Prof. Friedrich Ratzel

The Races of Oceania

General Survey of the Group

Racial resemblances of the people of Oceania and America

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Racial resemblances of the people of Oceania and America


Given the existence of a group of sea-faring races, who, gradually by dint of uninterrupted voluntary and involuntary migration, occupied various coast and island-districts of the Pacific Ocean, there follows necessarily, if we allow for long periods, a wide distribution over this large district; and therewith arises that ethnographic agreement which connects the lands on the eastern and western borders of the Pacific Ocean. Zuñiga's meteorological basis of belief for asserting the South American origin of the Tagals, namely, the impossibility of bearing up against the south-cast trades, can as little be maintained as the likeness asserted by him to exist between Tagalese and Chilian.

Since his day the knowledge of the ethnography of the American races has progressed. We see how both east and west of the Pacific religious beliefs and usages are based upon the same animistic belief and upon an ancestor-worship which not only stands on a similar footing, but often assumes precisely concordant forms; just as the treatment of corpses and the procedure of the priests embrace a whole host of similar practices. The principles of cosmogony, the high importance attached to the tribal symbols, even less prominent legends like that of the fountain of life - Boas has briefly indicated the remarkable conformity of north-west American legends with those of the Ainus and of Micronesia - and inconspicuous expedients of daily-life, such as the employment of narcotics in the capture of fish, or the shape of the fish-hooks, the dressing of fish by steaming, the preparation of fermented liquors, are alike in both regions.

Bakairi girl from the Kulishu river (After Dr. R. von den Steinen)
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Bakairi girl from the Kulishu river

Valuable evidence is given by conformities in tattooing, in painting the body, in details of decorative mutilation; more especially in the style of the necklaces made of little polished disks of red, white, and black shells. Even the metallic wealth of America could not oust the use of stone, bones, and shells.

In connection with this important feature, we have already pointed out the common prevalence of a definite type of economic life. We may refer once more to the weapons; the encroachment of the Asiatic bow upon North and Central America or the similarity of the same weapon in South America and Melanesia. On Nissan, in the Solomon Islands, a stone axe has lately been discovered with a chamfer running almost round, just like the American, and like them fastened into a piece of wood split into a fork. Probably many more finds of this sort will occur.

Wicker armour and cuirasses, with protection for the neck, are most widely spread on the Asiatic and American borders of the Pacific; but extend far into the island world of the tropics. Throwing-sticks were at one time thought to exist only among Australians and Eskimos; now specimens are known also from Mexico and Brazil.

In North-west America, as in many parts of Oceania, especially in the Bismarck Archipelago, dancing-masks are used, with curious ornamentation based upon the conventionalised figures of animals. In one region we find otter and frog, beaver and hawk, arranged together; in the other snake, lizard, fish, beetle, bird. The masks of New Ireland remind us to a striking degree of those used by the Haidas. Less importance is to be assigned to the fact that in both these cases the eyes, and the ornaments in the shape of eyes, are made with inlaid shell, than to the striking agreement in the connection formed by the tongue dependent between the upper part, representing a broad animal's head, and a second animal. This arrangement of animals' heads in a row along the middle line reminds us of North America, no less than the eye-ornament, which is an essential element of the Pacific and American styles.

Boy of New Ireland (From a photograph)

We must indeed note that it is not always between races lying nearest to each other that the closest relations prevail. On the other we meet agreements not merely at single points, but running all through the groups. Thus not merely does the Dyak loom resemble that used by the Indians of North-west America: the practice of head-hunting, the cult of skulls, the use of human hair for ornament, are common to both. The ornament of Malay fabrics is remarkably like that of the early Americans. Among the Calchaquis of Northern Argentina we find pottery painted with line drawings of birds, reptiles, and human faces, which remind us of Peruvian, and no less, in selection and conventional treatment of the themes, of Malay work.

In customs too several features recur in a marked way. Particular forms of greeting, the declaration of an agreement by the transfer of a piece of stick, the method of communicating by means of wooden drums, and so on. But over all arises, like a great edifice common to all, the social order based on "mother-right" and exogamy. We find it most distinctly in Australia and Melanesia; then again in America, while between the two, in Polynesia, lies a region in which it has broken down and become obsolete. In South and North America we meet with the same system, often repeated even in small details.

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