Aboriginal Australia (Anthropology)

The earliest humans to settle Australia arrived at least 45,000 years ago. At the time of British colonization in 1788 there were two hundred or more Aboriginal language communities within the continent. In areas of intense colonization, the Aboriginal economy was rapidly destroyed andit is only through the reports of explorers that we have records of semi-permanent settlements, the cultivation of edible roots (Dioscorea sp.) and the construction of eel dykes. While such practices have recently been confirmed by archaeological research in the southeast and southwest of the continent, much of Australian anthropology has been conducted in areas remote from European settlement and it is from these areas that the image of the ‘typical’ indigenous cultures of Australia has been derived.


By far the most influential of the early Australian ethnographers were Baldwin and FJ. Gillen. In late nineteenth-century anthropological theorizing, Aboriginal society occupied the place the Caribs had done in Rousseau’s philosophy; that is, as the living exemplars of humankind’s original condition.Gillen provided much of the data on which theories about the nature of such societies were constructed. Frazer asserted in his preface to The .Native Tribes of Central Australia that Gillen had met ‘tribes living in the Stone Age’, ignorant of metal working, agriculture and even the physiology of reproduction, whose secrets Gillen had ‘snatched … just before the final decadence of the tribes set in’ (Frazer, in Gillen 1899). Frazer considered that their work pointed to the belief in spiritual conception, in which the unborn baby is animated by the spirit of an ancestral being, as the most probable source of totemism. He wanted to elucidate the principle of causation that allegedly enabled a ritual to increase the numbers of a totemic species. Durkheim, on the other hand, found demonstration of his theory of the sociological origin of religion in the work of Gillen and their contemporary, Strehlow. Durkheim emphasized the social character of increase rites rather than their instrumental purpose.

Gillen also documented the kinship terminologies of central Australia. While they committed the error of inferring that classificatory kinship had its origin in ‘group marriage’, they clarified the relationship of the eight subsection system to rules of marriage and descent. In later survey work they demonstrated the existence of similar systems in northern Australia.

Two ideas that pervaded nineteenth-century European thinking about Aboriginal society were: first, that their structure placed them at a given stage in a scheme of unilineal evolution, rather than displaying an adaptation to the natural environment; second, that Aboriginal people were about to lose their distinctive culture and either die out or become assimilated to the dominant culture.


Although Radcliffe-Brown carried out field-work in Western Australia, he worked in an area where Aboriginal life had been far more severely disrupted by colonial settlement than had central Australia in the 1890s. While he had the opportunity to collect detailed genealogies and statements of marriage rules, he did not observe normal, daily interaction and was unaware of how the principles he elucidated translated into social behaviour. Instead, Radcliffe-Brown gained an overview of structural variation in the 130 ‘tribes’ on which he had sufficient information, which was brilliantly conveyed in a four-part analysis published in the first issues of Oceania (Radcliffe-Brown 1930—1). A limited range of types of Aboriginal society were identified, each named after a representative tribe: such as the Kariera, Aranda, Mara and Murgin systems. Adopting a (Herbert) Spencerian perspective, Radcliffe-Brown inferred that the more complex types had developed out of the simpler forms as a consequence of progressive social evolution; indeed, he claimed to have predicted the existence of the simpler Kariera system from his knowledge of the Aranda system described by Gillen. Whether he had indeed done so, or learned of systems of the Kariera form from Daisy Bates’s fieldnotes, has been hotly debated; there is no doubt that Bates already understood, and had documented, the operation of four-section systems of the Kariera type.

While Radcliffe-Brown and his followers were later ridiculed by Edmund Leach for indulging in ‘anthropological butterfly collecting’ when they classified societies according to types and subtypes, his imposition of order upon the accumulating ethnographies of Australia was a substantial achievement. It has nevertheless severe limitations. The method is almost entirely descriptive. There are no hypotheses to explain why the variety of human societies should take particular forms, other than an alleged inherent tendency for systems to develop greater complexity over time.

