Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/November 1897/Semon's Scientific Researches in Australia
|SEMON'S SCIENTIFIC RESEARCHES IN AUSTRALIA.|
By Prof. E. P. EVANS.
SOME years ago Dr. Paul von Ritter gave to the University of Jena a considerable fund for the endowment of research in the direction of the doctrine of evolution, and more especially for promoting the scientific exploration of Australia. The complete geographical or physical isolation of this vast island since the Tertiary period has prevented it from keeping pace with other portions of the globe in the development of animal life, and it has therefore been very aptly termed "the land of living fossils and of missing links," on account of the peculiarly primitive character of its fauna. It is evident that the oöticoids or semi-oviparous mammals, whose young are born as embryos and then hatched in the mother's pouch, would be at an immense disadvantage with the viviparous mammals in the struggle for existence. For this reason the marsupials and monotremes have been gradually supplanted by the more highly organized placentals wherever they have encountered each other in vital competition. The study of fossils shows very clearly how this process went on from age to age until it resulted in the Miocene period in the complete supremacy of the placentals and the almost utter extinction of the marsupials in the principal regions of the earth. Of the latter class of animals, the didelphys of the western hemisphere, of which the American opossum is the best-known species, is the sole survival outside of Australia. This is owing to the fact that all the other continents have been more or less closely connected by land during long geological epochs. This is still the case with Europe, Asia, and Africa; even the dividing basin of the Mediterranean is of relatively recent origin, as may be clearly shown by a comparison of the fauna of its northern and southern shores. Also the extreme northern points of America and Asia, although previously separated, were subsequently united for a long time, beginning with the latter half of the Tertiary period and extending into the Pleistocene age, when the species of mammals now prevailing in both hemispheres were already existent. It is therefore perfectly intelligible that, under these circumstances, Australia and the adjacent groups of islands should be of special interest to the naturalist as fields of investigation; for there he can study living specimens of mammals, birds, fishes, and reptiles of which he finds elsewhere only the petrified remains.
It was with this object in view and with the pecuniary aid derived from the Hitter endowment fund that Dr. Richard Semon, a former pupil of Ernst Haeckel, and now professor of anatomy and zoölogy in the University of Jena, landed at Adelaide in the midsummer of 1891, and pitched his camp in the Burnett district of the Australian bush, at first on the banks of the Boyne River. He engaged as companion and general conductor of the expedition a German immigrant named Dahlke, whose family had left their fatherland when he was only four years old, and who had grown up into a thorough Australian. This man furnished a dray and five horses as the most convenient means of conveyance, and secured the services of eight families of aborigines, consisting in all of about thirty persons, men, women, and children, whose business it was to catch fish and search the dense Australian scrub for specimens of its fauna.
In order to stimulate the activity of the natives, Semon offered prizes for the capture of particularly desirable animals, and also promised to pay their regular wages at the end of every week; but a single experience of the results attending the latter part of this arrangement sufficed to prove its utter impracticability; for no sooner did they find themselves with cash in hand on Saturday evening than they procured several bottles of rum from a liquor shop kept by an Irish woman several miles distant, and on Sunday morning were all dead drunk. In order to prevent a repetition of this boozing bout, an account was henceforth kept, and the cash system abolished. After the lapse of nearly three months the natives grew
A Marea (Bachelors' Home) in Pinupaka.
tired of this regular employment, as they invariably do, and the whole "mob" suddenly quit work, received their wages and special awards, and went back very cheerfully to the primitive vagrant life of the bush. The term "mob," by which the tribe has learned to designate itself, is etymologically quite appropriate, since it would be difficult to find a race more mobile, unstable, and incapable of persistent effort in one direction than the so-called Negritos. With spears, clubs, and boomerangs they easily kill game enough for food; a few broad strips of bark set up in the form of a tent afford all the shelter they desire, and unless they prefer to go naked, as their ancestors
Men of Aroma.
were wont to do, the tattered remnants of the squatters' castoff clothes supply them with all the raiment they want. Semon confesses a certain admiration for this inborn love of freedom and strong sense of independence, which they prize more highly than what we call the conveniences and comforts of life, although this unthrifty spirit of primeval savagery often seriously interfered with his plans, and in general presents an almost insuperable obstacle to every effort to educate and civilize them. Several of these natives soon returned, and among them "Old Jimmy," whom he learned to esteem as "the best and most faithful of assistants"; he afterward had many other Australian and Papuan aborigines in his service, and, through daily intercourse with them, became thoroughly acquainted with their habits of life, racial peculiarities, tribal organization, religious ideas, and superstitions.
