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The Unspoken Language: Message Sticks

By: Sammy Wang

Australia is home to over 250 languages and 800 dialects; among the many languages spoken, there is one language that isn’t spoken but carved.

Known as message sticks, this language is carved onto 10-30 centimeters (3.9-11.8in) flat, round, and oblong wooden blocks. The language consists of drawings, lines, and dots etched onto both sides of the wood.

Aboriginal people (Indigenous Australians) used message sticks several thousand years ago to deliver news between groups; message sticks could indicate news like war, death, peace, marriage, etc. But now, only a few people can understand the meanings of old message sticks as the tradition was abandoned around the late 19th century (1801-1900).

It was during the 1880s when messaging sticks started being documented by Europeans because of Indigenous people using the messaging sticks as memorials.

Now most of Australia's surviving message sticks are kept in glass displays in The Australian Museum, Sydney, where people can study and admire them.

Piers Kelly, a linguistic anthropologist, is the founder of the Australian Message Stick Database, whose goal is to decipher the carvings of the message sticks.

“It’s amazing how much information really could be encoded in these objects,” Kelly said. “And their content is almost always about coordinating the movements of people and the movement of resources over large areas of the country.”

Kelly depends on First Nations people (Aboriginal people) and Indigenous elders who can decode the messages because they understand the traditions they learned.

“There’s so much I don’t know. One of the things I’m hoping to find out is what these markings mean that are depicted on the figures and where they’re traveling,” Kelly said.

Although there isn’t much known about messaging sticks, they served an important role for Aboriginal people. With more discovery and analysis, these messaging sticks could unlock potential secrets in Indigenous-Australian history.


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