Unlike Radcliffe-Brown, his student W.L. Warner conducted extended fieldwork between 1926 and 1929 at Millingimbi, in northeast Arnhem Land, to produce his classic of functionalist ethnography, A Black Civilisation (1937). Warner gave the name Murngin to the indigenous people of northeast Arnhem Land; today these people call themselves Yolngu. His ethnography provided an integrated account of local organization, kinship, warfare, religion and (unusually for the time) the evidence for change and interaction with Indonesian fishermen.

Levi-Strauss on kinship

Levi-Strauss’s work on cross-cousin marriage clearly owes a considerable debt to Radcliffe-Brown’s work on Australia. He both adopts Radcliffe-Brown’s three types of cross-cousin marriage as the three possible elementary structures of kinship, and re-analyses Australian material in the first of the ethnographic sections of The Elementary Structures of Kinship. While Rad-cliffe-Brown regarded kinship as an extension of familial relationships to the tribal community in such a way as to achieve progressively higher levels of social integration, Levi-Strauss regarded kinship as the product of a mode of thought which operated at a global (tribal) level, ordering people into opposed relationship categories such as ‘father’s father’ and ‘mother’s father’. Levi-Strauss followed Radcliffe-Brown in hypothesizing that the various types of Australian kinship system offered different scales of social integration, but considered the Murngin system provided the greatest potential for extensive social networks, because the chains of matrilateral marriage alliance could be indefinitely extended, whereas the bilateral Kariera and Aranda systems tend towards closure.

Although much of the Murngin debate was arcane, it did highlight an important ambiguity in Radcliffe-Brown’s model, where the line of descent in the kinship terminology, the landowning group and the foraging band appear to be identically constituted. This ambiguity was resolved, at an academic level, in papers by "fHiatt and Stanner, but resurfaced in anthropological evidence presented on behalf of the first attempt by Aboriginal people to claim legal recognition of their title to land.

The structural study of symbolism

Durkheim argued that the significance of each totem as a symbol stemmed, not from any intrinsic attribute, but from its position in the structure of clan totemism. The influence that Durkheim’s theory of the social origin of the meaning of totemic emblems had on Saussure and the formulation of his structural theory of semiology is well known. Levi-Strauss later developed the structural theory of totemism.He here compares the structural logic of central Australian totemism with that of the Indian caste system. A structural approach is also taken in Stanner’s analyses of Murinbata religion, which gains from its basis in Stanner’s own fieldwork among the Murinbata. Stanner records, in a footnote, that he only learned of Levi-Strauss’s analysis after he had commenced publication of this series of papers.

The semiological approach to art and ritual was brilliantly taken up by Nancy Munn (1973) in her studies of art among the Warlpiri, and by Morphy (1991) in his work on Yolngu art. Both have taken a more generative approach to art and ritual, made possible by Saussure’s development of the Durkheimian theory. In their work the artistic tradition is seen to provide a grammar as well as a vocabulary of visual signs, allowing artists opportunities to create new works rather than simply to reproduce totemic emblems whose form is fixed by tradition. A similar approach has been taken in the study of ceremony. It is questionable how many performances of the major ceremonies which Warner describes in his ethnography he actually observed, but Warner appears to commit the Durkheimian fallacy of assuming that each performance of a ritual is identical and only amenable to one level of interpretation. More recently, Morphy has shown how Yolngu ceremonies are to a certain extent constructed to suit the occasion, while Keen (1994) has demonstrated that the Gunabibi and Wawilak cults are merely two among many in the region which interpret common elements in different ways. Special mention should also be made of Kaber-ry’s pioneering work in the Kimberleys, which showed that Aboriginal women had their own rituals, of which male anthropologists had been unaware (Kaberry 1939).

Marxist and ecological studies

Several Marxist analyses in anthropology have cited Australian Aboriginal societies as possessing varieties of ‘primitive communism’, but the power conferred by control of religious cults renders Aboriginal society significantly less egalitarian than the other classic hunter-gatherers of semi-arid environments, the Kalahari San and the Hadza.

