Aboriginal Murder Mystery: What Killed Kaakutja?

Tantalizing glimpses into life and death in pre-colonial Australia are written on the bones of a skeleton found in New South Wales.

When William Bates, an elder of the Baakantji people of New South Wales, found a skeleton by a river in 2014, he identified it as an Aboriginal male. The mouth was wide open. “To me, he was crying for help,” Bates recalls, “so I said, I’ll help you.”

The bones bore obvious signs of violence. In most murder mysteries, establishing the time of death is one of the first things detectives do, and in the course of an initial study, researchers assumed he had been killed during the bloodshed between British colonizers and Australia’s indigenous peoples in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But these early assumptions would be challenged when the body, now named Kaakutja, meaning “older brother,” was examined by Dr. Michael Westaway, a paleoanthropologist at Griffith University in Queensland. “He was obviously someone that a lot of people cared for,” Westaway comments, noting that in the burial, his head had been tenderly placed on a cushion of sand.

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