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The Cannibal Woman

hunting scene

A hunting scene from the lower Murray River. The hunter is using a bunch of grass to hide from his prey.

This scene was drawn in 1876 by Yertabrida Solomon,
an Aboriginal woman from the Coorong.

As hunters and gatherers of food, Aboriginal communities have a great respect for the earth and its creatures and plants which provide them with sustenance. There are essential rules of behaviour in respect of hunting and gathering which ensure that the supply of food will not diminish from season to season, and that all members of the group will receive adequate nourishment. Violation of a totem animal may cause illness or death. Greed and selfishness are considered serious crimes and are severely punished. In times of extreme hardship, also, cannibalism was known in Australia, but stories such as the following acted as forceful deterrents.

The old blind woman Prupe lived a lonely existence in her own small encampment. Her nearest neighbour was her sister Koromarange, who had taken charge of her granddaughter Koakangi and guarded her day and night.

Her heart was heavy because she carried a secret that she was ashamed to reveal to anyone. Her sister Prupe had become a cannibal. The blind woman was too frail to hurt grown men and women, but whenever she had an opportunity she stole small children, stifling their cries with her bony hands and carrying them to her lonely camp fire where she killed them and cooked the tiny bodies as though they were wallabies or emus.

Koromarange had seen their bones scattered round her sister's camp. Becoming suspicious, she had shadowed Prupe one night, and before she could interfere she had experienced the horror of seeing one of her own grandchildren killed. It explained at once what had happened to the other grandchildren whom everyone thought had been stolen by evil spirits. Koromarange begged her daughter to allow her to take the last remaining grandchild to her camp. The parents were about to leave on a hunting expedition and they accepted the offer with alacrity. During the day Koromarange led the little girl far away from the camp and spent the time hunting for roots and witchetty grubs. This happened every day, but she was so frightened that her sister might learn of the presence of Koakangi that she took presents of food to the blind woman to prevent her coming to visit her camp.

Unfortunately she defeated her own purpose because Prupe, to whom blindness had brought a sixth sense, realised that her sister was concealing something from her. At night she groped her way through the scrub until she could feel the heat from Koromarange's camp fire on her face. Stepping cautiously through the bushes, her fingers fluttered as delicately as the wings of a moth, feeling the body of her sister and the arm that was clasped protectively round the girl's body.

'Ah ha!' the old woman muttered as she huddled over her camp fire later in the night. 'It was Koromarange's granddaughter! She needn't think she can escape me. I'll steal her when my sister goes to the well to fetch water. I'll take her eyes and then I'll be able to see again.'

Before dawn she was concealed in the bushes. As soon as she heard her sister going to the waterhole she rushed forward, gathered the sleeping child in her arms, and fled to her camp. When Koromarange came back and saw that her granddaughter was missing, she knew what had happened.

With eyes flashing with rage she crept silently to her sister's camp. Knowing how sharp Prupe's ears had become, she dared not make a sound. Breathing softly and controlling her anger, she watched her sister tie the child to a tree and leave the camp to get vegetables as a relish for the tasty meal she expected to enjoy that evening.

As soon as Prupe was out of earshot Koromarange rushed into the camp and dug a hole in the ground. She put sharpened stakes at the bottom and covered the hole with branches of trees with soil packed tightly on top. Last of all she released Koakangi and took her back to her parents, who by this time had returned from their hunting trip.

It was late afternoon before Prupe drew near the camp, a broad grin on her sunken mouth, with long runners of saliva dripping from her chin as she thought of the succulent food she would soon be cooking. She caught her foot and stumbled, and with a cry of fear she crashed through the covering of soil and the scattered branches that hid the pit.

For a few moments she clung desperately to the edge, scrabbling for a foothold and scattering branches in every direction. Some of them fell in the fire and flared up, setting the scrub aflame. She raised one hand to shield her face from the fiery heat and fell headlong to the bottom of the pit where she was impaled on the sharp stakes. If we were to go to Prupe's ancient camp we would find, even today, a vast pit thirty feet deep, surrounded by burnt and blackened vegetation, to remind us of the sorry end of Prupe the cannibal.

A.W. Reed, Aboriginal Fables & Legendary Tales (Aboriginal Library)


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