McCarthy and MacArthur’s observations of two Aboriginal camps during a three-week period in Arnhem Land provided one of the key pieces of ethnographic evidence in support of ^Sahlins’s theory of the ‘original affluent society’, which argued it was the lack of a political incentive to accumulate resources above subsistence needs that caused the apparent material poverty of hunter-gatherers. McCarthy and McArthur’s data showed that the average length of time taken to forage for and prepare food in Arnhem Land was four to five hours per person per day. People stopped foraging as soon as they had enough for their immediate needs, leaving plenty of spare time. From these and similar observations on other hunter-gatherer communities Sahlins derived his concept of the ‘domestic mode of production’. Sahlins’s domestic mode of production portrays each household as a politically independent unit of production; a concept which underestimates the importance of reciprocal rights of access between foraging ranges, and meat-sharing between households within camp, as devices for reducing the risks of exploiting scarce and unpredictable resources.

While Sahlins recognized the inadequacy of McCarthy and McArthur’s data, it was not until the 1980s that long-term studies of Aboriginal subsistence practices were published. It is noteworthy that these studies were possible, a century after Frazer had anticipated the imminent extinction of Aboriginal culture, because many communities had, over the previous decade, returned to a more traditional subsistence economy after some years spent on church or government settlements. Both Altman (1987) and Meehan (1982) conclude that women’s work has been made easier by the availability of purchased flour and sugar and consequently question Sahlins’s picture of leisured affluence in pre-colonial society. Both studies underline the contribution that hunting and gathering can still make to the diet; Altman calculates that it provides 81 per cent of protein and 46 per cent of the calories consumed on the outstation he investigated.

Land claims

Australia was colonized on the basis of the legal fiction that, because they are nomadic and do not ‘improve’ the soil, hunter-gatherers cannot be said to own land. When, in 1971, three Yolngu clans undertook the first attempt to demonstrate in an Australian court that they held title to their traditional land, the case failed at least in part because an erroneous account of Aboriginal land tenure was put to the court by anthropologists appearing on their behalf.

It was argued that each clan held a territory and its sacred sites through a charter, presented by the totemic ancestors, which they had never surrendered. The clan was said to have exclusive foraging rights over its territory. Unfortunately, the Yolngu testimony contradicted two elements of this account. Some clans had died out, and others had succeeded to their land. Rather than arguing for a legitimate mode of succession, the anthropologists suggested this was the consequence of warfare. While clans excluded others from their sacred sites, permission to forage elsewhere on their land was freely given. In his judgement against the Yolngu, Mr Justice Blackburn ruled that they had failed to satisfy two of the three legal criteria for ownership, which he identified as: first, the right to exclude others; and second, the right to alienate (which the Yolngu had disclaimed in arguing for an ancestral charter). He conceded that the third criterion, the right to use and enjoy, had been demonstrated in court.

This case had a considerable impact on anthropology as well as on Aboriginal rights, for shortly afterwards a new Federal Parliament decided to write a definition of Aboriginal land tenure into the legal system. It commissioned the lawyer who had represented the Yolngu and an anthropologist, Peterson, to research the basis of traditional land ownership and draft an Act of Parliament that would encapsulate it. The consequent Act of Parliament defined traditional Aboriginal landowners as members of a local descent group who have common spiritual affiliations to the land which place the group in a position of primary spiritual responsibility for sacred sites on that land. Claimants were also required to demonstrate that they foraged as of right over that land, and had retained their attachment to it despite the colonial impact. Given the technical nature of this definition, it was inevitable that anthropologists would be called upon as expert witnesses. Although the Act only applied in the Northern Territory, it provided a novel testing ground for anthropological expertise. Some of the insights into Aboriginal society gained, and aspects of the theoretical debates that ensued, have been published. Perhaps the most important of these has been recognition of temporal process in the constitution of social groups, despite the vicissitudes of colonization, finally breaking with the continuous present/mythic time model of Aboriginal social being perpetuated by Gillen. A related issue has been the recognition of Aboriginal traditional law in relation to court sentencing procedures.

The ‘Mabo’ or National Native Title legislation of 1993 and its subsequent revisions recognized for the first time that Aboriginal people had asserted rights to land before British colonization, and allowed Aboriginal groups who could prove continuity of tenure and distinct customs to claim recognition of their title, or compensation for loss of title. This has proved most difficult in heavily colonized areas. The Native Title legislation has also brought archaeologists into the courtroom, since oral testimony is considered insufficient to demonstrate continuity from pre-colonial times (Lilley 2000).

