Make your own free website on

It's All About the Culture

Sharp--"Steel Axes for Stone Age Australians"
Cultural Anthropology
Physical Anthropology
Violence and Culture

Steel Axes for StoneAge Australians

by Lauriston Sharp

From Human Organization 1 /1952


Like other Australian aboriginals, the Yir Yoront group which at the mouth of the Coleman River

on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula originally had no knowledge of metals.

Technologically their culture was of the old stone age or paleolithic type. They supported

themselves by hunting and fishing, and obtained vegetables and other materials from the bush by

simple gathering techniques. Their only domesticated animal was dog; they had no cultivated

plants of any kind. Unlike some other aboriginal groups, however, the Yir Yoront did have

polished stone axes hafted in short handles which were most import in their economy.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century metal tools and other European artifacts began to filter

into the Yir Yoront territory. The flow increased with the gradual expansion of the white frontier

outward from southern and eastern Queensland. Of all the items of western technology thus

made available, the hatchet, or short handled steel axe, was the most acceptable to and the most

highly valued by all aboriginals.

In the mid 1930s an American anthropologist lived alone in bush among the Yir Yoront for

thirteen months without seeing another white man. The Yir Yoront were thus still relatively

isolated and continued to live an essentially independent economic existence, supporting

themselves entirely by means of their old stone age techniques. Yet their ploished stone axes

were disappearing fast and being replaced by steel axes which came to them in considerable

numbers, directly or indirectly, from various European sources to the south.

What changes in the life of the Yir Yoront still living under aboriginal conditions in the

Australian bush could be expectecing a result of their increasing, possession and use of the steel

axe ?

II The course of events

Events leading up to the introduction of the steel axe among the Yir Yoront begin with the advent

of the second known group of Europeans to reach the shores of the Australian continent

In 1623 a Dutch expedition landed on the coast where the Yir Yoront now live 1. In 1935 the Yir

Yoront were still using the few cultural items recorded in the Dutch log for the aboriginals they

encountered. To this cultural inventory the Dutch added beads and pieces of iron which they

offered in an effort to attract the frightened “Indians.” Among these natives metal and beads have

disappeared, together with any memory, of this first encounter with whites.

The next recorded contact in this area was in 1864. Here there is more positive assurance that the

natives concerned were the immediate ancestors of the Yir Yoront community. These aboriginals

had the temerity to attack a party of cattle men who were driving a small herd from southern

Queensland throughthe length of the then unknown Cape York Peninsula to a newly established

government station at the northern tip 2. Known as the “Battle of the Mitchell River”, this was

one of the rare instances in which Australian aboriginals stood up to European gunfire for any

length of time. A diary kept by the cattlemen records that:

“. . . ten carbines fired volley after volley info them from directions, killing and wounding with

every shot with very little return, nearly all their spears having already been expended. About

thirty being killed, the leader thought it prudent to hold his hand, and let the rest escape. Many

more must have been wounded and probably drowned, for fifty–nine rounds were counted as


The European party was in the Yir Yoront area for three days; they then disappeared over the,

horizon to the north and never returned. In the almost threeyearlong anthropological

investigation conducted some seventy years later in all the material of hundreds of free

association interviews, in texts of hundreds of dreams and myths, in genealogies, and eventually,

in hundreds of answers to direct and indirect questioning on just this particular matter there

was nothing that could be interpreted as a reference to this shocking contact with Europeans. The

aboriginal accounts of their first remembered contact with whites begin in about 1900 with

references to persons known to have had sporadic but lethal encounters with them. From that

time on whites continued to remain on the southern periphery of Yir Yoront territory. With the

establishment of cattle stations [ranches] to the south, cattle men made occasional excursions

among the “wild blackfellows” in order to inspect the country and abduct natives to be trained

as cattle boys and “house girls.” At least one such expedition reached the Coleman River where a

number of Yir Yoront men and women were shot for no apparent reason.

About this time the government was persuaded to sponsor the establishment of three mission

stations along the sevenhundredmile western coast of the Peninsula in an attempt to kelp

regulate the treatment of natives. To further this purpose a strip of coastal territory was set aside

as an aboriginal reserve and closed to further white settlement.

In 1915, an Anglican mission station was established near the mouth of the Mitchell River, about

a threeday march from the heart of the Yir Yoront country. Some Yir Yoront refused to have

anything to do with the mission, others visited it occasionally, while only a few eventually

settled more or less permanently in one of the three “villages” established at the mission.

