Fire stick

Photography Carl Warner

Photography Carl Warner

Photography Carl Warner

Registration number
Item name
Fire stick 
Indigenous name
Associated cultural group
Australia > Australia > Queensland > Cape York region > Aurukun
Miss Ursula H. McConnel 
Acquisition date
January 01, 1950 
Acquisition method
Donated by Miss Ursula H. McConnel 
Raw material
wood; abrus seed (Abrus precatorius); cane; beeswax; orchid vine
H: 1915 mm W: 53 mm L: D: Circum:


Two fire sticks bound at one end by orchid vine and inlaid with abrus seeds at one end into a rounded mound of beeswax.

Research notes

From the UQ Anthropology Museum exhibition 'written on the body' curated by Judy Watson and Diana Young, March - August 2014.

Firesticks in this part of Australia are extremely long, one being drilled into the base of the other to make fire by friction. The driller-firemaker stands up to do this. In Wik-Mungkan they are called thum pup (literally ‘fire + Premna wood’).

The sticks are gendered. In Wik-Mungkan, the vertical drill stick is male - thum pam [ ‘fire man’] - and the horizontal drilled stick is female - thum wanch [ ‘fire female’]. Words for spouses are exact reversals of these: pam thum (husband), wanch thum (wife). All four are connections of the hearth.

The sticks are fitted into a double-cylinder holder covered in beeswax and dotted with red jequirity (Abrus) seeds, bound around with bark from the Cooktown orchid. The bark’s yellow colour is achieved by firing (McConnel 1953:35). The ends of the sticks that are put into friction with each other are the ends that are inserted into the cylinder-holder for transport and storage. When not in use the sticks are stood up in the earth within a camp, near the hearth, with the cylinder uppermost, as a cap. This has a primary function of keeping the key functional ends of the sticks dry in wet weather or on dewy mornings.

But, as one expects in this Wik culture where rococo symbolism is an ardent pursuit, there is much more to it than this. Anthropologist Ursula McConnel made the acute observation that red, black and yellow, which are the colour of wood flames, were the Wik symbolic colours of fire (1953:28, 35). Black also is the colour of charcoal. The seeds of the cylinder shown here are red (with black dots), the wax is close to black, and the binding is yellow. Red also connotes both lifeblood and the wounds of death – jequirity seeds are both blood-red and toxic. And beeswax is the conjuror of sexual sweetness and birth, but at the same time, when in a hair pendant, the indicator of widowhood.

McConnel, U.H. 1953. Native arts and industries on the Archer, Kendall and Holroyd Rivers, Cape York Peninsula, north Queensland. Records of the South Australian Museum 11:1-42.

Further reading:
Sutton, P. 1994. Material culture traditions of the Wik people, Cape York Peninsula. Records of the South Australian Museum 27:31-52.

This Item of the Month was written by Professor Peter Sutton, University of Adelaide and South Australian Museum.

Also from the UQ Anthropology Museum exhibition 'In the Red; on the vibrancy of things' June 2012 - January 2013.

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