There are now a growing number of land claims and cases that have challenged and confronted the discipline of anthropology in Australia, including, for example, the Daniel v State of Western Australia (1999) in which the anthropologist’s primary research data in relation to Ngarluma and Yindijibarndi peoples was subpoenaed prior to the trial; Yorta Yorta and the judge’s criticism of particular anthropological evidence. Perhaps the most well-known land dispute is the Hindmarsh Island case. The Hindmarsh Bridge affair is pivotal to Australian Aboriginal rights as it not only coincided with the Mabo and Wik High Court cases regarding native title, but has had an ongoing impact on the field of anthropology and race relations (or ‘culture wars’) more broadly in Australia. The decade-long legal battle involved a group of Ngarrindjeri women’s claim that the building of a bridge between mainland South Australia and

Hindmarsh Island would directly impact upon their cultural heritage. The banning of the bridge in 1994 by the Federal Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs was based primarily on a consultancy conducted with key Ngarrindjeri women by anthropologist Deane Fergie, archeological survey work by Neal Draper and legal reporting by Cheryl Saunders (the commissioned lawyer). The ensuing debates about fabrication of ‘women’s business’, the ‘testing’ of beliefs, and nature of evidence led to a protracted and at times, bitter, legal battle (a Royal Commission and subsequent civil case in the Federal Court of Australia) that divided the anthropological community (Brunton 1999), legal circles, Aboriginal communities and non-indigneous commentators. The bridge was opened in 2000, despite the 2001 Federal Court judgement (Chapman v Luminis (no. 5)) that was critical of the Royal Commission and dismissed all legal claims filed by the developers. This case was the first in which an anthropologist was sued for professional capacity (Fergie 2004), and put the discipline of anthropology up to intense scrutiny and definition by courts of law. The fallout of the Hindmarsh dispute has made many anthropologists wary of making public pronouncements on Aboriginal issues, but see Altman and Hinkson (2007) and Sutton (2007).

Aboriginal empowerment

The growth of Aboriginal self-determination has had a substantial impact on the practice of anthropology in Australia. While resistance to assimilation has been exercized throughout the present century, it was only in the later 1960s that European Australians began to appreciate the difficulties of enforcing assimilation against sustained indigenous opposition. In 1963, The Australian Social Science Research Council sponsored a project to investigate the policy implications ‘arising from contacts between Aborigines and non-Aborigines’ which culminated in a three-volume publication by the political scientist C.D. Rowley; the first of which provided a detailed critique of the failure of assimilationist policy.

It could be argued that Aboriginal empowerment has been significantly enhanced by the symbolic national apology from the newly elected Australian Federal Government in 2008. However, it has also been severly hampered by the concurrent ‘national intervention’, a coalition of police, the army and others, in an attempt to curb unremitting violence and alcohol use in the Northern Territory. In critiquing structural or behavioural aspects of welfare and health policies and practices, anthropologists have been divided over their responses to this intervention (cf. Altman and Hinkson (2007); Sutton (2001, 2007)). It remains to be seen whether Aboriginal Australians will benefit from a national policy of ‘mutual obligation’ (introduced in 2004) in which many are required to fulfil specific contractual obligations to receive welfare payment or basic community infrastructure.

A more fundamental effect on anthropological practice has been felt as Aboriginal people have become aware of what anthropologists had written about them in the past. At least three anthropologists have been criticized for publishing material to which access is restricted by ritual sanctions. In two cases, the offending material has been withdrawn from publication. While archaeology has been the primary target, anthropology will not be able to escape an indigenous critique. Regrettably, some academics have interpreted these campaigns as a denial of scientific objectivity. Others, who have sustained cooperation with Aboriginal communities, have emphasized that this is not the case. The same issues are being confronted in North America.

Perhaps the most significant influence on the direction anthropological research takes in Australia over the next few years will come from Aboriginal people themselves. In addition to the well-established genre of Indigenous creative writing, there is a growing field of contemporary Aboriginal writing which critiques the marginalization and representations of Indigenous voices, and explicitly engages with constructions of race and nationhood in late 20th and early twenty-first century politics (cf. Anderson et al. 2004).

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