Monday 5 December 2011

Purposive killing - infanticide and euthanasia - among Australian Aborigines


This is a correction to a previous posting, in which I stated that past hunter gatherers would allow new born babies to die of exposure or neglect, and would abandon the elderly, but did not purposefully kill them.

It turns out I was mistaken, according to Australian Aborigines by James Dawson, published in 1881 by George Robertson of Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide and available online:

This is an account of several years collecting oral testimony in the native language by someone who was extremely sympathetic to Aborigines as stated in the introduction:

In recording my admiration of the general character of the aborigines, no attempt is made to palliate what may appear to us to be objectionable customs common to savages in nearly every part of the globe; but it may be truly said of them, that, with the exception of the low estimate they naturally place on life, their moral character and modesty—all things considered—compare favourably with those of the most highly cultivated communities of Europe. ... away from the means of intoxication, and were to listen to their guileless conversation, their humour and wit, and their expressions of honour and affection for one another, those who are disposed to look upon them as scarcely human would be compelled to admit that in general intelligence, common sense, integrity, and the absence of anything repulsive in their conduct, they are at least equal, if not superior, to the general run of white men..



Large families of children are unusual among the aborigines. However many may be born, rarely more than four are allowed to grow up. Five is considered a large number to rear.

Twins are as common among them as among Europeans; but as food is occasionally very scarce, and a large family troublesome to move about, it is lawful and customary to destroy the weakest twin child, irrespective of sex.

It is usual also to destroy those which are malformed.

Malformations, however, were so rare before the arrival of the white man that no instances could be remembered.

When a woman has children too rapidly for the convenience and necessities of the parents, she makes up her mind to let one be killed, and consults with her husband which it is to be. As the strength of a tribe depends more on males than females, the girls are generally sacrificed.

The child is put to death and buried, or burned without ceremony; not, however, by its father or mother, but by relatives. No one wears mourning for it.

Sickly children are never killed on account of their bad health, and are allowed to die naturally.



When old people become infirm, and unable to accompany the tribe in its wanderings, it is lawful and customary to kill them.

The reasons for this are—that they are a burden to the tribe, and, should any sudden attack be made by an enemy, they are the most liable to be captured, when they would probably be tortured and put to a lingering death.

When it has been decided to kill an aged member of the tribe, the relatives depute one of their number to carry out the decision. The victim is strangled with a grass rope, and the body, when cold, is burned in a large fire kindled in the neighbourhood. All his property is burned with him except rugs, weapons, and implements. In this cremation the sons and daughters and near relatives take part; and two or three friends collect the necessary firewood and attend to the fire.

This custom is recognised as a necessity. There is, therefore, no concealment practised with regard to it.

Very often the poor creatures intended to be strangled cry and beg for delay when they see preparations made for their death, but all in vain. The resolution is always carried out.



Reading this book on the Australian Aborigines, and another equally sympathetic account from 1845 -

- was an eye-opener in more ways than one; causing me to revise several beliefs about human nature.

Clearly, the bowdlerisation and sanitation of our knowledge about tribal peoples is far greater than even I had imagined.



Gyan said...

It makes the Aborigines only too rational and not at all pre-rational.

Bruce Charlton said...

It was not the point of this posting to argue about rationality, but the behaviour described is expedient rather than rational.

Of course it is not entirely devoid of rationality, but mostly it resembles the kind of thing observed across the animal kingdom and among (unsupervised) children - which is my point.