Thus the majority of the Yir Yoront continued to live their old selfsupporting life in the bush,

protected until 1942 by the government reserve and the intervening mission from the cruder

realities of the encroaching new order from the south. To the east was poor, uninhabited country.

To the north were other bush tribes extending on along the coast to the distant Archer River

Presbyterian mission with which the Yir Yoront had no contact. Westward was the shallow Gulf

of Carpentaria on which the natives saw only a mission lugger making its infrequent dry season

trips to the Mitchell River. In this protected environment for over a generation the Yir Yoront

were able to recuperate from shocks received at the hands of civilised society. During the 1930s

their raiding and fighting, their trading and stealing of women, their evisceration and twoor

threeyear care of their dead, and their totemic ceremonies continued, apparently uninhibited by

western influence. In 1931 they killed a European who wandered into their territory from the

east, but the investigating police never approached the group whose members was responsible

for the act.

As a direct result of the work of the Mitchell River mission all Yir Yoront received a great many

more western artifacts all kinds than ever before. As part of their plan for raising nativ living

standards, the missionaries made it possible for aboriginals living at the mission to earn some

western goods, many of which were then given or traded to natives still living under bush

conditions; they also handed out certain useful articles gratis to both mission and bush

aboriginals. They prevented guns, liquor and damaging narcotics, as well as decimating diseases,

from reaching the tribes of this area, while encouraging the introduction of goods they

considered “improving.” As has been noted, no item of western technology available, with the

possible exception of trade tobacco, was in greater demand among all groups of aboriginals than

the short handled steel axe. The mission always kept a good supply of these axes in stock; at

Christmas parties other mission festivals they were given away to mission or visiting aboriginals

indiscriminately and in considerable numbers. In addition, some steel axes as well as other

European go 1 were still traded in to the Yir Yoront by natives in contact with cattle stations in

the south. Indeed, steel axes had probably come to the Yir Yoront through established lines of

aboriginal trade long before any regular contact with whites had occurred.

III Relevant Factors

If we concentrate our attention on Yir Yoront behavior centering about the original stone axe

[rather than on the axe the object itself] as a cultural trait or item of cultural equipment we

should get some conception of the role this implement played in aboriginal culture. This, in turn,

should enable us to foresee with considerable accuracy some of the results stemming from the

displacement of the stone axe by the steel axe.

The production of a stone axe required a number of simple technological skills. With the various

details of the axe well in mind, adult men could set about producing it [a task not considered

appropriate for women and children]. First of all a man had to know the location and properties

of several natural resources found in his immediate environment: pliable wood for a handle,

which could be doubled or bent over the axe head and bound tightly; bark, which could be rolled

into a cord for the binding; and gum, to fix the stonehead in the halt. These materials had to be

correctly gathered, stored, prepared, cut to size and applied or manipulated. They were in

plentiful supply, and could be taken from anyones property without special permission.

Postponing consideration of stone head, the axe could be made by any normal man who had a

simple knowledge of nature and of the technological skills involved, together with fire [for

heating the gum], and a few simple cutting tools perhaps the sharp shells of plentiful bivalves.

The use of the stone axe as a piece of capital equipment used in producing other goods indicates

its very great importance to the subsistence economy of the aboriginal. Anyone man, woman,

or child could use the axe; indeed, it was used primarily by men, for theirs was the task of

obtaining sufficient wood to keep the family campfire burning all day, for cooking or other

purposes, and all night against mosquitoes and cold [for in July, winter temperature might drop

below 40 degrees]. In a normal lifetime a woman would use the axe to cut or knock down

literally tons of firewood. The axe was also used to make other tools or weapons, and a variety of

material equipment required by the aboriginal in his daily life. The stone axe was essential in the

construction of the wet season domed huts which keep out some rain and some insects; of

platforms which provide dry storage; of shelters which give shade in the dry summer when days

are bright and hot. In hunting and fishing and in gathering vegetable or animal food the axe was

also a necessary tool, and in this tropical culture, where preservatives or other means of store are

lacking, the natives spend more time obtaining food than in any other occupation–––except

sleeping. In only two instances was the use of the stone axe strictly limited to adult men: for

gathering wild honey, the most prized food known to the Yir Yoront; and for making the secret

paraphernalia for ceremonies. From this brief listing of some of the activities involving the use of

the axe, it is easy to understand why there was at least one axe in every camp, in every hunting or

fighting party, and in every group out on a “walkabout” in the bush.