After carrying on his explorations with remarkable success for nearly a year and a half in Australia, New Guinea, and the Moluccas, Professor Semon returned home via Java and India in the spring of 1893. The strictly scientific results of his researches during this period are now being published with the aid of several collaborators in a serial work entitled Zoologische Forschungsreisen in Australien und dem Malayischen Archipel (Jena: Gustav Fischer), and to be completed in some twenty-six numbers, of which six have already appeared. Meanwhile, he has given to the public a more comprehensive and popular record of his experiences and observations in a single volume, containing a mass of most interesting facts and reflections, and written in an exceedingly lucid and lively style (Im australischen Busch und an den Küsten des Korallenmeeres. Mit 85 Abbildungen und 4 Karten. Leipzig: Engelmann, 1896. Pp. xvi, 569. Price, 15 marks). We may add that the collection
Oars of New Guineans.
of specimens made by Professor Semon is so extensive and extremely characteristic as to render the Zoölogical Museum in Jena the very best place in the world for studying the natural history of the regions he explored. Indeed, it is so unique that not long since an Australian zoölogist came to the picturesque university town on the Saale for the purpose of examining one of the fauna of his native land.
In the present paper we shall not attempt to follow the author step by step in all his wanderings, nor to give even a résumé of his zoölogical studies. The reader will find in his book reliable and very readable accounts of the phascolarctos, the duckbill, the porcupine ant-eater, the bandicoot, the dasyure, the wombat, the various kinds of kangaroos and other marsupials, the bower bird, the bird of paradise, the cockatoo, the hornbill, and similar species remarkable for
Australian Weapons and Utensils. 1 and 2, boomerangs; 3, stone hatchet; 4, wooden shield; 5, reed basket; 6 and 7, wooden clubs. (1–4, 6, 7, from Burnett; 5, from Cooktown.)
Utensils and Ornaments from Southeastern New Guinea. Those marked with a * come from the Trobriand Islands. 1–16, wooden knives used in chewing betel; 17–19, knives of cassowary bones; 20–29, 31, necklaces and bracelets (20–23, 25, 26, of snail shells; 27, of dog's teeth; 28, 29, 31, of braid; 24, man's lower jaw as bracelet); 30, braided finger ring; 32, 33, vessels for limewater; 35, 36, wooden bowls for pounding betel; 34, mussel shell as ornament for the brow; 37, bamboo knife for cutting off heads; 38, mussel shells as coin; 39, 40, combs; 41–44, headdresses of birds' feathers (41, feathers of parrots; 42,44, feathers of birds of paradise; 43, leathers of cassowary and tail of marsupial).
Exceedingly interesting and instructive are the sections of Semon's work which embody the results of his anthropological researches. The Negritos or native Australians are still living in a stage of culture corresponding to the palæolithic period or old stone age of primitive European man. Although inhabiting a land rich in ores, and especially in gold and copper, the use of metals is unknown to them except so far as they have obtained steel knives and tomahawks from white colonists with whom they have come in contact. All the weapons and implements manufactured by themselves are made of stone, bones, shells, wood, vegetable fibers, or the sinews of animals. The same is true of the Papuans of New Guinea, although these are more advanced in civilization and belong to the neolithic period of human development, as well as of the Polynesians
Girls and Boys of Hula
inhabiting the more eastern islands of the Pacific Ocean. It must be remembered, however, that this state of things does not necessarily imply barbarism, for even peoples so highly civilized as the Aztecs and the Peruvians under the Incas, although using ornaments of gold and silver, had not yet learned the art of working in iron, but were still in the bronze period, which in Europe preceded the Glacial epoch. It is remarkable that the Negritos, with rare exceptions, have never attained the slightest degree of artistic excellence in shaping the materials at their command. Their stone hatchets are rudely chipped, instead of being ground and polished like those of the Papuans and Polynesians, and they do not know how to bore a hole through a stone for the insertion of a helve or handle. The same lack of skill is shown in making instruments out of various materials, the ugly wooden clubs, the clumsy and ill-proportioned shields, and the baskets roughly woven out of reeds. There is no evidence of taste in the form or of delicate fancy in the ornamentation of their work, and even when their sole aim is to beautify their persons, as in the painful tattoo, they succeed only in dis-disfiguring the back and breast with deep, straight gashes and hideous scars. Their occasional attempts to draw figures of men or animals are worse than the crude and awkward scrawlings of a schoolboy on a slate, and consist merely of straight lines extending in different directions and representing arms and legs. Like the palæeolithic man of Europe, they have no knowledge of pottery, and have never made earthenware vessels in which to cook food, but roast their meat on hot stones. Only in one respect are they in advance of the European cave men, namely, in the possession of a domestic animal, the dingo, whereas the dog does not appear as the companion of man in Europe until the new stone age.
