Scientific Evidence Discovered For Dark Event Described In Aboriginal Oral History


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer


Aboriginal people have a history of telling stories through oral traditions and art alone. Jason Benz Bennee/Shutterstock

The oral storytelling tradition of the Aboriginal people is without equal. Although imbued with mythological turns of phrase, plenty of what has been passed down for literally hundreds of generations and thousands of years happens to be inspired by true events.

Recently, the tale of a 7,000-year-old volcanic eruption was found to be substantiated by geological evidence. Now, in a darker tale, it appears the story of a massacre nearly a century old also appears to have happened in reality, too.


Writing in the journal Forensic Science International, a team of researchers explained how a massacre at Sturt Creek Station in the Tanami Desert has archaeological evidence to back it up, despite no written accounts of the incident ever existing.

Sturt Creek, also known as Tjurabalan, is a vital lifeline for the region, split between Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Providing water to an otherwise inhospitable, arid landscape, it also happens to be a place of spiritual importance to both the Walmajarri and Jaru people.

Aboriginal oral tradition recounts that a massacre took place here. It seems that a man and his son escaped the horrors, and their story is told by the descendants of those killed in the ambush. It’s said that they were shot, and their bodies were burned – all in retaliation for the murder of two white stockmen at nearby Billiluna Station back in 1922, something that has written records.

The bones have survived more than 90 years of weathering. Andy Tang Hong Wai/Shutterstock

Their murder was blamed on an Aboriginal man, and a police search party scoured the area for him. It’s been suspected that the police may have caused the subsequent massacre.


Until now, however, no physical evidence existed to back up these claims – just a story, and a few paintings. The only hint that there might have once been physical records of this massacre is a police diary dating back to 1922, which has four days conspicuously missing.

So, a quest to find it, led by Flinders University, began.

After being taken to the massacre site by the descendants of those that died, they found the evidence they were looking for. Several burned bones fragments belonging to people were identified, including those from a human skull.

No other Aboriginal artifacts were found, which suggests this wasn’t the remains of a home of some sort. Using a technique called X-ray diffraction, the precise temperature and duration of the fire that caused the burns were revealed.


Without a doubt, the fire was extremely hot for several hours, which meant that timber was used as the fuel, and the fire was attended to damage the human remains to such an extent that they couldn’t be identified.

Although the culprits cannot yet be conclusively identified, the massacre almost certainly took place, and someone clearly tried to hide the evidence. The only reason this research was possible was because of the truly remarkable storytelling tradition of the Aboriginal people, who refused to let the issue go 100 years after the incident took place.

Explaining their work in The Conversation, some of the authors of the study note: “We cannot undo the past, but we can acknowledge that these events are part of both Aboriginal and white histories – they are real, and Aboriginal people still suffer the pain of the past.”

The study concludes by saying that this work will help others identify other massacre sites across Australia – something that will hopefully bring affected Aboriginal people some small form of closure.


[H/T: The Conversation]


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