The stone axe was also prominent in interpersonal relations.

Yir Yoront men were dependent upon interpersonal relations for their stone axe heads, since the

flat, geologicallyrecent, alluvial country over which they range provides no suitable stone for

this purpose. The stone they use came from quarries for hundred miles to the south reaching the

Yir Yoront through long lines of male trading partners. Some of these chains terminated with the

Yir Yoront men, others extended on farther north to other groups, using Yir Yoront men as links.

Almost every older adult man had one or more regular trading partners, some to the north some

to the south. He provided his partner or partners in the south with surplus spears, particularly

fighting spears tipped with the barbed spines of a sting ray which snap into vicious fragments

when they penetrate human flesh.

For a dozen such spears, some of which he may have obtained from a partner the north, he would

receive one stone axe head. Studies has shown that the sting ray barb spears increased in value as

they move south and farther from the sea. One hundred and fifty ! miles south of Yir Yoront one

such spear may be exchanged one stone axe head. Although actual investigations could not

made, it was presumed that farther south, nearer the quarries one sting ray barb spear would

bring several stone axe heads

Apparently people who acted as links in the middle of the chain and who made neither spears nor

axe heads would receive certain number of each as a middlemans profile.

Thus trading relations, which may extend the individual personal relationships beyond that of his

own group, were associated with spears and axes, two of the most important items! in a mans

equipment. Finally most of the exchanges took place during the dry season, at the time of the

great aboriginal celebrations centering about initiation rites or other totemic ceremonies which

attracted hundreds and were the occasion for much exciting activity in addition to trading.

Returning to the Yir Yoront, we find that adult men kept axes in camp with their other

equipment, or carried them when travelling. Thus a woman or child who wanted to use an axe as

might frequently happen during the dayhad to get one from a man, use it promptly, and return it

in good condition. While a man might speak of “my axe,” a woman or child could not

This necessary and constant borrowing of axes from older men! by women and children was in

accordance with regular path of kinship behavior. A woman would expect to use her husbands

axe unless he himself was using it; if unmarried, or if her husband was absent, a woman would

go first to her older brother! and then to her father. Only in extraordinary circumstances would a

woman seek a stone axe from other male kin.! A girl, a boy, or a young man would look to a

father or an older brother to provide an axe.

It will be noted that all of these social relationships in which the stone axe had a place are pair

relationships and that the use of the axe helped to define and mantain their character and the

roles of the two individual participants. Every active relationship gong the Yir Yoront involved a

definite and accepted status of superordination or subordination.A person could have no dealings

with another on exactly equal terms. The nearest approach to equality was between brothers,

although the older was always superordinate to the younger.

Since the exchange of goods in a trading relationship involved a mutual reciprocity, ! trading

partners usually stood in a brotherly type of relationship, although one was always classified as

older than the other and would have home advantage, in case of dispute.

It can be seen that repeated d widespread conduct centering around the use of the axe helped

generalize and standardize these. sex, age, and kinship roles! in their normal benevolent and

exceptional malevolent aspects. The status of any individual Yir Yoront was determined not only

by sex, age, and extended kin relationships, but also by membership in one of two dozen

patrilineal totemic clans into! which the entire community was divided 3. Each clan had literally

hundreds of totems, from one or two of which the Clan derived its name, and the Clan members

their personal names. These totems included natural species or phenomena such as the sun, stars

and daybreak, as well as cultural “species”: imagined ghosts, rainbow serpents, heroic ancestors;

such eternal cultural verities as fires, spears, huts; and such human activities, conditions, or

attributes as eating, vomiting, swimming, fighting, babies and corpses, milk and blood, lips and

loins. While individual members of such totemic classes or species might disappear or be

destroyed, the class itself was obviously everpresent and indestructible. The totems, therefore,

lent a permanence and ability to the Clans, to the groupings of human individuals who generation

after generation were each associated with a set of ms which distinguished one clan from


The stone axe was one of the most important of the many totems of the Sunlit Cloud Iguana

Clan. The names of many members of this Clan referred to the axe itself, to activities in which

the axe played a vital part, or to the clans mythical ancestors with whom the axe was

prominently associated. When it was necessary to represent the stone axe in totemic ceremonies,

only! men of this Clan exhibited it or pantomimed its use. In secular life, the axe could be made

by any man and used by all; but in the sacred realm of the totems it belonged exclusively to the

Sunlit Cloud Iguana people.