The Australians are nomads, living by the chase and wandering from place to place in search of game; they have neither cattle nor horses, nor any kind of draught or riding animals. The care of flocks and herds, and especially the ownership of land and the cultivation of the soil, not only presuppose but also promote intellectual culture. The man who plants trees and sows seed, and waits for the ripening of the fruit and the reaping of the harvest, watches the change of seasons, observes meteorological conditions, acquires habits of reflection and calculation, looks to the future, forms plans which it often takes years to realize, acts with foresight, becomes prudent in preparing for exigencies, and thrifty in the management of his affairs. Husbandry is therefore one of the earliest and most effective agents of civilization. The first agriculturist was a Prometheus, an inspirer of "forethought," as the name implies, who fired the human forms of clay with higher aims and aspirations, lifted the race out of primitive brutism, and opened to it a new and illimitable career of progress. The Australian tribes have never yet been touched by this Promethean spark and quickened to a nobler life. All the faculties that contribute to their success as hunters have attained a wonderful degree of perfection, such as
Papuan Designs burned on Gourds.
uncommonly keen powers of observation, unerring sense of locality, tenacious memory, and a most marvelous ability of drawing correct conclusions from the faintest signs and vestiges of wild animals as to their present abode and condition. The precision with which they hurl spears, clubs, and other rude weapons is as remarkable as their cunning in circumventing the alertest and wiliest game. Although ignorant of the use of bows and arrows, they have devised an excellent and exceedingly original substitute for them in the boomerang, a missile whose peculiar form and functions would seem to imply considerable knowledge of the science of projectiles and of the action of the atmosphere on the surface of spiral curves, but which, like most great inventions, was unquestionably discovered by accident. Yet with all their sagacity and shrewdness, they are so low down in the scale of intelligence as not to be able to count more than five: one is "garro," two "boö," three "koromde," four "wogaro," and five "boö koromde," compounded of two and three; higher members are not differentiated, but lumped together as "meian," many. It would seem to us quite natural that they should be able to count at least as high as ten with the aid of the fingers of both hands, but such is not the case. An Australian can keep a record of twenty or thirty objects by making a notch for each one in a stick, but he has no name for this sum total and can not carry it in his head. Even the blacks who have learned a little English are incapable of using the English numerals beyond six with any degree of accuracy. Mackenzie, one of the most intelligent of the natives in Semon's service, could by this means count as far as ten and perform very simple processes of addition; thus, for example, if he caught three ant-eaters yesterday and four to-day, he knew that taken together they made seven. But this was the extreme limit of his arithmetical computations; if he brought in three animals on each of three days, he could tell how many there were in all only by producing his tally; the multiplication of three by three was a mental operation far too complicated for him. As with number concepts, so with all abstract ideas, the Australians are incapable of forming them, and have therefore no words to express them. They have no collective names for animal and plant. They perceive very clearly the difference between the various species of venomous serpents in which their country abounds, but they have no terms by which to distinguish one genus from another, but call the whole family "wonge"; while "bui" is used to designate the harmless and edible serpents, of which the Python spilotes is the most conspicuous representative. Still more remarkable, perhaps, is the want of distinct designations for colors; they have separate words for the extremes of white, "bambar," and black, "ngurue," but not for the primary and composite colors red, orange, yellow, blue, indigo, and violet, which they call "beiar," and it is doubtful whether they discriminate even with the eye between the more delicate hues.
