History and mystery of Australia’s ‘Toorale Man’

Dr Michael Westaway, from Griffith University's Environmental Futures Research Institute

An Aboriginal skeleton found on the banks of the Darling River in far north-western NSW and bearing what appear to be sword wounds is raising questions about the date of first contact with Australia’s First Peoples.

Dr Michael Westaway, an expert in Aboriginal archaeology from Griffith University’s Environmental Futures Research Institute, told the ABC’s Catalyst program that the wounds were indicative of an “aggressive and hostile attack with the intent of murder”.

State of the art science is being applied to solving the mystery of the so-called Toorale Man, whose remarkably well preserved remains were discovered in 2012 by a Baakandji tribal elder, Badger Bates, in what is now part of Toorale National Park.

Initial speculation was that the man’s death was one of thousands that occurred during frontier violence waged between Aboriginals and Europeans after white settlement.

However, dating methods such as radio carbon dating and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) suggest the remains date back to the late 13th century, long before the arrival of Europeans and their weapons.

“I didn’t expect the carbon dates to be anything like that,” Dr Westaway told the program. “I thought they were going to be very modern, but the carbon dates suggest no, it’s 700 years old.

Signatures look like sword wounds

“That means that there are weapons being used by people in western NSW that are creating signatures that look like sword wounds.”

A major advantage for research has been access to almost the entire skeleton — only two small bones were missing — identifying the man as a healthy, 20-something Aboriginal person who ate a traditional diet that included perhaps a final meal of yabbies.

“The skeleton can be considered as an osteobiography. Each bone has the potential to tell something about this individual’s life,” said Dr Westaway.

What is clear is that the man suffered a violent death, with evidence of trauma to the ribs and skull. The question is that of the nature of the deadly weapon.

Members of the archaeological team at the burial site
Members of the archaeological team at the burial site

Dr Westaway said the most significant wound extended from the skull to the cheek below the right eye and seemed to represent a sharp edge trauma rather than the shattering of bone.

“It was curious because one of the healed traumas looks very similar to what is documented in an important case study looking at the remains of gladiators,” he said.

“It looks like a healed trauma from a sword wound. And that’s puzzling, to see that in Toorale Man.”

3D printing produced skull replica

Technical Officer Mr Chris Little, from Griffith University’s School of Engineering, provided the 3D scanning and modelling expertise to digitise the skeleton in high resolution for more extensive research. 3D printing produced an exact replica of the skull.

While scanning reinforced the theory that the cuts were made with a long, sharp, light blade, typical of frontier weaponry used until the late 1800s, this was contradicted by the radio carbon dating and OSL, which dates sediment rather than bone.

In this case, it dated the sand that filled the skull after burial and confirmed the Toorale Man died centuries before the accepted arrival of Europeans.

“It would now seem that traditional Aboriginal weapons, such as Li-lils, which are made from hardwood, have sharp cutting edges and are documented by early European settlers as being used in conflict, were the style of weapon used to kill “Kaakutja”, which means “older brother” and was the name the Traditional Owners gave to this man,” said Dr Westaway.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that the accompanying video contains images and voices of people who have died