Supporting those aspects of cultural behavior which we have called technology and conduct, is a

third area of culture which! includes ideas, sentiments, and values.

These are most difficult to deal with, for they are latent and covert, and even unconscious and

must be deduced from overt actions and language or other communicating behavior.

In this aspect of the culture lies the significance of the stone axe to the Yir Yoront and to cultural

way of life.

The stone axe was an important symbol of masculinity am the Yir Yoront [just as pants, or pipes,

are to us]. By a complicated set of ideas the axe was defined as “belonging” to males, everyone

in the society [except untrained infants] accepted these ideas. Similarly spears, spear throwers,

and firemaking sticks were owned only by men and were also symbols of masculinity. But the

masculine values represented by the stone axe w constantly being impressed on all members of

society by the that females borrowed axes but not other masculine artifacts Thus the axe stood

for an important theme of Yir Yoront : the superiority and rightful dominance of the male, and

greater value of his concerns and of all things associated . him. As the axe also had to be

borrowed by the younger people it represented the prestige of age, another important theme ring

through Yir Yoront behavior.

To understand the Yir Yoront culture it is necessary t aware of a system of ideas which may be

called their totemic ideology. A fundamental belief of the aboriginal divided into two great

epochs: [1] a distant and sacred period at. beginning of the world when the earth was peopled by

mildly marvelous ancestral beings or culture heroes who are in a sense the forebears of the clans;

and [2] a period when the old was succeeded by a new order which includes the present.

Originally there was no anticipation of another era supplanting the present. The future would

simply be an eternal continuation and reproduction of the present which itself had remained

unchanged since the epochal revolution of ancestral times.

The important thing to note is that the aboriginal believed the present world, as a natural and

cultural environment,! was and should be simply a detailed reproduction of the world of the

ancestors. He believed that the entire universe “is now as it was in the beginning” when it was

established as left by the ancestors. The ordinary cultural life of the ancestors became the daily

life of the Yir Yoront camps, and the extraordinary life of the ancestors remained extant in the

recurring symbolic pantomimes and paraphernalia found only in the most sacred atmosphere of

the totemic rites.

Such beliefs, accordingly, opened the way for ideal of what it should be [because it supposedly

was] to influence or help determine what actually is. A man Galled

Dogchasesiguanaupatreeandbarksathimallnightlong had that and other names

because he believed his ancestral alter ego had also had them; he was a member of the Sunlit

Cloud Iguana Clan because his ancestor was; he was associated with particular countries and!

totems of this same ancestor; during an initiation he played the role of a dog and symbolically

attacked and killed certain members of other Clans because his ancestor [conveniently either

anthropomorphic or kynomorphic] really lid the same to the ancestral alter egos of these men;

and he would avoid his motherinlaw, joke with a mothers distant brother, and make spears in

a certain way because his and other peoples ancestors did these things. His behavior in these

specific ways was outlined, and to ! that extent determined for him, by a set of ideal concerning

the past and the relation of the present to the past.

But when we are informed that Dogchasesetc. had two wives from the Spear Black Duck Clan

and one from the Native Companion Clan, one of them being blind, that he had four children

with such and such names, that he had a broken wrist and was left handed, all because his

ancestor had exactly these same attributes, then we know [though he apparently didnt] that the

present has influenced the past, that the mythical world has been somewhat adjusted to meet the

exigencies and accidents of the inescapably real present.

There was thus in Yir Yoront ideology a nice balance in which the mythical was adjusted in part

to the real world, the real world in part to the ideal preexisting mythical world, the adjustments

occurring to maintain a fundamental tenet of native! faith that the present must be a mirror of the

past. Thus the stone axe in all its respects, uses, and associations was integrated into the context

of Yir Yoront technology and conduct because a myth, a set of as, had put it there.