A race of men devoid of the faculty of abstraction would necessarily be very deficient in religious conceptions. This is the case with the Australians, who do not show the faintest traces of a belief in the existence of supernatural beings, and therefore do not worship idols, perform sacrifices, or offer prayers. The ghosts they fear are the spirits of the dead, who, not having been properly buried, are doomed to walk the night. But, however great may be the terror inspired by these nocturnal spooks, no attempt is made to propitiate them; the easiest way of warding off their attacks is to huddle as closely as possible round the camp fire. Disease and death are not regarded as natural events, but dreaded as the work of the sorcerers of hostile tribes, whose influence can be counteracted only by sorcerers of their own tribe. In parts of southern and western Australia a somewhat higher stage of religious evolution has produced a vague sort of demonism with a crude cosmology, in which the founder of the tribe figures as the creator of the world. Here we have an example of ancestor worship as a primitive cult marking the transition from demonism to deism. The Australians have no myths or sagas in the sense of fictitious narrations or traditions of heroic achievements and historical events, but only the simplest tales of magic and wizardry, such as are common to the childhood of the race, and refer almost exclusively to the metamorphosis of men into animals. Thus a bad man was put to death by having spears hurled into him, and thereby changed into an Echidna aculeata, or porcupine ant-eater. To the minds of the natives this origin explains the mysterious character of this nocturnal creature, which wanders noiselessly about, and on the slightest suspicion of
Papuan Bow of Palm Wood, with String of Rattan Fiber and Bamboo Arrow.
danger vanishes into the earth as by enchantment. The koala, or phascolarctus, is also a magically transformed black man, and a charming story is told of the friendship between a child and a "wonge" (poisonous serpent), which the parents killed, whereupon the child pined away and died. This tale is told in a German Märchen, and the incident is said to have actually happened not long since in New England.
The organization of the Australian horde is essentially communistic. Personal property consists merely of such weapons and tools as each man can carry with him on his wanderings. The hunting grounds of every horde are well defined, and their boundaries respected by their neighbors. As a rule they live in peace, because there are no spoils to be won, and therefore no temptations to plundering expeditions. Most of the tribes choose a chief, usually a skillful hunter or sorcerer, whose counsel carries weight, but whose positive authority is very limited; he has no power to dictate laws to the community, or to impose his will arbitrarily on other members of the tribe. The checks upon individual liberty are very slight, and with the exception of a few general restrictions, prescribed by ancient custom, every man is perfectly free and independent in his actions, and even the children do pretty much as they please, and are in this respect far better off than the women, who are wholly subject to their husbands and made to bear the heat and burden of the day. Old men, owing to their long experience, exercise a general oversight and enjoy a certain authority, especially in the training of youth and in the formation of matrimonial connections; occasionally a man of strong character, superior intelligence, and conspicuous valor acquires great influence, as was the case with the famous chieftain of the Dieri, Jalina Piramurana; but what sovereignty he possesses is strictly personal, and does not affect the position of other members of his family, nor confer distinction upon his descendants. His pre-eminence does not lead to any recognition of hereditary rank, nor entitle his children to any privileges of birthright; they are on perfect equality with those of every other tribesman.
The Australians were practical Malthusians long before Malthus, and take the strictest precautions, and the severest measures in order to prevent an increase of population beyond the means of subsistence. The fact that a score of herdsmen and more than twice as many husbandmen can live in comfort on an area of land that would furnish only scanty food for a single hunter renders it an imperative necessity for savages to keep their numbers within certain fixed limits. This stability of the population is preserved by killing or exposing a certain proportion of infants, or by the castration or hypospadic mutilation of a percentage of the boys before puberty. In some tribes every father of a family voluntarily submits to one of these radical operations after the birth of his second or third child. Personal sacrifice for the public good could surely not go further than this.
