During the last 1,000 years, Aboriginal groups along the Kimberley and Arnhem Land coasts had regular contact with sea voyagers from Macassar. These travelling merchants, known as the Macassans, brought with them metal objects such as harpoons, knives, fish hooks, and axe heads, as well as decorative items like pottery and beautiful cloth. In exchange, Aborigines provided turtle shells, pearls and safe passage through territorial waters and to country further inland.
People from both cultures travelled to and from Australia, including Aboriginal men and women to Macassar. The Macassans sometimes built permanent smokehouses and processing sites along the Australian coastline, such as the one at Barlambidj, where they lived in close proximity with local Aborigines.
Contact with the Macassans transformed Aboriginal coastal life. The introduction of metal tools altered the way food was collected and processed. Iron axes enabled people to build solid wooden canoes out of hollowed-out trees, rather than rely on the traditional bark canoes. The hollowed-out canoes were sturdier than the bark ones, and this allowed fishermen to travel further afield.
Metal implements altered fishing techniques, and ultimately changed people’s diet. Before Macassan contact, the diet of coastal Aboriginal communities consisted mainly of fish and shellfish. With metal fishing tools, people began to eat more turtle and dugong, as these animals were now easier to catch. This not only extended the variety in people’s diets, but it also became an important economic activity. In some cases, this even influenced aspects of cultural and spiritual practice, such as the return of turtle shell and dugong bones to the sea.