IV The Outcome

The introduction of the steel axe indiscriminately and in large numbers into the Yir

Yoront technology occurred simultaneously with many other changes. It is therefor

impossible to separate all the results of this single innovation. Nevertheless, a

number of specific effects of the change from stone to steel axes may be end the

steel axe may be used as an epitome of the increasing quantity of European goods

and implements received by the aboriginals and of their general influence on the

native culture. The use of the steel axe to illustrate such influence would seem to

be justified. It was one of the first European artifacts to be adopted for regular use

by the Yir Yoront whether made of stone or steel, the axe was clearly one of the

most important items of cultural equipment they possessed.

The shift from stone to steel axes provided no major technology cal difficulties.

While the aboriginals themselves could not manufacture steel axe heads, a steady

supply from the outside continued; broken wooden handles could easily be

replaced from bush timbers with aboriginal tools. Among the Yir Yoront the axe

was never used to the extent it was on mission or cattle stations [for carpentry

work, pounding tent pegs, as a hammer and so on]; indeed, it had so few more uses

than the stone that its practical effect on the native standard of living was

negligible. It did some jobs better, and could be used longer without breakage.

These factors were sufficient to make it value to the native. The white man

believed that a shift from steel to stone axe on his part would be a definite

regression. He was convinced that his axe was much more efficient, that its would

save time, and that it therefore represented technical “progress” towards goals

which he had set up for the native. But this assumption was hardly born out in

aboriginal practical Any leisure time the Yir Yoront might gain by using steel axe

or other western tools was not invested in “improving the conditions of life,” nor,

certainly, in developing aesthetic activity but in sleepan art they had mastered


Previously, a man in need of an axe would acquire a stone head through regular

trading partners from whom he knew w to expect, and was then dependent solely

upon a known adequate natural environment, and his own skills or easily acquired

techniques. A man wanting a steel axe, however, wasno such selfreliant

position. If he attended a mission festival when steel axes were handed out as gifts,

he might receive either by chance or by happening to impress upon the missstaff

that he was one of the “better” bush aboriginals missionaries definition of “better”

being quite different that of his bush fellows]. Or, again almost by pure chance,

might get some brief job in connection with the mission w would enable him to

earn a steel axe. In either case, for older men a preference for the steel axe helped

change the situation from one of selfreliance to one of dependence, and a shift in

behavior from wellstructured or defined situations in technology conduct to

illdefined situations in conduct alone. Among the n, the older ones whose earlier

experience or knowledge of white mans harshness made them suspicious were

particularly careful to avoid having relations with the mission, and thus included

themselves from acquiring steel axes from that source.

In other aspects of conduct or social relations, the steel axe was even more

significantly at the root of psychological stress among the Yir Yoront. This was the

result of new factors which missionary considered beneficial]: the simple

numerical increase in axes per capita as a result of mission distribution, and

distribution directly to younger men, women, and even children. By winning the

favor of the mission staff, a woman might be en a steel axe which was clearly

intended to be hers, thus creating ting a situation quite different from the previous

custom which necessitated her borrowing an axe from a male relative.

As a result a woman would refer to the axe as “mine,” a possessive form she was

never able to use of the stone axe. In same fashion, young men or even boys also

obtained steel directly from the mission, with the result that older men no longer

had a complete monopoly of all the axes in the bush unity. All this led to a

revolutionary confusion of sex, age, kinship roles, with a major gain in

independence and loss of information on the part of those who now owned steel

axes n they had previously been unable to possess stone axes.

The trading partner relationship was also affected by the new situation. A Yir

Yoront might have a trading partner in a tribe to south whom he defined as a

younger brother and over whom he would therefore have some authority. But if the

partner were in contact with the mission or had other access to steel axes, his

subordination obviously decreased. Among other things, this took some of the

excitement away from the dry season fiestalike gatherings centering around

initiations. These had traditionally been the climactic annual occasions for

exchanges between trading partners, when a man might seek to acquire a whole

years supply of stone axe heads. Now he might find himself, prostituting his wife

to almost total strangers in return for steel or other white mans goods. With

trading partnerships ended, there was less reason to attend the ceremonies and

less fun for those who did.

Not only did an increase in steel axes and their distribution to women change the

character of the relations between individuals [the paired relationships that have

been noted], but a previously rare type of relationship was created in the Yir

Yoronts conduct toward whites. In the aboriginal society there were few occasion

outside of the immediate family when an individual would initiate action to several

other people at once. In any average group, in accordance with the kinship system,

while a person might be superordinate to several people to whom he could suggest

a1 command action, he was also subordinate to several others with whom such

behavior would be tabu. There was thus no overall chieftanship or authoritarian

leadership of any kind. Such complicated operations as grassburning animal

drives or totemic ceremonies could be carried out smoothly because each person

was aware of his role.