A fatal consequence of the smallness and isolation of the horde would be the constantly increasing necessity of marriages between persons closely related by ties of blood, and the effect of such unions would soon be perceptible in the physical and mental degeneracy of the race. The Dieri of southern Australia have a tradition that in the beginning fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and other next of kin were wont to intermarry indiscriminately, until the injurious results of these connections became apparent and led to their prohibition. First, marriages between parents and children, uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews, were forbidden, and the interdict was then extended to brothers and sisters, and finally to cousins. The result was that after a time all marriages between members of the same horde were prevented by the ban of consanguinity, so that they were obliged to enter into negotiations with other hordes for an interchange of marriageable maidens. The Kurnai, in Gipsland, forbid a man to take a wife who is more nearly related to him than in the fifth degree; but for a people who can neither read nor write or hardly count, and have therefore no genealogical records, it would be difficult to determine precisely the proximity of blood. A simpler and more effective system is that adopted by the Narinyeri, who inhabit the region of southern Australia at the mouth of Murray River. The tribe consists of eighteen independent hordes, and it is strictly forbidden for any man to marry into the horde of his father or his mother. By this regulation marriages between brothers and sisters and between cousins (unless they happen to be the children of two sisters who have not married into the same horde) are prevented. The children belong to the horde of the father, but the totem as the symbol of the family is inherited from the mother, and descends to the maternal line. Some tribes forbid matrimonial unions between persons having the same totem. This prohibition renders it impossible for a man to marry the descendants of his mother's sister, but permits him to marry the descendants of her brother, inasmuch as the latter derive their totem from their mother. Some tribes forbid these marriages by special enactments; others arrange the nearly
Weapons and Utensils from Southeastern New Guinea. Those marked with a * come from the Trobriand Islands. 1–3 wooden clubs; 4, club with stone head; 5, war shield; 6, dance shield; 7, drum; 8–11, tobacco pipes of bamboo; 12, nest of baskets; 13, 14, skirts for women; 15–17, gourd flasks; 18–20, stone axes with handles; 21, bow of canoe.
related totems into larger groups, corresponding to what ethnographers call phratries, which can not intermarry. Without entering into further details we may state that everything referring to the propagation of the species is carefully regulated, with the object of compelling men to take wives from alien hordes. The most important Australian feast is the celebration of the attainment of puberty by the young men, who on this occasion are subjected to severe ordeals and cruel tortures, such as circumcision, ghastly tattooing, or the extraction of one or two front teeth.
It has been asserted that the Australians represent a degenerate race, and that their remote ancestors had attained a far higher degree of civilization. Some paintings, which adorn the walls of caves on Glenelg River, in northwestern Australia, have been adduced in support of this hypothesis. It is evident, however, from the cast of the features, the cranial formation, the long garments, hats, and shoes of the figures in these sketches that they were made by shipwrecked Europeans, or perhaps Phoenicians. Everything in the life, language, traditions, habits, and general character of the Australians indicates a primitive people who, instead of deteriorating, have made some slight advancement in culture. The fact that they show no marks of near kinship with their neighboring islanders, the Papuans, Malays, or Maoris, tends to complicate the question of their origin. They possess many anthropological characteristics in common with the Dravidian hill tribes of the Deccan and the pre-Dravidian Veddas of Ceylon, such as the shape of the skull, the outlines of the face, and the waviness (in distinction from woolliness) of the hair; and these physical resemblances acquire additional significance through striking similarities in the Dravidian and Australian languages. If it be true as has been maintained, and seems highly probable, that the Caucasian race is of Dravidian origin, the Australians might claim to be very remote kinsmen of the Europeans, and their likeness to degenerate types of the latter is certainly quite strong.
As already indicated, the Papuans of New Guinea belong to the later or neolithic period of the stone age, and their superior culture is especially manifest in their artistic skill and taste. Their implements are made of wood, stone, shells, bones, and similar materials, and they have never learned the use of any metal. The hatchets, of feldspar, hornblende, and other stones, are not rudely chipped, but beautifully polished, and they manufacture vessels of burned clay in which to cook their food. Everything they fabricate is remarkable for elegance of form and delicacy of ornamentation. One can not but wonder at the perfection of workmanship wrought by stone tools—knives and daggers exquisitely carved out of wood or the bones of the cassowary, bracelets, frontlets, and necklaces of shells, mother-of-pearl, dogs' teeth, and straw braids finely woven. A peculiar and apparently much-prized decoration for the wrist is the lower jaw of a foe, slain in battle, with tassels or other pendent ornaments. Mussel and cockle shells serve as currency, an advance from bimetallism to bivalvism that ought to be welcome to every advocate of cheap money. The most graceful and symmetrical designs are scratched on bamboo tobacco pipes, gourds, and cocoanuts, and burned in; and all these forms and figures reveal a refinement and a fertility of imagination and a facility of mechanical execution that excite admiration and astonishment. The most charming variety of arrangement is given to the simplest pattern wrought on curved surfaces in the purest style of arabesque. Like the neolithic men of Europe, they use bows and arrows, as well as clubs and spears, which are exceedingly graceful in shape; and compared with their strong and slender oars, ours are heavy and clumsy. The same is true of their sails of matting. They also bore holes in the heads of their stone hatchets for fastening the handles. Unlike the Australians, they have a fine sense of color, which they gratify by painting their shields white, red, and black, adorning their heads with the brilliant feathers of the bird-of -paradise, the parrot, and the cassowary; by variegated stripes in the women's short skirts, woven out of grasses, reeds, and the fibers of the cocoanut, and the "lines of beauty" with which they tattoo their dark-brown skin.
