Dreaming History for the Pelican:

The Deep History of Aboriginal Trade and Exchange Networks in the Top End of the Northern Territory

Overview •   Mapping the Winnun Networks •   Winnun Goods •   Winnun in the Shadow of Greater Events •   Dreaming History From the Pelican •   Winnun: Trade in Goods or an Exchange of Knowledge? •   How can we tell if winnun operated in the deep past? •   The Researcher •   Further Reading


My part of the Deepening Histories of Place project is focused on the Top End of the Northern Territory, from the township of Elliott, north to the Arafura Sea, west to Port Keats and east to the Arnhem Land Coast. I am looking at Aboriginal trade and exchange networks in this area.

This research had its seeds in the 1980’s and 1990’s when I was working in the Northern Territory as an archaeologist around the Newcastle Waters area. At this time, I was recording several large stone quarries where long blades had been made in the past – these are called Leilira blades.

While I was recording these stone quarries, using a standard range of mapping techniques and scientific methods, I was also working alongside the Mudburra and Jingili people whose land the quarries were on.

While we were out working at the sites together I would ask people what the Leilira blades were used for. And I really could not get what I considered, at the time, to be a straight answer. People kept telling me that they were the Dreaming History for the Pelican. And that they were all “winnun”. A word I didn’t really understand at the time. It was only much later when I carefully re-listened to my voice recordings of those conversations that the coin dropped: winnun, translated to mean trade and exchange. And the Pelican History was the story about creation of the land that people attached to these stone blades when they were later traded.

Anthropologist Donald Thompson (1949) had recorded a similar network of trade and exchange across Arnhem Land in the 1930’s and this also involved Leilira blades. It is commonly thought that this exchange system was a spinoff from Macassan contacts along the Arnhem coast and what Thompson recorded was a relatively recent mechanism to facilitate movement of useable exchange goods throughout Arnhem Land. Outside of Arnhem Land there was not a great deal of evidence for other exchange networks elsewhere in the Top End.

In fact a lot of the Top End was, and still is, commonly perceived as being largely barren or empty of this sort of complex history. Many of the Aboriginal communities who live in this country are marginalised on the fringes of white settlements and are widely considered to have lost that deeply rooted connection to traditional country.

So these stories I was hearing about winnun, or trade networks, really began to pique my interest.

The stories hinted that there still existed a web of connection across the landscape of the Top End, that in size and complexity rivalled even modern communication networks. Moreover, there was a tantalising possibility that this network could be shown to have existed well into the chronologically deep past. Provided of course that the Leilira blades could be shown to be both old and a part of an ancient exchange system.

This was exciting stuff for a researcher.

It inspired me for the next 10-15 years, while I worked on other projects in the Northern Territory, to collected voice recordings, make notes, and take several thousand photos and films. All of this was centred around learning more about the trade and exchange systems in the Top End.

In many ways this research shaped how I began to think about archaeology. I was affected by what I saw as archaeology’s limitations in dealing with the sorts of evidence I had collected, particularly the oral and visual data. The research questions I was asking were also more historic than archaeological.

  • Did this system of winnun, or trade, really exist in the form people had hinted at?
  • What was the character of this exchange system? What, if anything, has happened to the trade networks in the 30 years since I began making records? Had they changed, or perhaps more interestingly had they stayed the same?
  • Did this exchange network link in any way to that recorded by Donald Thompson in the 1930’s?
  • If it did link with Thompson’s work, what are the implications for both networks in terms of their ages? Remembering that Thompson’s network was only supposed to be a recent manifestation due to Macassan influence.
  • To answer this latter question I also have to address the problem of whether I could actually recognise the signature of trade networks in the archaeological record, beyond the period of written or oral history and into the very deep past.
  • And what, if any meaning, does all this work have for the children and grandchildren of the old people I had originally worked with – all of who had since passed away. I remained in contact with the groups and visited them most years, but I had not return their history to them – apart from sending back photo albums. In a sense I felt this omission had broken the “chain of connection” of winnun that I had become a part of over the decades. I had an obligation to give back, or repatriate, the thing I was creating – the deep history of winnun.

The Deepening Histories of Place Project seemed like a comfortable home for my research. History not only allows more flexibility with sources and methods, but also gives a distant perspective from where I can better understand how my project contributes to archaeology, or deep history.

This website is located within the context of Ann McGrath's and Peter Read's ARC Linkage Project (LP100100427) “Deepening Histories of Place: Exploring Indigenous Landscapes of National and International Significance”, The Australian National University and Sydney University, 2011-2013.

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Mapping the Winnun Networks

I have mapped the routes that I recorded in the 1980’s and 1990’s and those previously recorded by Donald Thompson in the 1930’s  across the Top End. Some of the routes recorded follow roads. Others link important places and sites of significance, or follow the tracks of dreaming stories across country. These routes overall form a pattern that seems to link my recordings with Thompson’s in a least two places. These places will therefore be nodes for further research.

Figure 2 Showing the "winnun", or trade and exchange routes mapped by Donald Thompson in the 1930s and Rob Paton in the 1980s and 1990s.

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Winnun Goods

As well as recording the locations of the trade routes, my research also continues to investigate the details of items being made for exchange. These include Leilira blades, boomerangs, spears, ochre, cloth and other modern items.

Learn more here.

