A lost tribe? More correctly survivors of a lost society unable to continue without the other groups which formed the fabric of a culture that had sustained their people for 25,000 years.


by Bob Goldsworthy


(This article was first printed in Natmap News 50 of December 1984, but is republished here along with the Costigan article to which Bob refers and another Bob had copied. Photos of the encounter taken by Bob, Bobroff, Ed Burke & Jim Combe can be found here – Ed.)



Headlines, a lost tribe has come in from the Western Australian desert. Memories stir of 1961 when Natmap was still engaged on the geodetic survey of Australia. Mr O.J. Bobroff was in charge of a party traversing from Mt Teitkins to Well 35 on the Canning Stock Route. Access to this remote area was along Beadells graded track from Leibig Bore through Sandy Blight Junction to end at what was to become Jupiter Well, some 150 km east of the Stock Route. The party was in the area from early June until mid October.


We had been aware that aboriginals were in the area as footprints were frequently seen and distant figures had been sighted but had effectively disappeared by the time the vehicles had reached the spot. On returning to old camp sites we would find the fire place and rubbish hole dug up again.


With the traversing completed the party regrouped at Jupiter Well to check field books, repair vehicles and finalise the job before leaving the area. Early one afternoon someone called out “We have visitors" as a small group of aboriginals came cautiously into the camp area. "It's last year's survey party" said one wag.


The group were all males, 5 adults and 3 children. We greeted them and spent some time trying to establish communication by signs and charades. We shared some tinned fruit and vegetables with them which they ate and politely nodded approval without being enthusiastic. Nor did they seem overawed by our firearas as we plinked at some empty cans for them. They were more impressed by the water supply at Jupiter Well but not the rope and bucket needed to get at the water. They were however frientdly, courteous and patient. After showing them our water supply they indicated to follow them to see theirs. Desert priorities?


We followed them for about 2km to a depression in the sand hills with Desert Oak and Ti Trees similar to the location of Jupiter Well. We were made to sit under a Mulga tree on the sandridge overlooking the area. We recognised the water indicators and knew their waterhole would be somewhere in the Ti trees. It soon appeared that we were to remain in that spot despite more inviting shade trees and one of the men remained with us to see that we did.


After a time we were treated to a demonstration of smoke signals, first sending up a column of smoke about a metre in diameter and 10 metres high. This was quickly and separately followed by a ball of smoke about 2m in diameter. Both the column and ball were produced as units with defined edges, within which we could see the smoke swirling and moving but each retained its shape while ascending for a considerable height before dispersing in the wind. This all took place down among the trees and we were unable to see how it was done. It was a remarkable demonstration to us as we had tried using smoke to locate each other on reconnaissance with little success unless a petrol and oil mix was used, but the smoke was generally dispersed at tree top height.


The men then returned to us indicating to stay where we were and waiting with an air of expectation. Suddenly a willy-willy began  behind the sandridge. The men shooed the children away and we all sat huddled, holding our hats and with our eyes screwed shut as it roared through the group then dissipated at the foot of the sandridge. The aboriginals laughed and clapped as though they had arranged it all and everything suggested that they had. They immediately took us down into the depression to show us their water supply.


The native well was a large hole about 2 metres deep tapering with foot holds among the tree roots to a small sump at the bottom from which they collected their water. We all drank and the water was excellent, being older than our well the water was clearer and sweeter. We returned to our camp with mixed but heightened impressions of these people.


We had left a dump of surplus stores at Jupiter Well while we completed the cross country section of the traverse to Well 35 and on returning found that some of the bags had been torn open and a few things taken by the aboriginals. At first angry we talked by radio to a friend in Alice Springs who knew a great deal about the desert natives. He explained the convention among the nomads which governs ownership.


Being able to take only what can be carried, heavy or cumbersome items are left behind. If the item is simply left on the ground uncovered it can be used or taken by the finder, but if it is covered it is regarded as private property and left alone. It need only oe a token covering but it is respected. In this light we re-appraised the 'raid' and it became obvious that the convention had been followed. The bulk of our stores were covered by a tarpaulin and hadn't been touched, it was only loose items not under the tarp which had been examined and only small portable items taken, and not many at that. OJB’s necktie was later seen worn as a belt by one of the men, while a singlet was seen at their camp rolled and plaited into a headpad. We decided not to pursue it further after reflecting that we had probably broken other conventions in their culture with our brash and patronising behaviour but they had been tolerant of our ignorance.


We took the opportunity to assess our contact with this group of people and came up with somem surprising conclusions. Their demeanour and bearing was different and better than most of the aboriginals we had seen at the welfare stations and towns. They were proud and self sufficient, not needing or wanting anything we had. There was an easy and respectful relationship between the children and adults that I now regard with envy. Obviously the logistics required for our presence in the area were much greater than theirs. Our show of fire power was much less impressive than their ability to control smoke in the manner they could. The incident with the willy-willy is one I have left open, perhaps unwilling to accept something that was quite beyond our experience.


Today a great deal of effort is being spent on gathering knowledge of a culture that is almost lost. I hope that research extends beyond edible plants and waterhole locations to the deeper areas of the Australian aboriginal culture before knowledge and skills of a different kind are forever lost.


In 1963 the headlines spoke of a "lost tribe" found in the desert and brought to Papunya by patrol officers to be assimilated into our society. Photographs in newspapers and a book written later, showed one or two familiar faces from the group we had met at Jupiter Well. I've often wondered how they fared.


I hope the latest 'lost tribe’ are treated with respect, not patronised and not seen as gaining an awful lot from their arrival in our society.


The  Herald,Peter Costigan, "The Pintubi nomads have proved a proposition almost forgotten: that human beings do not need government handouts, the protection of bureaucracies and the laws of libel or the material manacles of modern life to fulfill their destiny, whatever they believe it to be".