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The Native Tribes of North Central Australia, by Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen [1899], at

p. v


IN the following pages we have endeavoured to set forth an account of the customs and social organisation of certain of the tribes inhabiting Central Australia.

It has been the lot of one of us to spend the greater part of the past twenty years in the centre of the continent, and as sub-protector of the Aborigines he has had exceptional opportunities of coming into contact with, and of gaining the confidence of, the members of the large and important Arunta tribe, amongst whom he has lived, and of which tribe both of us, it may be added, are regarded as fully initiated members.

In the month of July, 1894, we met at Alice Springs, when the scientific expedition organised by Mr. W. A. Horn, of Adelaide, visited that part of the continent, and it was then that one of us gave to Dr. E. C. Stirling, the anthropologist of the expedition, notes which have since been published in the anthropological section of the report on the work of the expedition. This report included the results of the information gained up to that time with regard to the Central tribes, and in respect to certain points, we have, to some extent, had to traverse the same ground in order to make our account as complete as possible; but it was very evident that in regard to the customs and organisation of the tribe we were then only on the threshold of the inquiry, and at a subsequent time we determined to carry on the work.

p. vi

During the summer of 1896–7, the natives gathered together at Alice Springs to perform an important series of ceremonies, constituting what is called the Engwura, and this, which occupied more than three months, we witnessed together. The series of ceremonies then enacted enabled us not only to gain a knowledge of, and an insight into the meaning of certain of them, which until then had not been seen by Europeans, but also served to indicate lines of inquiry along which further investigation would prove to be of value.

In addition to the investigation of various customs, such as those connected with initiation and magic, we have paid special attention to the totemic system and to matters concerned with the social organisation of the tribes. In connection especially with the totemic system, we desire to emphasize the fact that, whilst there is some degree of uniformity in regard to customs amongst the series of tribes inhabiting the continent, there is also, as might be expected, very considerable diversity. The physical conditions of the continent are such that groups of tribes inhabiting various regions have been, to a large extent, isolated from one another for a long period of time and have undoubtedly developed along different lines. The result is that, in respect to the totemic system, for example, groups of tribes differ from one another to a large extent, and the customs of no one tribe or group can be taken as typical of Australia generally in, at most, anything but broad outline.

The question of the social organisation of the Australian tribes and the significance of the “terms of relationship” have given rise to a considerable amount of difference of opinion, and into these we have inquired as carefully as possible. The result of our work is undoubtedly to corroborate that of Messrs. Howitt and Fison in regard to these matters.

p. vii

We have endeavoured to set forth the results of our investigations so that the reader may see, on the one hand, the actual facts, and on the other, the conclusions at which, in certain cases, we have arrived after a consideration of these.

As it has been our main object to write simply an account of the Central tribes, we have not referred to the work of other authors, except so far as it was directly concerned with the tribes investigated. The work by Mr. W. E. Roth on the Aborigines of North-West Central Queensland reached us when our manuscript was written, and we have added references to it chiefly in the form of footnotes. Mr. Roth's work bears more closely upon certain parts of ours than that of any other author does, and is in some respects, especially in connection with the system of organisation, the most detailed account yet published of any Australian tribe, and we gladly take this opportunity, as fellow-workers in the same field, of expressing our high appreciation of his work.

The time in which it will be possible to investigate the Australian native tribes is rapidly drawing to a close, and though we know more of them than we do of the lost Tasmanians, yet our knowledge is very incomplete, and unless some special effort be made, many tribes will practically die out without our gaining any knowledge of the details of their organisation, or of their sacred customs and beliefs.

We have, in conclusion, the pleasant duty of acknowledging the assistance received from various friends. To Mr. C. E. Cowle and Mr. P. M. Byrne, both of whom, from long residence amongst them, are well acquainted with the natives, we are indebted in various ways for the most cordial assistance, and to Mr. Cowle one of us owes the opportunity of traversing certain parts of the interior which would otherwise have been inaccessible to him.

To Mr. C. Winnecke we are especially indebted. There is no one who has a fuller knowledge of the topography of p. viii Central Australia, and this knowledge he most generously and freely placed at our disposal, drawing up for us the two maps on which are indicated the localities of the principal spots associated with the traditions of the Arunta natives. It will be understood that these maps are not intended to indicate our present knowledge of the geographical features of Central Australia, all except the more important ones being purposely omitted.

We have to thank Mr. W. A. Horn and Dr. E. C. Stirling for permission to utilize certain drawings illustrative of native rock paintings which were originally made to illustrate Dr. Stirling's anthropological report dealing with the Arunta tribe.

Finally, we have to express our deep sense of the obligation under which we lie to Dr. E. B. Tylor and Mr. J. G. Frazer. It need hardly be pointed out how much we are indebted to their work as indicating to us lines of inquiry, but in addition to this we have received from them the most cordial personal encouragement and help. They have most kindly read through the proofs—indeed to Mr. Frazer we are deeply indebted for the final revision of these, and in offering them our warmest thanks, we venture to express the hope that the work may prove to be worthy of the interest which they have taken in it.

MELBOURNE, March, 1898.

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