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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

A never-ending short story: Australia, land of anthropologists

Laurent Dousset

Texte intégral

1August 2009

2In many respects, Australia was the continent of the most imaginative worlds and the strongest hopes even before the European navigators discovered it. Considered as an inevitable counterbalance to the weight of the landmass of the northern hemisphere since the times of Pythagoras, its existence was first imagined and later “confirmed” from 1477 onwards by Marco Polo’s travel stories which reporting the existence of a land named Locac, abounding in wealth, situated 1,000 miles to the south of Java. “Confirmed” also by the 16th century biblical interpretations of the voyages of King Solomon’s ships that had travelled to the country of Ophir and that had returned laden with gold, allowing the temple’s construction. It was assumed that Ophir was situated in the Pacific. “Confirmed” by the advisors of the Spanish crown, when Juan Luis Aris of Loyola wrote to King Philip III (1578-1621) stating that the southern part of the landmass must be as fertile and habitable as the northern hemisphere. Finally, “confirmed” by utopian writers such as Gabriel de Foigny who, in 1676, published a monograph of an Australia that was completely imaginary and fantastical.

3Implacable logic, this imagined continent of the other hemisphere, and the size of ageing Europe, also had to mirror similar environments, climates, civilisations and wealth – allowing Europeans to be carried away by their own dreams – superior to even those of the West at the time. The not-yet-discovered-Australia became the dream, or even the fantasy of a Europe that was trying to find itself.

4There were many adventures that accompanied the race for the discovery of this imaginary continent, which led to the encounter with the Pacific islands. However, none of these islands adequately met the expectations, neither in terms of their size nor their wealth. The fact that Australia is seen in the same way today – hopes have been replaced with disappointment – seems like an accident of history. This has had significant – or rather “dramatic” – consequences, since deception was the driving force behind the convicts and the emergence of a deep animosity towards the indigenous population.

5This is not the aim of this article, other than to recall that the imagination that crowned the creation and naming of the Australian continent, even before its discovery, which is just as significant as the history of its discovery as well as the ideologies that accompanied it, which, in many respects, still accompany the colonial, neo-colonial or postcolonial policies in the Pacific region today. My point here is different, even if it slips into a strange continuity with what was just brought up. It is about showing how Australia has continued to function as a means and a place for the West to question itself, particularly in the field of social and cultural anthropology, but probably even beyond. To state my point in a clear and controversial way, Australia was conceived by our “ancestral thinkers”, our predecessors, as a fertile ground for reflecting on their own ancestry. Australia is a window of the cradle of primitive humanity, and has within its country Aboriginal survivors of the social, cultural and psychological origins of modern humanity. This briefly describes the reasons why Australian indigenous societies have been granted a constitutive place in the birth of anthropology. To go a step further, I will demonstrate how the social science, which focuses on Aboriginal Australian societies, has in no way lost its appeal and central importance, being fundamental to our way of thinking.

6We do not have to look very far. Lewis Henry Morgan, father of post-philological anthropology and the systematic study of kinship, based his evolutionary history of human social forms on Australian structures. For Morgan, they constitute one of the primitive steps in the evolution towards the so-called modern family. The Aborigines, he wrongly thought, practised group marriage and were thus unable – and unwilling – to identify genealogical or biological relationships, constituting a primitive horde. The idea or fantasy of collective marriage practised by the Aborigines has not disappeared. Jacques Attali, interviewed by the radio station RTL on 9 November 2007 about the publication of his work Amours: Histoire des relations entre les hommes et les femmes (Love: history of relationships between men and women), explained how it is possible to retrace the history of different forms of romantic relationship, stating that

“… it gives an idea that love could have existed during this [prehistoric] period, even if, in order to attempt to understand what happened a very long time ago, one must look at the so-called primitive people who still exist today or who existed a century ago. And there we realise, in a general way, that the first form of a relationship is, as I was already saying, between men and women. Generally speaking, at the beginning, a relationship began with brothers and sisters. Then brothers with women who were not sisters. Then again it becomes divided into two stories, with either a woman with several men, or a man with several women. And these are the evolutions before the relationship between a man and a woman.” [author’s recording and notes]

7Morgan is far from being the only one of our ancestors to have found the roots of his own ancestry among contemporary Aborigines. Emile Durkheim, in his Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (Elementary forms of religious life) published in 1912, explained that we would find the answers to our questions in Australia on the origins of the “religious nature of man” (p. 2). Even here, while he speaks of the Aborigines, as people of his time, he justifies the detour through Australia as being essential and useful because it illustrates a “historical” approach. In this case, “history” means the perception of people of our time – the Aborigines – as a mirror of the past for all humanity. I will not discuss the Durkheimian explanation of the religious fact; I would prefer to draw the reader’s attention to the original text and rely on his or her critical observance.