The constitution of the Papuan tribe, like that of the Australian horde, is radically democratic, but differs from it in being much less communistic. Private property, in distinction from tribal possession, begins with the tillage of the soil, and this general principle applies to the fields, houses, and tools of the Papuans; but the greed of gain has not yet been developed; each family cultivates land enough for its own subsistence, in addition to the products of the chase, and there is no distinction of rich and poor. The position of a chieftain confers upon him little authority, and whatever influence he exerts is due solely to his strong personal qualities, as is the case at present with the famous Koapena, of Aroma, a man equally distinguished for his valor in war and his discernment and impartiality in the administration of justice.
The houses are built on piles, like the lake dwellings of the primitive Swiss, and sometimes stand so far out in the sea that they are surrounded by water even at ebb tide. This construction of the villages is designed to protect the inhabitants less against the attacks of wild beasts than against the assaults of the fierce mountain tribes of the interior. A curious institution is the "Marea," or bachelors' clubhouse, as Semon calls it, in which boys, on attaining the age of puberty, take up their abode, and strangers are entertained. The inmates are under the supervision of an elderly man, and their admission to this home, of youthful celibates is attended with considerable
Papuan Lake Dwellings, with a Lakatoi under Sail in the Background.
ceremony, when they are invested with a narrow girdle belt ("ihavuri"), which makes their waists look as slender as that of a tightly laced girl. The interior of the "Marea" is adorned with weapons and trophies of war and the chase, and the posts are often beautifully carved. No woman is ever permitted to enter it, and its object is to promote chastity and prevent a too rapid increase of the population by illegitimate offspring. The Papuans are polygamists, and contract and dissolve their marriages without compunction and with very little ceremony. In this respect they are by no means as strict
Papuan Designs burned on Bamboo Tobacco Pipes.
as the Australians, who are monogamists in practice, not because a plurality of wives is prohibited, but because no one is rich enough to maintain a harem.
The religious conceptions of the Papuans are crude, and their sole cult is a sort of worship of ancestors, to whose images, carved in wood, special reverence is paid. The strong attachment to kin, which forms the basis of this worship, finds an extremely unpleasant and unwholesome expression in long periods of mourning, and unwillingness to part with the bodies of the dead. Near relatives sleep for weeks, and even months, by the side of a decaying corpse, and smear themselves with the fetid exudations of putrefaction. The disconsolate widow blackens her body with coal dust, and covers herself from head to foot with a network, which she wears until it rots and falls to pieces, and meanwhile conscientiously abstains from washing. Finally, when the corpse is committed to the earth, it is buried directly under the house, in order to remain as near as possible to the sorrowing survivors, so that each family lives over its own private graveyard. The efforts of the Governor of British New Guinea to abolish these disgusting customs, which cause the spread of infectious diseases and often produce pestilence, have proved for the most part unavailing, and created intense bitterness wherever they have been made.
The question of the origin and ethnography of the Papuans presents almost insuperable difficulties, and has not yet been satisfactorily solved, although it seems probable that the numerous tribes, notwithstanding their striking physical divergencies, are merely varieties of a general type and offshoots of a common stock. Whether they form an isolated and independent branch of the human family, or are akin to the dolichocephalous, dark-skinned, crisp-haired races of Africa and the islands of the Pacific Ocean, as Huxley suggests, is undetermined and perhaps indeterminable.
- The literal meaning of which is "dirty."