivers’ first public discussion of boomerangs was in his second lecture on ‘Primitive warfare’ delivered to the Royal United Service Institution on 5 June 1868, referred to in the previous paragraph. A section of the printed version (pp.423-30) is devoted to the boomerang, and he makes here for the first time the point that the Australian form which returns to its thrower, is but one among many forms of such objects. Furthermore, it is not, he claims, the result of invention, for which the Australian Aborigine is far too primitive, but instinct. Accordingly the Australian boomerang is but a type of such weapons found in Indian, Africa and possibly Europe. Indeed, the following footnote to the first page of the section on boomerangs makes his position very clear:

Since this paper was read to the Royal United Service Institution, Sir John Lubbock has delivered a remarkably interesting series of lectures on savages, in the course of which he took exception to my classification of the Indian, African, and Australian boomerangs, under the same head giving as his reason that the Australian boomerang has a return flight, whilst those of other nations have not that peculiarity. If it could be shown that the Australian weapon had been contrived for the purpose of obtaining a return flight, I should then agree with him in regarding the difference as generic. But the course of my investigations tends to show that this was probably an application of the weapon accidentally hit upon by the Australians, and that it arose from a modification of weight and form, so trivial as to prevent our regarding it as generically distinct from the others. I therefore consider the Australian weapon to be a mere variety of the implement which is common to the three continents. The difference between us on this point, though one of terms, is nevertheless important as a question of continuity. I am much gratified, however, to find my opinions on many other points supported by Sir John's high authority.—A.L.F.

In his address to the BAAS in 1872 he returns to the point that the Australian returning boomerang is not unique but simply a particular type of a more general class:

And here I must ask for one moment to repeat the reply which I have elsewhere given to the objection which has been made to my including these weapons under the same class, “that the Dravidian boomerang does not return like the Australian weapon”. The return flight is not a matter of such primary importance as to constitute a generic difference, if I may use the expression, the utility of the return flight has been greatly exaggerated; it is owing simply to the comparative thinness and lightness of the Australian weapon. All who have witnessed its employment by the natives concur in saying that it has a random range in its return flight. Any one who will take the trouble to practise with the different forms of this weapon will perceive that the essential principle of the boomerang (call it by whatever name you please) consists in its bent and flat form, by means of which it can be thrown with a rotary movement, thereby increasing the range and flatness of the trajectory.

The reason why Pitt-Rivers returned to the subject of the boomerang and its affinities in 1882 may not simply have been because Pinkerton’s example had come into his possession. Rather it gave him an excuse to reiterate his argument about the evolution of the boomerang and the claim that the Australian returning form is not unique. He did this in response to the publication in 1878 of Brough Smyth’s two-volume work The Aborigines of Victoria. [12] In Volume 1, Smyth discusses boomerangs at some length and criticises Pitt-Rivers’ comments on the Aborigine boomerang. He points out that the Aborigines make a clear distinction between the boomerang that does return and the sort that does not. Indeed they have different terms for them and they are made differently. In the case of the former, in the hands of a skilful thrower, there are in certain circumstances distinct advantages in its ability to return, and it will always return to within a few feet of the thrower. Furthermore, the return boomerang is always constructed with a twist in it and such a boomerang will always return. Smyth also shows in some detail how the non-returning boomerang while having a similar shape is not identical in its curve and cross-section.

Pitt-Rivers’ problem is summed up in his remark in the last quotation when he says ‘boomerang (call it by whatever name you please)’. He classified all throwing-sticks which have a curved shape as ‘boomerangs’ and ignores the fact that while he is perfectly aware that ‘Australian boomerangs ... vary considerably in size, weight, and form, and many will not return when thrown’, he seems unable to bring himself to accept that this is deliberate. In other words he is unwilling to acknowledge that the Australian Aborigine is capable of specifically designing and making a weapon, which if it does not hits its target, will return to its thrower, whereas others are designed and built not to. This unwillingness is deeply rooted in the prevailing evolutionary views on the capabilities of ‘savages’. Furthermore he is lumping together objects which their makers distinguish by name, construction and function. This failure is also not surprising as it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the dangers of ignoring vernacular classifications, if a proper understanding of the native’s natural, social, and cultural worlds were to be achieved, were fully appreciated by anthropology. Perhaps a great many words could have been saved if the general class had been ‘throwing-stick’ and the term ‘boomerang’ had been reserved for the returning form. [13]

[1] Published as ‘On the Egyptian Boomerang and its affinities’ Journal of the Anthropological Institute, 12 (1883): 454-63.
[2] This is possibly the Samson Gemmell (1848-1913), who became Professor of Clinical Medicine at Glasgow University in 1900.
[3] Very little information has been found out about Dr Pinkerton. According to Pitt-Rivers, in 1881 he was living on a boat on the Nile and he was presumably a resident of Glasgow or its neighbourhood.
[4] Its accession number is Add.9455vol1_p58 /3. Unfortunately there is no illustration of it in the catalogue but a line drawing of it is included, with other varieties of Ancient Egyptian and African boomerangs, in Pitt-Rivers’ 1883 article.
[5] Pitt-Rivers, 1883, p. 457. This is an interesting remark since it suggests that Pitt-Rivers’ interest in primitive technology began at a young age, and well before that in firearms.
[6] Greville John Chester (1830-92) was an enthusiastic collector who obtained numerous objects for several institutions including the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Many of the objects in the Pitt Rivers were transferred there from the Ashmolean in 1886. There are four arm ornaments from Palestine in the Founding Collection, and 19, mainly Egyptian objects, in the Second Collection
[7] Pitt-Rivers claims that all three came from the tomb that contained the mummy of Rameses the Great. He also states that he was offered the mummy for a large sum of money, ‘which I declined, thinking it ought to remain in Egypt’ (1883: 455 fn1); which indeed it has.
[8] James Burton (1788-1862) collected in Egypt between 1825 and 1835. He sold most of his collection at Sotheby’s in 1836 to cover his debts. The particular item of which Pitt-Rivers had a facsimile made is probably Reg. No. 1837, 0714.39, listed as a ‘throwing-stick’.
[9] Published as ‘Primitive Warfare, Section II. On the resemblance of the weapons of early races, their variations, continuity, and development of form’, Journal of the Royal United Service Institution 12 (1868) pp.399-439.
[10] Lane-Fox, ‘Opening Address to Section D, sub-section Anthropology of the British Association Meeting at Brighton, 1872’, Nature 6 (1872), pp 323- 4, 341-3.
[11] Lane-Fox, 1872, p324.
[12] Smyth, R Brough, The Aborigines of Victoria. 1878, Melbourne & London.
[13] As the word is generally understood today, especially as a verb, and which was famously portrayed in Paul Drake’s hit song of the 1960s about the Aborigine boy whose boomerang wouldn’t come back.

June 2012

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