Monday 5 December 2011

The religious practices of Australian Aborigines


I read two books on Australian Aborigines written in the 19th century, hoping to find contemporary accounts of the 'songlines' - the idea that they were able to navigate across deserts by means of songs which contained the major landmarks in proper order, and also the myths about totem animals and how these landmarks had been formed.

I found no such information nor any reference to problems of navigation in the bush; but there was this curious account of the religious life of Aborigines in the early 1800s, which is consistent with my characterisation of (most, simple, immediate-return) hunter gatherers as 'pre-rational' made in this posting:


From Edward John Eyre. Journals of expeditions of discovery into Central Australia, and overland from Adelaide to King George's Sound in the years 1840-1 (etc). Volume II. T*W Boone: London, 1845:

The natives of New Holland, as far as yet can be ascertained, have no religious belief or ceremonies. A Deity, or great First Cause, can hardly be said to be acknowledged, and certainly is not worshipped by this people, who ascribe the creation to very inefficient causes.

They state that some things called themselves into existence, and had the property of creating others.

But upon all subjects of this nature their ideas are indistinct and indefinite, as they are not naturally a reasoning people, and by no means given to the investigation of causes or their effects; hence, if you inquire why they use such and such ceremonies, they reply, our fathers did so, and we do it; or why they believe so and so, our fathers told us it was so.

They are not fond of entering upon abstruse subjects, and when they are induced to do it, it is more than possible, from our imperfect acquaintance with their language, and total ignorance of the character and bent of their thoughts upon such points, that we are very likely to misunderstand and misrepresent their real opinions.

It appears to me that different tribes give a different account of their belief, but all generally so absurd, so vague, unsatisfactory, and contradictory, that it is impossible at present to say with any certainty what they really believe, or whether they have any independent belief at all.


COMMENT:  The examples (see continuation of the above passage) sound to me much like the kind of ad hoc accounts that can be elicited from young children concerning adult topics that hold little interest for them, and about which they have never thought nor been formally taught: the sort of answers reluctantly given to questions which are not understood if an adult presses for some kind of response. 


1 comment:

Bruce Charlton said...

I suspect that the idea of using Australian Aborigines in terms of evolutionary theorizing is likely to be misleading.

The current theories state that the Australian Aborigines split off from the rest of humans about 50,000 years ago - about 2000 human generations - so it would be expected that some differences were large (although there has been some gene mixing since Europeans arrived in Australia).

From reviewing the literature, Jason Malloy estimates Aborigine IQ as around two standard deviations below European:

Another difference (also mentioned by Malloy) is that Aborigines seem to have some superior visual-spatial memory than Europeans -

In sum, the general cognitive 'set-up' of Australian Aborigines may be substantially different from most other humans, such that what explains one may not explain the others.