Debate Magazine

Aboriginal “Religion” & Ethnohistory

By Cris

While having lunch with a friend yesterday, he asked what I had been doing this summer. I had to confess that other than a wondrous trip to Bear Butte and lands of the Lakota, the most exciting thing was an effort to fill some significant gaps in my knowledge of Australian Aborigines. I have a hypothesis about the evolution of cognition and animist worldviews, but the hypothesis needs to be tested with larger samples: it can’t stand on a hunter-gatherer Record limited to Native Americans, Siberians, and Bushmen.

While I’ve done a fair amount of reading about Aborigines, most of it has been derivative and interested. For nearly 150 years, anthropologists and sociologists have mistakenly viewed Aborigines as pristine exemplars of the evolutionary past and used Aboriginal materials to advance their pet theories. This use and abuse of materials has been most egregious when it comes to theories of religion. Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade are the prime offenders (though there are others, such as the God-monotheism obsessed Wilhelm Schimdt). These are not reliable sources for Aboriginal ethnohistory or “religion.”

With these considerations in mind, I told my friend that I’ve embarked on an Aborigine reading program, beginning with these books:

Hiatt’s book may be too technical and dry for most but it superbly documents the ways in which Aboriginal ethnohistory has developed (and been distorted) in conjunction with the history of anthropology-sociology. Though I’ve just started the others and will report on them over the coming weeks, I’m particularly excited about the Blainey and Swain books. Contrary to standard narratives about “primitives,” Blainey treats Aborigines as superbly adapted people rather than groups that somehow stalled during the fictitious course of cultural evolution. Swain’s book, which treats Aboriginal worldviews, is routinely cited and mentioned by scholars who are expert in Aboriginal ethnohistory.

One thing that stands out thus far is that “Aborigines” is (like “Native Americans”) a misleading term. There are no singular or essential Aborigines. There were and are many diverse groups of Aborigines. They were spread widely across an enormous and ecologically diverse continent, making their livings in different ways, and speaking over 600 different languages. Given this diversity, we should not expect there to be a singular or essential Aboriginal worldview or “religion.” Any scholar who claims to have parsed such a singularity (i.e., “totemic” or “Dreaming”) is probably doing so for interested reasons.


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