Article ID: CBB000771296

“Humanity in the Chrysalis Stage”: Indigenous Australians in the Anthropological Imagination, 1899--1926 (2006)


Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen's Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899) is now remembered as an approximation of the anthropological method that would soon be conventional: a comprehensive study of a delimited area, based on sustained fieldwork, portraying a population's distinctive character. In 1913, however, Bronislaw Malinowski said of Spencer and Gillen's studies that `half the total production in anthropological theory ha[d] been based upon their work, and nine-tenths affected or modified by it'. Native Tribes inspired an intense international debate, orchestrated by J. G. Frazer, broker of the book's publication, predicated on the assumption that indigenous Australians were the most primitive of living peoples, whose totemism was somehow at the base of civilization's highest achievements -- monogamous marriage and truly spiritual religion. But the debate proved irresolvable in Frazer's terms. Pondering conflicting interpretations of totemism, anthropologists rejected unilinear models of social evolution like Frazer's. Nationally differentiated populations of professional anthropologists emerged in the early twentieth century, developing distinctive theoretical schemes. Nevertheless, some issues central to the debate remained vital. For example, how were magical, scientific and religious modes of thought and action to be distinguished? And in Australia, analyses of indigenes were distinctively construed. White settlers, concerned to legitimate colonial rule, asked specific questions: did Aborigines have established ties to specific lands? Were Aborigines capable of civilization? Biogeographical theory underpinned Spencer's relatively liberal conclusions, which had precursors and successors in Australian anthropology: Aborigines had defined criteria of land ownership, their habits were suitable adaptations to their circumstances, and observed cultural diversity among Aborigines denoted their `nascent possibilities of development along many varied lines'.

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Authors & Contributors
Welsch, Robert Louis
Buschmann, Rainer F.
Young, Michael W.
Gillen, Francis J.
O'Hanlon, Michael
Edwards, Elizabeth
Journal of Pacific History
History of the Human Sciences
Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford
Comparative Studies in Society and History
French Colonial History
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
Berghahn Books
Yale University Press
University of Hawai'i Press
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Fielding Graduate University
Cultural anthropology
Australian races
Traditional societies and cultures
Spencer, Baldwin
Malinowski, Bronislaw
Gillen, Francis James
Chinnery, Ernest William Pearson
Virchow, Rudolf Carl
Weule, Karl
New Guinea
Great Britain
Islands of the Pacific
East Africa
20th century, early
19th century
20th century
Rockefeller Foundation

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