On both mission and cattle stations, however, the whites imposed their conception

of leadership roles upon the aborigines consisting of one person in a controlling

relationship with subordinate group. Aboriginals called together to receive gifts

including axes, at a mission Christmas party found themselves facing one or two

whites who sought to control their behavior the occasion, who disregarded the age,

sex, and kinship variables of which the aboriginals were so conscious, and

consideredthem all at one subordinate level. The white sought to impose similar

patterns on work parties. [However, he placed an aboriginal in charge of a mixed

group of postdiggers, for example, half of the group those subordinate to “boss,”

would work while the other half, who were superordinate to him, would sleep.] For

the aboriginal, the steel axe and European goods came to symbolize this new and

uncomfortable form of social organization, the leadergroup relationship.

The most disturbing effects of the steel axe, operating conjunction with other

elements also being introduced from white mans several subcultures, developed

in the realm traditional ideas, sentiments, and values. These were undermined at a

rapidly mounting rate, with no new conceptions defined to replace them. The result

was the erection of a mental and moral void which foreshadowed the collapse and

destruction of all Yir Yoront culture, if not, indeed, the extinction of biological

group itself.

From what has been said it should be clear how changes in overt behavior, in

technology and conduct, weakened the v inherent in a reliance on nature, in the

prestige of masculinity and of age, and in the various kinship relations. A scene

was in which a wife, or a young son, whose initiation may not have been

completed, need no longer defer to the husband or father who, in turn, became

confused and insecure as he was forced to borrow a steel axe from them. For the

woman and boy the steel axe helped establish a new degree of freedom which they

accepted readily as an escape from the unconscious stress of the old patternsbut

they, too, were left confused and insecure. Ownership became less well defined

with the result that stealing and trespassing were introduced into technology and

conduct. Some of the excitement surrounding the great ceremonies evaporated and

they lost their previous gaiety and interest. Indeed, life itself became less

interesting, although this did not lead the Yir Yoront to discover suicide, a concept

foreign to them.

The whole process may be most specifically illustrated in terms of totemic system,

which also illustrates the significant role played by a system of ideal, in this case a

totemic ideology, in the breakdown of a culture.

In the first place, under preEuropean aboriginal conditions where the native

culture has become adjusted to a relatively stable environment, few, if any,

unheard of or catastrophic crises can occur. It is clear, therefore; that the totemic

system serves very effectively in inhibiting radical cultural changes. The closed

system of totemic ideas explaining and categorizing a wellknown universe as it

was fixed at the beginning of time, presents considerable obstacle to the adoption

of new or the dropping of culture traits. The obstacle is not insurmountable and the

system allows for the minor variations, which occur, in the normal daily life. But

the inception of major changes cannot easily take place.

Among the bush Yir Yoront the only means of water transport a light wood log to

which they cling in their constant swimming of rivers, salt creeks, and tidal inlets.

These natives know that tribes 45 miles further north have a bark canoe. They

know these northern tribes can thus fish from midstream or out at sea, instead of

clinging to the river banks and beaches, that they can cross coastal waters infested

with crocodiles, sharks, sting rays and Portuguese menofwar without danger.

They know the materials of which the canoe is made exist in their own

environment. They also know, as they say, that they do not have canoes because

their own mythical ancestors did not have them. They assume that the canoe was

part of the ancestral universe of northern tribes. For them, then, the adoption of the

canoe could not be simply a matter of learning a number of new behavioral skills

for its manufacture and use. The adoption would require a much more difficult

procedure; the acceptance by the entire society of a myth, either locally developed

or borrowed, to explain the presence of the canoe, to associate it with some one or

more of the several hundred mythical ancestors [and how decide which?], and thus

establish it as an accepted totem of ore of the clans ready to be used by the whole

community. The Yir Yoront have not made this adjustment, and in this case we can

1 only say that for the time being at least, ideas have won out over very real

pressures for technological change. In the elaborateness y and explicitness of the

totemic ideologies we seem to have ore explanation for the notorious stability of

Australian cultures under aboriginal conditions, an explanation which gives due

weight to the importance of ideas in determining human behavior.

