The instincts which govern the behaviour of the lower animals in the treatment of their young seem to prevail, with some modifications, in all communities of savages. If produced at the wrong time, or at the wrong place, the young are neglected or destroyed; if burdensome, they are abandoned. And yet, stronger than the maternal love of the tigress or the lioness is that of the Australian Aboriginal woman for a favorite child. She will die in an effort to preserve it, and as willingly suffer the pangs of hunger, and the prolonged misery of hard travel, to secure it from injury. When one which she has loved dies, she keeps it still. Its little body is placed in a bag, and she carries it, together with all that her master and husband may order her to bear, for days and days through the forest, weeping now and again, as the senseless body beats against her sides, and seems to chide her for the roughness of the passage. At the camp at night it is put in a safe place, and not the most frivolous amongst the young men would dare to exhibit by look or gesture his disapproval of the sacred duty of the mother.
If the loads which she has to carry become inconvenient, the mother will unpack the bag containing her child, break its bones with a stone hammer, re-pack the remains, and take them with her, even when the stench of the dead body is so offensive as to keep her friends at a distance.
When other ties and other duties make it impossible for the mother any longer to keep the relics near her person, they are disposed of either by burial, by hiding them in the hollow of a tree, or by committing them to the flames of the funeral pile.
Not less is the regard paid to a deceased person of importance. The hands are cut off; and the two nearest relatives carry these mementos, and hold them sacred, and thus give evidence of the existence in their minds of feelings and thoughts and imaginings which the untravelled European would fain limit to the better educated and the more highly organized of our species.
The modes of disposing of the dead, and the observances on the near decease of a member of a tribe who is esteemed or feared, are various. Not one tribe has exactly the same customs as another.
- In the narrative of the Life and Adventures of William Buckley it is stated that the bones of deceased children were carried about by their mothers in nets made of hair and twisted bark. The nets were tied round their necks by day, and placed under their heads at night; and the bones were invariably affectionately guarded.