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Winnun in the Shadow of Greater Events

What did seem clear from my recordings is that winnun occurred in the shadow of greater events. For example, during one winnun cycle involving boomerangs and spears, people were attempting to resolve an issue surrounding the suspicious deaths of several people in a community. Because of these deaths, the community was regarded as being sick by other communities. The winnun cycle was set up specifically to re-engage the sick community with the outside world to heal itself.

Learn more here.

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Dreaming History From the Pelican

Much of the trade in goods seem to involve transmission of oral histories about creation myths. This is particularly the case for the Leilira blades that once formed the backbone of winnun.

A complex oral history recorded on film shows men explaining the creation of features associated with the Leilira blades by the pelican and sparrow hawk. The story about these two mythological creation beings is a good example of the information that is communicated along the trade network with the goods.

Learn more here.

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Winnun: Trade in Goods or an Exchange of Knowledge?

Winnun is at its heart a “chain of connection”. It is only peripherally concerned with the movement of utilitarian goods. The main concern of the system seems to be the exchange of knowledge across space/time between individuals and communities. The winnun goods are embedded with information about peoples deep Dreamtime histories. These histories contain information about how peoples places within communities are determined, and about how people relate to others across very large regions. The trade goods are symbols in action with the kinetic knowledge about the past/present being “released” as they move across the landscape.

None of the trade goods seem to have any utilitarian function. The Leilira blades for example were never used for cutting. The video cassettes that were traded were never played – in fact nobody had a video cassette player. These observation reinforced by an account from ethnologist Baldwin Spencer who  said (when talking about Leilira Blades):

“A very curious feature about these knives is that although plenty of them are seen in the hands of men, it is a most rare thing to come across one that shows any trace of having been used.” (Baldwin Spencer 1904)

My observation was that once exchanged, the goods were either discarded or deliberately broken. When I asked people about this they told me that all of the trade items have a particular and special meaning attached to them and each one comes from a different place. So even though they may appear identical, they are not. And they are destroyed so as not to allow mixing.

Learn more here.

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How can we tell if winnun operated in the deep past?

Current dates suggest the Leilira blades were manufactured from at least 2000 years ago. This of course does mean that the winnun system is also that old – it is after all possible to make Leilira blades that are not for trade. What is fortunate, however, is that Leilira blades from 2000 years ago would certainly have survived archaeologically. And using methods from archaeology it is possible to work with these remains.

So the question is: what would the remains of these blades look like if they were part of an ancient trade system? In other words what would their 2000 year old archaeological signature be to us today?

Without any human intervention (after their manufacture) the blades would probably survive quite well in the archaeological record. They are extremely robust and unlikely to accidentally snap even if you stood on one. And given that several million of these blades appear to have been made in quite small areas, we could expect to find these blades in great numbers across parts of the Top End. But if, as I have suggested from the historic record, these blades are being deliberately destroyed as part of a winnun cycle, then we could expect to find very few if any of them.

So what have I found?

In fact what I am finding in archaeological collections are just blade segments. Preliminary assessment of these segments suggests two important things:

  1. They nearly all show signs of being deliberately broken.
  2. Very few of the segments show any signs of being used.

This body of evidence is lending weight to the conclusion that the remains of an ancient trade system, possibly dating to about 2000 years, is evident across large parts of the Top End. It has only been possible to make this suggestion, with any degree of confidence, by combining historic sources and methods with archaeological sources and methods.

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The Researcher

Rob Paton has been a professional archaeologist for the last 30 years, working throughout Australia and overseas. He has worked for museums, government agencies, universities and as a consultant. Rob has published in books, journals and written reports in the disciplines of archaeology, anthropology and history. He is also a long time Board Member for the journal Aboriginal History (since 1992). Rob is one of three APAI’s for the Deepening Histories of Place project. His area of research is the Top End of the Northern Territory. His research focus is the Aboriginal system of trade and exchange called “winnun”. Using sources and methods from history, anthropology and archaeology he is able to show that a a system of trade and exchange of goods covers large areas of the Top End, and this system operated for several thousand years into the deep past.

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Further Reading

Jones, R. and N. White 1988 Point blank: Stone tool manufacture at the Ngilipitji quarry, Arnhem Land, 1981. In Meehan, B. and R. Jones (Eds.) 1988 Archaeology with ethnography: An Australian perspective. Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, Canberra.

Lewis, D. and D. Rose 1985 Some ethical issues in archaeology; a methodology of consultation in northern Australia. Australian Aboriginal Studies 1: 37-45.

Mauss, M. 1990 The Gift: the form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. Routledge, London.

McCarthy, F. D. 1940 Trade in Aboriginal Australia. Oceania 10(1): 80-104.

Mulvaney, D.J. 1975 'The chain of connection': the material evidence. In N. Peterson (ed.) Tribes and boundaries in Australia. pp.72-94. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies: Canberra.

Paton, R. 1994 Speaking through stones: a study from northern Australia World Archaeology. Volume 26 Number 2.

Shryrock, A. and D. Smail (Editors) 2011 Deep History The Architecture of Past and Present. University of California Press.

Smith, M. 2013 The Archaeology of Australian Deserts, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Spencer, B. and F.J. Gillen 1904 The northern tribes of Central Australia. Macmillan, London.

Thomson, D.F. 1949 Economic structure and the ceremonial exchange cycle in Arnhem Land. Macmillan, Melbourne.

Torrence, R. 1986 Production and Exchange of Stone Tools. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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