It’s the peak of the sun’s passage across the sky, and you’re out hunting in the wilderness of Australia. Perhaps you’ve become separated from your group, or you meant to go at it solo, but one thing is for sure: here, in the blazing heat of midday, you’re the only person around for as far as the eyes can see. With your knowledge of the terrain and skill with the spear, you hope to use your stealth and sneak up on a marsupial resting under a tree or dozing in its burrow.
Unfortunately, you’re not the only hunter, and neither will the wallabies and kangaroos be the only prey. Unbeknownst to you, your delicate tracks in the red soil have been followed for quite some time. Perhaps your pursuers have been holding off for the right moment, patiently waiting for your guard to drop, such as when you lean in for a few mouthfuls of water from a river or recline in the shade with your back to their direction, which you’ proceed to do.
Suddenly they’re upon you, and you can tell from the way they tackle you that these are men, because there are no predators here that hunt humans. You struggle to fight them off, but then you catch a glimpse of your attackers and you freeze, realizing your fate.
Before you stands a trio of brown bodies, wiry and tough, sporting human hair and feathers on their arms and legs and elsewhere. Their expressions are fierce, with masks and facial tattoos and matching body paints meant to intimidate. Once subdued, they begin to mutter their incantations over you, and one of them produces a sinister bone needle that he keeps pointed at your body. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never seen them before, and that you know they’ve got the wrong man; neither does it matter if they picked you out specifically, or whether they chose you because your own markings and clothing gave you away as a member of an enemy tribe.
Soon the ritual is done, and they depart quietly, leaving behind oval tracks where their slippers of emu feathers meet the ground. Aside from a bruise or two, no physical damage has been dealt to you, though you feel mortally wounded. You are white, as if you’ve seen a ghost, and your mind is racing: what do you do now? Will your tribe take you back, knowing your curse? And, slightly more importantly, how much time do you have left?
The above was a dramatized and fictional encounter you might have had with the kurdaitcha, the supernatural executors of the Australian Aborigines. While it may have sounded confusing or silly to us, to the Australian tribes this was deadly serious, and here’s why.
The Aborigines, split up in to thousands of tribes and a bewildering amount of cultural diversity, did have some things in common. Quite a few of them did not believe in death as a natural occurrence; rather, it was caused by a hostile tribe or people by way of harmful magic. So, if an individual happened to bite the dust, it was the social responsibility of his relations to avenge him. Blood feuds were common, endemic, and went on forever, tit for tat style.
If the man responsible was from your own tribe or a bit further up the kinship tree, there were ways of settling things.
However, if the suspected murdered came from a tribe other than one’s own (and hence not punishable by your own customs), and carrying out revenge didn’t appeal to – or couldn’t be carried out by – your relations, one could contract the deed to your neighbourhood sorcerer executioners, the kurdaitchas.
The procedures must have varied, but one common method was referred to as death by Bone-pointing. Death by bone pointing was a variation of sympathetic magic not unlike voodoo, and like any incantation had several steps that had to be flawlessly carried out in order to be effective. First the bone – called a kundela – was fashioned in to a needle, its size and composition depending on the customs of the tribe in question, and at the other end feathers or a string were pulled through the eye. Then, secret rituals known only by the tribe’s initiated men infused the kundela with powerful magic and made it in to a psychic dart of sorts, ready to pierce a target.
To carry out this act of vengeance, spiritual assassins (for they fit the profile of assassins) were chosen to track down the individual and carry out the deed. These men, or kurdaitchas, covered themselves with bird feathers, animal fur, or human hair (glued on by blood), and wore stealthy shoes made from soft emu feathers that supposedly left no traces (although the unique footprints probably scared any trackers from engaging in pursuit. Either way, the kurdaitchas were safe.). Sometimes, the small toe on the foot was broken; tradition said it was a necessary act to fasten the shoes; anthropologists believe it was probably done to test the sincerity of the kurdaitcha’s resolve. Once outfitted, several kurdaitchas would then hunt for the victim – for years if necessary, if traditions can be believed.
Once they caught the man in question, they would restrain and point the charmed bone at him, all the while transfixing their victim by pronouncements of curses. When the curse was complete, both parties are free to go; the kurdaitchas returned home and burned the kundela as a way of dispelling the dangerous magic in their hands. The man, however, was now doomed to die. Though it may have taken weeks or years (a clever escape clause for the kurdaitchas’s contract, for in the end, don’t we all die?) for the man to expire, when he finally did, it was attributed to the kundela’s malevolent power. And if it took too long, one could always claim the ceremony had been botched at some point, ruining the deadly power of the kundela.
These were the basics of the ritual, though they changed from tribe to tribe. In other traditions, the bone was left for a lengthy period of time in feces or covered with a coating made from corpses and rotting animals and the victim merely scratched. Some methods were more direct, asking for the guilty’s mouth or anus to be stabbed.
For the Aborigines, the kundela became imprinted with the power of death. As for the science behind it, there are many valid explanations. The first is psychological,a negative version of the placebo (called a nocebo). The lore and fear surrounding the kundela and its wielders effectively primed the individual in to expecting the worst. Just as a placebo can seemingly elevate physical and mental health without the presence of prerequisite medicine, so a nocebo could depress a system, pushing the victim in to a state of shock and hysteria. There’s at least one case I was able to find of a man being brought in to a hospital after experiencing the Bone-Pointing death: though stable, he eventually wasted away and died.
A second explanation could be the way the kundela was treated. By being left in excrement and rotting flesh, it picks up dangerous bacteria and toxins that could easily cause a bacterial infection. As there was no such thing as modern medicine in those times, the slightest infection – and especially one made from a concoction of nasties – could have led to death.
Lastly, the shape of the kundela may be the answer: slim and pointed, the needle has the perfect profile for a surgical stab to deliver a dangerous injury to the body while leaving behind a seemingly minor wound. The thin tip could have pierced organs while the resulting pin-prick would have been easily disguised and hard to notice. Nothing guarantees the efficacy of a voodoo needle like skipping the doll and jabbing it in the real thing.
Though I haven’t been able to find any definitive literature or studies determining the efficacy of Bone-pointing, the actual reason was probably a combination of all three. In any case, the fine print of the ceremony made it difficult to argue with as sooner or later the individual would die.
And to answer your last question, which you no doubt have on your mind: Although the practice seems to have died out in Southern Australia, there are still rare instances of its occurrence in the North.
How strong the actual tradition is now is anybody’s guess. It’s for the better that it’s (mostly) gone, but it speaks to the cultural distinctiveness of the Indigenous Australians and their unique (for lack of a better word) and terrifying inventiveness when it came to judicial procedures.
Fun fact: John Howard, the prime minister of Australia, was ritually cursed with the kundela by Aborigine activists in 2004. It’s only a matter of time before John hits the dust.