Aboriginal Australians

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From Harold Barclay, People Without Government [1]:

Australian society, like that of other hunters, is organised on a band basis. Several families traditionally hunted and camped together and claimed a territory for economic exploitation and as a ritual and totemic centre. These families were related and for the most part through the male line, usually to a common paternal grandfather or great grandfather.

Australians have often been described as the most primitive people in the world - or as having the simplest culture. But such descriptions contribute more to confusion and misunderstanding of Australian cultures than they do to clarification. It is true that few people known to modern society have possessed a more rudimentary and limited technology. An Australian could readily . . carry all his earthly possessions under his arm. Spears and throwing sticks were his most elaborate form of projectile; he did not know the use or manufacture of the bow and arrow. In technology Australians did not elaborate on a wide range of different types of tools, rather they concentrated on the development of a great many styles within a few kinds of tools. Thus, one finds a wide variety of throwing sticks or of spears.

Similarly Australians did not experiment with many different social structures; their social organisation was based on the single principle of kinship. Yet, they managed to invent a variety of kinship structures. Indeed, they played upon a single theme - that of dual division- in such a way as to create several complex kinship patterns. The most elementary form of dual division is to cut a society into two groups (moieties) which engage in mutual exchange, including the exchange of women, so that wives are derived from the opposite group. Australians elaborated this dual principle so as to create four and eight 'section' systems which determined incest rules and the persons whom one might marry. To the outsider, such as the introductory anthropology student, these systems become extremely complex conundrums. Australian mythology and ceremony and their attendant art forms are similarly by no means simple or crude. On the contrary, they must be recognised as rich and highly developed. In sum, Australians seem to have taken a minimum number of simple principles and woven them into a complex web of variant Patterns. Further, they seem to have been highly concerned with the realms of kinship, mythology and ceremonial and uninterested in technology. In contrast, western society has been interested primarily in the latter while innovation- in kinship and ceremonial verges on being tabooed. Thus arises the misleading notion that Australians are 'primitive' (in a pejorative sense), crude and simple.

Australian political organisation requires no complexity and it has none. Their political system has been called a 'gerontocracy' - by which is meant a rule by old men. More correctly, for Australia it means that older men are the most influential and their opinions are accepted because of the prestige of their elderly positions. Further, one's elders are one's grandfathers, so there is the moral force of kinship behind their words. One accepts the decision of the elder males also out of fear of public opinion, believing all others in the band would disapprove of any dissent. Further, older men are considered to have a certain sanctity, since it is they who are the repositories of all the sacred wisdom of the group. Among the Murngin, for example, each clan has ceremonial leaders who know all the rituals of that clan. The position is inherited from father to son. By control of the ceremonial system these leaders also control who may be initiated into which ceremonies and at which time. This is extremely crucial to the Murngin male, who, in order to be a fully fledged member of society, must in the course of his life pass through several rites of passage from one age group to another. These rites reveal knowledge which is held to be necessary to group survival. Life is a process of being initiated into various ceremonies and, thus, secrets of life, and its climax is the ultimate initiation into "the final mysteries of life by seeing the most esoteric of the totems" (Warner, 132). The main force available to the elders, then, appears to be a supernatural sanction: the threat of withholding admission to certain knowledge deemed essential to success in life. Additionally, elders may turn public opinion against a person.

Within a band the elders are the ones concerned with dealing with strangers and the ones responsible for organising blood feuds or instigating others to impose a punishment on malefactors. Elders, however, have no power as a police force to enforce law. They can only encourage physically stronger men in the community to try to impose a punishment on an alleged culprit.

Supernatural sanctions form an important part of the Australian's techniques to maintain order. Bone pointing is well known and one does not have to be a particular specialist in order to use it. In this technique a magic bone is pointed in the direction of one's enemy, who is, of course, informed that this has been done. Consequently the victim is supposed to become ill and die. As Cannon long ago pointed out, this "technique does achieve results. Victims appear to die because they simply resign themselves to death. Like the Inuit the Australians have part-time religious specialists or shamans. These undergo special initiations, often under the direction of a group of shamans who constitute a kind of rudimen1ary guild of craft specialists. Shamans have the power to counteract the magic of an enemy. They can also destroy another man. This they are a major force for mobilising and influencing public opinion and, according to Warner, they are as effective in this respect as ceremonial leaders (242).

Australian society represents a political system with somewhat more structure and formality than characterised the Inuit and Pygmy. Indeed, gerontocratic features are more common to African horticulturalists. Australians, nevertheless, function according to diffuse and religious sanctions. The control by the older men of access to those ceremonial initiations deemed essential for attaining full male status, approaches a rudimentary government. Yet since Australian groups are communities of kinsmen and these elders are kinsmen, addressed and treated as such, their position is more clearly that of grandfather than that of governor or policeman. In addition, elders in no way have any monopoly on the uses of violence to impose their commands an and this, of course, is the keystone of a governmental structure.

  1. People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy