Totemic Ceremonial in Arnhem Land, Australia


    DR. DONALD F. THOMSON, who was specially commissioned by the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia to investigate conditions among the aborigines of the Northern Territory during 1936–7, has collected much information relating to the customs and beliefs of the tribes of Arnhem Land, shown in numerous papers published in scientific periodicals and elsewhere since his return to England. He has obtained evidence, for example, running counter to the opinion, long generally accepted, that the indigenous peoples of Australia had been virtually free from external influence after their settlement there. It is now accepted, however, that influence from the north entered the continent at York Peninsula by way of Torres Strait; and Dr. Thomson finds in the use of wool or fabric to represent the hair of a dog in totemic ceremonial evidence of intercourse with early Malayan or Macassar voyagers, by whom this greatly valued material was brought to the area. Although the dog, which forms the central figure in a remarkable totemic ceremonial witnessed by Dr. Thomson and described by him (Illustrated London News, August 12), has been assimilated by the natives to the Australian dingo, it bears unmistakable evidence of an external origin, while the rites differ in many ways from the typical Australian totemic ceremonies. The ritual performance re-enacts in pantomime the myth of the original pair of ‘dog’ ancestors, who sank in the mud and were overwhelmed by the sea in trying to reach a stranded whale. Finally, they were turned into a great rock, whence now come the baby spirits of members of the clan who enter the mother at pregnancy. In the totemic ceremony, the figure of a dog, which has been constructed by the old men in secret, after giving birth to puppies—an event symbolized by cutting off the hindquarters—is carried along a road while members of the tribe imitate both the gait of puppies and the struggles of the original pair when caught in the mud. One of the tribal totems is a representation of a ‘square-face’ gin bottle carved in wood.

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    Totemic Ceremonial in Arnhem Land, Australia. Nature 144, 319 (1939).

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