The Assassin's Footprint

“It is to be remembered that a person's footprints are as well known as his face.” – Lorna Marshall, The !Kung of Nyae Nyae, 1976.

You will know a man by the impressions he leaves behind. Deep or shallow; a long gait or a short stride; the force of his movement—keen observers pay careful attention to the impact and breadth of his arrival. The road not traveled becomes well-trodden ground under his feet, and you learn from the depressions left in his wake.

If I do not look you in the eye, it is because I am examining the trail that follows you.

The common occupation of the adult forager man is to hunt, and the hunt requires a specific set of skills, strategies, and equipment. Anthropologist George Murdock described the tool technology of the Aranda hunter-gatherers of Australia, writing that,

The weapons of the chase and of war are manufactured mainly of stone and wood…Knives are of chipped stone, either held in the hand or attached with resin to a wooden handle. An ax or an adze consists of a carefully ground stone head hafted with resin to a piece of wood forked at the end. A point of stone or wood spliced and bound with tendons to a wooden shaft about ten feet in length, the whole often equipped with barbs, constitutes the Aranda spear. A unique and exceedingly useful implement is the spear-thrower, a leaf-shaped and often concave piece of hard wood about two feet long tapering at one end to a narrow handle and at the other to a blunt point, to which is attached by a tendon a short sharp wooden point. This fits into a hollow in the end of the spear and propels it with much greater force and leverage than the arm alone could impart. On the handle end is fixed with resin a sharp piece of quartz, which forms the principal cutting implement of the natives…As projectile weapons the Aranda also use flat curved sticks or boomerangs, not, however, of the returning type. Shields are fashioned of light wood or bark with a concave inner surface and a longitudinal bar as a handle.

From  Our Primitive Contemporaries  (1934) by George Murdock.

From Our Primitive Contemporaries (1934) by George Murdock.

Murdock also gives a description of Aranda hunting tactics:

The men kill brush turkeys, pheasants, snipe, geese, ducks, pigeons, cockatoos, eagle-hawks, and other birds with their boomerangs. They usually stalk the kangaroo, creeping up cautiously and halting when the animal looks up, until they are close enough to hurl their spears. Sometimes several hunters combine to drive a kangaroo into an ambush, and occasionally fire is employed for a similar purpose. To catch the rock wallaby, which follows definite runs, a man will lie in wait patiently for hours. To trap the emu or Australian ostrich, a pit is constructed on its feeding grounds, a spear fixed upright at the bottom, and the top covered with brush and earth. Sooner or later a bird steps on the bushes, breaks through, and is transfixed by the spear. Sometimes a native poisons a water-hole frequented by emus with pituri, a narcotic drug, and hides in the vicinity until a bird drinks and becomes stupefied. Occasionally, too, relying upon the natural inquisitiveness of the emu, a man carries a pole resembling the long neck and small head of the bird and imitates its aimless movements, until it advances to investigate and he can throw his spear at close range.

From  The Australian Aboriginal  (1925) by Herbert Basedow

From The Australian Aboriginal (1925) by Herbert Basedow

The weapons and tactics involved illustrates some important patterns: these acts of physical violence are carefully planned, taking a significant amount of time to develop during the process of stalking prey, but are enacted rapidly with great lethality when opportunity strikes. Patience is required, and strategies of deception and ambush are often utilized.

It is not difficult to see how these tools and skills can also be used in intra- and intergroup conflict. A man who engages in violence strategically in the appropriate context may reap great rewards, while careful deceptions and an abrupt ambush can reduce the chance of reprisal.

Which brings me to a very important type of footwear found among the Aranda and other Central Australian forager populations. P.M. Byrne described the Kurdaitcha shoes thusly:

They consist of a sole made of human hair and a great number of intertwined emu feathers, a certain amount of human blood being used as a kind of cementing material. The whole form a large pad, flat above and convex below, with the two ends rounded off so that there is no distinction between them. The upper part is in the form of a net, made of human hair, with a central opening for the foot, across which stretches a cord of hair which serves as a strap for the instep.

Anthropologist Walter Baldwin Spencer adds that,

it is by no means an easy matter to make the shoes and, as usual, in the manufacture of any special article, there are certain individuals who are famed for their skill in making them. No woman or child may see them and they are kept wrapped up in skin or else placed for safety in the sacred store house along with the Churinga [male cult objects]. It is said that they may be used more than once, but the nature of the shoe is such that it could not last more than one journey over the hard ground characteristic of the interior.

Further, the right to wear the shoes must be earned, and comes at a cost. Spencer goes on,

Before a man may wear the shoes he has to submit to a most painful ordeal. A stone is heated to redness and then applied to the ball of the small toe of either foot, it does not matter which, until, as the natives say, the joint is softened when with a sudden jerk, the toe is pulled outwards and the joint is thus dislocated. There is no doubt that some such ordeal as this is passed through, as we have examined feet of men who claim to be what is called Ertwa Kurdaitcha at Charlotte Waters, Crown Point on the Finke River, Owen Springs and Alice Springs amongst the Macdonnell Ranges, all of which show the remarkable peculiarity of the dislocation. In correspondence with this is the fact that the true Kurdaitcha shoe has, at one side, a small opening made in the hair network through which the toe is thrust.

The male secrecy oriented around the shoes, as well as the costly ritual required to wear them, is similar to various practices found across other small-scale societies with ‘men’s cults’, as I’ve described previously. The key parallel, however, is that much like the hangahiwa wandafunei costumes I discussed in my article on Nggwal and the Arapesh horticulturalists of New Guinea, the Kurdaitcha shoes were also used by men while undertaking a murder.

