The above image is a Bindibu/Pintupi map of desert waterholes carved on a spear thrower. It's reproduced by I.A.E. Bayly in "Review of how indigenous people managed for water in desert regions of Australia" (1999, PDF-link). Despite what the title might suggest this is a Mouth Watering account in the Ray Mears Galore category of non-technological intelligence and endurance. The map is a sneak peek into the impressive combination of skill, knowledge, tradition and adaptation that allowed the Pintupi to live in the harshest desert of Oz.
The ability of Australian indigenous people to survive in the desert regions where rainfall is low (3,000 mm pa), has long excited the popular imagination. Most of the early European explorers expressed awe and wonder at the extraordinary ability of Aborigines to survive in what they regarded as hostile if not “impossible” regions. So great was the respect of early explorers for the water-locating ability of Aborigines that several of them felt obliged to adopt the extreme and ethically-repugnant measure of depriving Aborigines of their liberty and forcing them to find water. After being deserted by some Aborigines in the Gibson Desert in 1897, Wells (1899) wrote “I then regretted not having chained one of the tribe [a practice adopted by him in December 1896], in spite of my promise to the contrary, for without a [Black] guide in such country one is almost powerless”. Reading today about incidents such as this serves as a timely reminder that there has been a strong and unfortunate tendency not to give proper recognition to the key importance of Aboriginal knowledge in the exploration and development of Australia.
Thomson (1962), in a narrative of the Bindibu Expedition of 1957, described how he spent several weeks with Aborigines in what is probably the most formidable of all the Australian deserts - the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia. Just before parting company with these people he was given a very generous gift; a tutorial about their desert waters and a priceless “map” to assist their location. It is worthwhile reproducing Thomson’s account of this episode as follows:
“Just before we left, the old men recited to me the names of more than fifty waters - wells, rockholes and claypans - including those that I have described in this narrative; this, in an area that the early explorers believed to be almost waterless, and where all but a few were, in 1957, still unknown to the white man. And on the eve of our going, Tjappanongo produced spear-throwers, on the backs of which were designs deeply incised, more or less geometric in form. Sometimes with a stick, or with his finger, he would point to each well or rock hole in turn and recite its name, waiting for me to repeat it after him. Each time, the group of old men listened intently and grunted in approval “Eh!” - or repeated the name again and listened once more. This process continued with the name of each water until they were satisfied with my pronunciation, when they would pass on to the next. I realized that here was the most important discovery of the expedition - that what Tjappanongo and the old men had shown me was really a map, highly conventionalized, like the works on a “message” or “letter” stick of the Aborigines, of the waters of the vast terrain over which the Bindibu hunted.”