At a later stage of the contact situation, as has been indicated, t phenomena

unaccounted for by the totemic ideological system begin to appear with regularity

and frequency and remain within the range of native experience. Accordingly, they

cannot be ignored [as the “Battle of the Mitchell” was apparently ignored], and

there is an attempt to assimilate them and account for them along the lines of

principles inherent in the ideology. The bush Yir Yoront of the midthirties

represent this stage of the acculturation process. Still trying to maintain their

aboriginal definition of the situation, they accept European artifacts and behavior

patterns, but fit them into their totemic system, assigning them to various clans on

a par with original totems. There is an attempt to have the mythmaking process

keep up with these cultural changes so that the idea system can continue to support

the rest of the culture. But analysis of overt behavior, of dreams, and of some of

the new myths indicates that this arrangement is not entirely satisfactory, that the

native clings to his tote system with intellectual loyalty [lacking any substitute

ideology], but that associated sentiments and values are weakened. ~H attitudes

towards his own and found to be highly ambivalent.

All ghosts are totems of the HeadtotheEast Corpse clan, are thought of as

white, and are of course closely associated with death. The white man, too, is

closely associated with death, and he and all things pertaining to him are naturally

assigned to the Corpse clan as totems. The steel axe, as a totem, was the associated

with the Corpse clan. But as an “axe,” clearly linked with the stone axe, it is a

totem of the Sunlit Cloud Iguana clan. Moreover, the steel axe, like most European

goods, has no distinctive origin myth, nor are mythical ancestors associated with it.

Can anyone, sitting in the shade of a ti tree one afternoon create a myth to resolve

this confusion? No one has, and horrid suspicion arises as to the authenticity of the

origin myths, which failed to take into account this vast new universe of the white

man. The steel axe, shifting hopelessly between one clan and the other, is not only

replacing the stone axe physically, but it is hacking at the supports of the entire

cultural system.

The aboriginals to the south of the Yir Yoront have clearly passed beyond this

stage. They are engulfed by European culture, either by the mission or cattle

station subcultures or, for some natives, by a baffling, paradoxical combination of

both incongruent varieties. The totemic ideology can no longer support the

inrushing mass of foreign culture traits, and the mythmaking process in its native

form breaks down completely. Both intellectually and emotionally a saturation

point is reached so that the myriad new traits, which can neither be ignored nor any

longer assimilated simply force the aboriginal to abandon his totemic system. With

the collapse of this system of ideas, which is so closely related to so many other

aspects of the native culture, there follows an appallingly sodden and complete

cultural disintegration, and a demoralization of the individual such as has seldom

been recorded elsewhere. Without the support of a system of ideas well devised to

provide cultural stability in a stable environment, but admittedly too rigid for the

new realities pressing in from outside, native behavior and native sentiments and

values are simply dead. Apathy reigns. The aboriginal has passed beyond the realm

of any outsider who might wish to do him well or ill.

Returning from the broken natives huddled on cattle stations or on the fringes of

frontier towns to the ambivalent but still lively aboriginals settled on the Mitchell

River mission, we note one further devious result of the introduction of European

artifacts. During a wet season stay at the mission, the anthropologist discovered

that his supply of toothpaste was being depleted at an alarming rate. Investigation

showed that it was being taken by old men for use in a new toothpaste cult. Old

materials of magic having failed, new materials were being tried out in a

malevolent magic directed towards the mission staff and come of the young

aboriginal men. Old males, largely ignored by the missionaries, were seeking to

regain some of their lost power and prestige.

This mild aggression proved hardly effective, but perhaps only because confidence

in any kind of magic on the mission was by this time at a low ebb.

For the Yir Yoront still in the bush, a time could be predicted when personal

deprivation and frustration in a confused culture would produce an overload of

anxiety. The mythical part of the totemic ancestors would disappear as a guarantee

of a present of which the future was supposed to be a stable continuation.

Without the past, the present could be meaningless and the future unstructured and

uncertain. Insecurities would be inevitable. Reaction to this stress might be some

form of symbolic aggression, or withdrawal and apathy, or some more realistic

approach. In such a situation the missionary with understanding of the processes

going on about him would find his opportunity to introduce his forms of religion

and to help create a new cultural universe.

3 R. Lauriston Sharp, “Tribes and totemism in Northeast Australia” Oceania vol. 8 [1939],pp 254 275, 439461

[esp. 268 275]

Better Living Through Anthropology