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Ancient Indigenous Australian Language: Message Sticks

By: Chloe Wu

Australia, the world’s sixth largest country, is the home to more than 500 Aboriginal, or indigenous, peoples. Over 400 languages are spoken in Australia – 250 of which are Indigenous languages. However, one of Australia's oldest languages was carved, not spoken.

Message sticks are a communication device used by the Aboriginal people. Images were etched into long sticks of wood and were carried by messengers who could travel hundreds of miles, and were used to communicate a verbal message. These message sticks are suspected to be thousands of years old.

An Australian anthropologist wrote, “The oldest man having made a message stick hands it to the old man nearest to him, who inspects it and, if necessary, adds further marks.”

His writing continues, “Finally, the stick having passed from one to the other of the old men present is handed to the messenger…” (Joy of Museums).

The images etched into each stick could mean many things such as death, marriage, peace, war, and more. These message sticks have meaningful connections to their roots. Although most message sticks are preserved in museums, they are still undecipherable. Many historians believe that they should ask the Indigenous elders to decipher the message sticks to understand the culture better. Additionally, if they are not deciphered, future generations may lose connections to their roots.

Australian message sticks are relics of the Aboriginal people of Australia that represent their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and deep cultural understanding. These artifacts allow modern society to understand the rich culture and sophisticated communication systems that existed long before modern technology.

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