Ancient object used in 12,000 year old curse unearthed inside remote Aussie cave

The stick was used by an Indigenous healer and hadn't been moved since the day it fell at the end of the last ice age.

Professor Bruno David and GunaiKurnai Elder Uncle Russell Mullett walking down the hill into Cloggs Cave.
The Krowathunkooloong ritual items were found inside Cloggs Cave in Victoria. Source: Monash University

An ancient tool used to create a curse 12,000 years ago has been unearthed in an Australian cave. It was one of two ritual sticks which are believed to have sat undisturbed since they fell at the end of the last ice age.

Testing led by Monash University has revealed the casuarina wooden stems were trimmed, and smeared in either human or animal fat. They were then placed on a miniature fire lined with grasses by a medicine healer from one of Victoria’s Indigenous communities — the Krowathunkooloong clan of the Gunaikurnai nation.

“The sticks would have stood in a small flame and then the mulla-mullung sang the song of the person who needed to be harmed. And when the stick fell, the charm was cast,” Elder Uncle Russell Mullett told Yahoo News.

“It's a bit like other tribes using a pointy bone. It’s a similar type of spell.”

Related: Mission to recover mysterious Indigenous item stolen in 'violent act'

There is a written account of the ritual from the late-19th Century by European explorer Alfred Howitt, who referred to the mulla-mullung as sorcerers, wizards or medicine men and women.

But it’s the first time physical evidence of the practice has been found. And that's likely because wood normally degrades into the soil.

Cloggs Cave, where the murrawan sticks were buried, is near the East Gippsland town of Buchan. It sits inside a cliff along the Snowy River gorge.

The 11,000 year-old stick inside Cloggs Cave.
An 11,000-year-old and 12,000-year-old ritual stick were found inside the cave. Source: Monash University

The cave, which Mullett describes it a "calming place", is just 30 metres deep, and it was used only for healing and medicinal purposes. It’s believed the items survived because it’s dry, it was never used as living quarters, and its narrow entrance prevented animals from entering.

A previous excavation of the cave in the 1970s did not engage Indigenous custodians, and despite the dig occurring nearby, they found no evidence of the murrawan. When Monash University proposed a fresh look inside in 2019 they wanted to do things differently and work with Indigenous custodians.

The scientific team was led by Monash Indigenous Studies Centre archaeologist Professor Bruno David, who worked in partnership with the GunaiKurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation.

“We were instructed by the community every step of the way. I never touched the materials with my hands, always with gloves,” David told Yahoo.

“One of the elders said to me at a meeting that the process is at least as important as the results.”

The murrawan were dug up in a tiny 50 cm x 50 cm section of the cave. The first of them was around 20 cm long and it was inside a fireplace no bigger than the palm of a human hand.

In another part of the cave, around 100 crystals that were used by the mulla-mullung in rituals were also discovered during the dig. Crystalline white dust could be seen sprinkled on the floor as a way to tell if a creature known as the Nargun had set inside.

Although items were removed from the cave so they could be studied, the plan is now to return them where they belong.

“They’ve come out of country. They need to go back in country. We've captured the story. There are image images of it, there are videos of it, and it should go back with the ancestral spirits who have shown us these items,” Mullett said.

The findings have been published this week in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Professor Bruno David and and GunaiKurnai Elder Uncle Russell Mullett outside Cloggs Cave.
Professor Bruno David from the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre (left) and GunaiKurnai Elder Uncle Russell Mullett (right) worked on the Cloggs Cave excavation site together. Source: Monash University

By dating the two sticks to 12,000 and 11,000 years old, and confirming the ritual they were used in was still being practised in the 1800s, it’s understood the ritual they were used in was practised by at least 500 generations.

“It implies the transmission of cultural information from one generation to the next. It’s remarkable. It’s not something people in Western society are used to,” David said.

“I was born in France, and there’s virtually no social memory beyond two or three generations.”

Mullett said the discovery highlights the importance of oral tradition among First Nations people. The most significant Indigenous cultural knowledge is often kept within a community and only shared with the initiated, and this makes it hard to communicate a site’s importance to outsiders.

“A Western society has a problem dealing with our oral history,” Mullett said before pointing out that this creates problems when courts demand written proof during Native Title claims.

In the case of the mulla-mullung ritual, it only survives because of Howitt’s account from the 1800s, and there is speculation the locals were tricked into revealing the knowledge.

European settlers arrived in the area in the 1830s, and Indigenous communities there were quickly decimated. In just 30 years they had been pushed off their traditional country and were forced to abandon cultural practices.

“The practice was severed when people were pushed off country and into mission stations. But we’re still aware of it through historical records and also the continued superstitions of our people,” Mullet said.

“Because through that period of 100 years, some of our traditions were still maintained. Now it’s about getting the young people back on country and reconnecting and relearning.

“Reclamation of our culture is something we need to continue to do.”

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