In The Creation of Inequality (2012), anthropologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus write that across Central Australian societies, “Sometimes a dying man would whisper the name of the person whose magic he believed was killing him. Then an avenger, his body coated with charcoal to make him invisible at night, his footsteps muffled by emu-feather slippers, set out to kill the offender.” I think their choice of the word ‘muffled’ here is unfortunate, because it seems to imply that the function of the shoes was to dampen sound, which is mistaken.

To understand the function of the Kurdaitcha shoes requires recognizing the tracking abilities of Aranda foragers. Spencer writes that,

The tracking powers of the native are well known, but it is difficult to realise the skill which they display unless one has seen them at work. Not only does the native know the track of every beast and bird, but after examining any burrow he will at once, from the direction in which the last track [Page 21] runs, or even after smelling the earth at the burrow entrance, tell you whether the animal is at home or not…Not only this, but, strange as it may sound to the average white man whose meals are not dependent upon his ability to track an animal to its burrow or hiding-place, the native will recognise the footprint of every individual of his acquaintance.

From  The Australian Aboriginal  (1925) by Herbert Basedow

From The Australian Aboriginal (1925) by Herbert Basedow

With this in mind, anthropologist Herbert Basedow gets to the heart of the matter regarding the Kurdaitcha shoes and their use in conducting a killing,

Whilst undertaking their reconnoitres, the scouts carry slippers, which they wear when it is necessary to hide the individual tracks of their party. These slippers are generally known as ‘kurdaitja-shoes’; they consist of a thick pad or sole of emu feathers, knitted together with string and clotted blood, and an ‘upper’ of neatly plaited human hair-string. The wearer of such ‘kurdaitja-shoes’ leaves shallow oval tracks in the sand, which, if seen by any other natives, occasion much alarm, being immediately recognized as those of an enemy on a treacherous mission; if the enemy is not discovered, the tracks are regarded as those of the ‘Kurdaitja, ’ an evil spirit about to molest the tribe.

What is key is that the shoes obscure the individual identity of the killer, and the vague horrifying imprint left by the Kurdaitcha shoe causes the Aranda man, “if he catches sight of such a track, to avoid as much as possible the spot where he has seen it, in just the same way in which an ordinary European peasant will avoid the spot haunted by a ghost.”

One of the greatest deterrents to the use of violence is the threat that it will be reciprocated by your enemy and/or their allies. In small-scale societies without formal legal systems, revenge is often a prime motive for lethal violence, alternatively deterring or perpetuating it in different contexts. The Kurdaitcha shoes may allow a man to destroy an enemy—such as one who had previously threatened or harmed himself, his allies, or kin—in secret, and reduce the risk of reprisal. Similarly, the Kurdaitcha shoes could also be used in conjunction with other methods of camouflage and concealment. Bryne writes that,

The head-dress worn consisted of a bunch of feathers in front and a bundle of green leaves behind. As a disguise the face was blackened with charcoal, the whiskers tied back behind the neck, and a broad white stripe of powdered gypsum was drawn from the top of the forehead down the nose to the bottom of the chin, while a similar stripe extended across the chest from shoulder to shoulder.


Even without these careful disguises, killings undertaken in secret can be found across other forager societies as well. Anthropologist James Woodburn wrote of the dangers of the ambush in discussing his fieldwork among the Hadza hunter-gatherers of East Africa, writing that,

Hadza recognise not just the danger of open public violence, where at least retaliation may be possible, but also the hazard of being shot when asleep in camp at night or being ambushed when out hunting alone in the bush (Woodburn 1979: 2~2). Effective protection against ambush is impossible. Those of you who have seen the film about the Hadza which I was involved in making (Woodburn & Hudson 1966) may remember Salida, the successful hunter of an impala in the film and of very many other animals in ordinary life. He is now dead and is believed by the Hadza to have died in such an ambush. Only his bones were found. The Hadza had theories about who the murderer might be but there was much uncertainty; the cause of the conflict is said to have been a dispute over a woman.' No action was taken. The important point in all this is that, with such lethal weapons available to all men, with the possibility of using them for murder undetected, with the likelihood that even if detected no action will be taken, with the knowledge that such weapons have indeed been used for murder in the past, the dangers of conflict between men over claims not only to women but more generally to wealth, to power or to prestige are well understood.

Beyond the ambiguity of the killer’s identity and the paranoia this induces, the secretive nature of the Kurdaitcha shoes also incentivizes a different sort of deception, namely lying: co-opting the fearsome reputation of Kurdaitcha to boost one’s prestige. Spencer writes that,

We have met several Kurdaitcha men who claim to have killed their victim and many more men who are perfectly certain that they have seen Kurdaitcha. One group of men will tell you that they do not go Kurdaitcha but that another group does do so, and if you then question the latter they will tell you that they do not, but that their accusers do. It is in fact a case of each believing the other guilty and both being innocent. At the same time many will at once confess that they do go Kurdaitcha, when as a matter of fact they do not.

Of course, if such lies manage to reduce the likelihood of oneself and one’s kin being attacked by an enemy, acting as an effective deterrent without the risks entailed of actually engaging in Kurdaitcha homicide, the more innocuous deception of the lie is quite understandable. Nonetheless, boasting of committing such killings can also attract the wrong kind of attention, and can invite the very reprisals one may have been hoping to ward off.