Who Were Spencer and Gillen

By far the most influential of the early Australian ethnographers were †Baldwin Spencer and †F.J. Gillen. In late nineteenth-century anthropological theorizing, Aboriginal society occupied the place the Caribs had done in †Rousseau’s philosophy; that is, as the living exemplars of humankind’s original condition. Spencer and Gillen provided much of the data on which theories about the nature of such societies were constructed. †Frazer asserted in his preface to The Native Tribes of Central Australia that Spencer and Gillen had met ‘tribes living in the Stone Age’, ignorant of metal working, agriculture and even the physiology of reproduction, whose secrets Spencer and Gillen had ‘snatched…just before the final decadence of the tribes set in’ (Frazer, in Spencer and Gillen 1899).

Frazer considered that their work pointed to the belief in spiritual conception, in which the unborn baby is animated by the spirit of an ancestral being, as the most probable source of *totemism. He wanted to elucidate the principle of causation that allegedly enabled a *ritual to increase the numbers of a totemic species. †Durkheim, on the other hand, found demonstration of his theory of the sociological origin of religion in the work of Spencer and Gillen and their contemporary, Strehlow. Durkheim emphasized the social character of increase rites rather than their instrumental purpose. Spencer and Gillen also documented the *kinship terminologies of central Australia. While they committed the error of inferring that classificatory kinship had its origin in ‘group marriage’, they clarified the relationship of the eight subsection system to rules of *marriage and *descent. In later survey work they demonstrated the existence of similar systems in northern Australia. Two ideas that pervaded nineteenth-century European thinking about Aboriginal society were: first, that their structure placed them at a given stage in a scheme of unilineal *evolution, rather than displaying an adaptation to the natural *environment; second, that Aboriginal people were about to lose their distinctive culture and either the out or become assimilated to the dominant culture.

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