8We should also recall here the work of another ancestor, Sigmund Freud, who, in Totem et Tabou (1913), claims to be able to find the answers to fundamental human problems in Australians: the murder of Oedipus’s father. Establishing a parallel between the psychic development of the child and primitive cultures (the Australians) he supposes that each “primitive” appearance reflects a psychosexual stage, allowing him to reconstruct the entire scenario. The original tribe was composed of a dominant male, an all-powerful father whose relationships were exclusively with women. The sons rebelled and killed the father, then devoured him. Remorse, however, overwhelmed them, and the sons erected a totem in honour of their father’s image, for fear of him taking revenge. According to Freud, they established new rules that reflect the principal taboos of our Australian friends. These rules prohibit incest as well as killing and eating their totem.

9It is also necessary to mention the other “ancestors” who based their theories partly or entirely on Australian material, that of Marx and Engels and the concept of “primitive Communism”, Lévi-Strauss and the “elementary structures of kinship”, Malthus and the correlation between environmental wealth and social complexity, or quite the contrary, Sahlins and his definition of the original affluent society among Australians. As Aram Yengoyan (1979) writes, “the study of the Aboriginal population of Australia has always had a central and pivotal position. Many of our theories have been generated from the ethnography of this unique culture, and theories developed outside of the Aboriginal context have had to be tested against corpus of ethnographic detail”.

10It was observed that Australia first played the role of a country, which kindled the hopes of old Europe of finding a similar and even superior version of itself elsewhere and of later becoming the breeding ground in which the West would discover its ancestral conditions. Through the distortion of time, today’s “natives” are the witnesses of “our” prehistoric practices.

11The 1970s saw a revolution in the social science and anthropology, in particular. Sometimes an extreme relativism no longer allows for history to be distorted, and societies are taken for what they are, including today’s society with their own ways of doing and thinking, ways in which the relationship with those of other societies, such as the West, is no longer obvious. The relativist, or culturalist movement had significant consequences on Australian anthropology, which was losing its appeal for two main reasons. First of all, because of the rejection of historical or evolutionist comparative studies that were interpreting the Aboriginal breeding ground as a “test” group for all anthropological theories. Secondly, and since the modern day takes precedent, interest in Australian societies diminished as soon as they were considered “de-tribalised” and “de-cultured”.

12Aboriginal cultures of Australia are, however, among the most interesting topics of research for both a renewed type of “classical” and modern anthropology, as long as research is appropriately contextualised. This context is made up of multiple and complex facets of which, I will only mention certain elementary principles and facts despite the need for detailed accounts. The main keyword is without doubt “diversity”; ecological, social and cultural diversity, linguistic, colonial and historical diversity. Because of these diversities, it is rather difficult to put forward a simple scientific justification to unite all the continent’s indigenous inhabitants under the same collective denomination, “Australia’s Aborigines”. The ecological systems cannot be compared to the fertile tropics where these nomadic hunter-gatherers were, even more sedentary than the horticulturists of Papua New Guinea, and where natural resources were at hand, nor to to the most arid deserts ever inhabited by humankind before industrialisation, where walking 30 kilometres every day in search of water was the norm. Let us also take note of the linguistic diversity and complexity that include 28 language families and 200 languages. Similarly, the socio-cultural diversities observed in all social domains are significant, ranging from a material culture to various systems of kinship and ritual practices.

13The most striking and important element of diversity relates, however, to the historical and colonial situation of each of these Aboriginal groups. While some, particularly along the southern coast, have experienced Western violence and domination for more than 200 years, others have only encountered their first white man in the 1950s, especially those living in the Western Desert, where one last small family group was forced to approach settled communities in 1984. It goes without saying that close to 200 years of differences in terms of the colonial experience does not produce identical social attitudes and organisations. Hence, Australia provides, more than ever perhaps, a fertile ground for complex anthropological work that integrates both thought on historical and colonial processes and the analysis of the legal systems in which indigenous groups are embedded. One of the important purposes of anthropology today (applied or implied anthropology) is to participate in the scientific expression of the rights of existence and recognition as wished for by our Aboriginal hosts.

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