Labour, Dwellings and Food in Oceania

Similarities and coincidences in labour and implements of labour – Hunting and fishing – Agriculture and its implements – Food and stimulants, betel, kava, tobacco – Architecture and plan of villages.

Similarities and coincidences in labour and implements of labour

Craftmanship – carving

As good wood-carvers the Micronesians surpass many of their kindred in the East Pacific Islands. They know the trick of patiently adding to their dishes coat after coat of resinous lacquer till a durable skin is formed. Their wooden ware consists .of plates, bowls, and great dishes, all painted a beautiful red, and inlaid with mother-of-pearl; flat plates and deep bowls are found in the very poorest abodes. The people of Fakaafo carved cylindrical boxes out of single pieces of wood, with covers or even close-fitting lids, in which they keep their fishing-tackle. In Pelew every native is expert in the handling of his little axe; but house and boat-building is carried out by masters in the craft. This multifarious dexterity of the Micronesians is the point where the introduction of European goods has caused the greatest falling off.

Wooden dish from Hawaii. (British Museum.)

But the productions of Polynesia also testify to great handiness, and expert craftsmen hold a good position. In Tonga and Samoa carpenters are regarded as artists, and form a guild with sacerdotal rank. The perfection of the methods of labour led to the division of labour. Thus in Hawaii there were builders and roofers, boat-builders and carvers, whose productions were articles of trade. Armourers and net-makers sometimes also formed separate trades. Cook notices the chiefs’ ava-cups as the most remarkable, pieces of carved work in “Owhyhee”; they are perfectly round, 8 to 12 inches in diameter, and beautifully polished, and have little human figures in various attitudes as supporters. Quite a peculiar style of execution appears in a Hermes-shaped idol from Hawaii, now in the Berlin Museum, made almost in life-size from the wood of the bread-fruit tree, with pegs of hard wood let in forming dots. It is quite a mistake to assert that the Polynesians have no pottery. The Easter Islanders are skilful at it. On Namoka, Cook found earthenware pots, which seemed to have been long in use, and the Tonga group produces porous vessels. In Micronesia, too, pottery has been known from early times.

Craftmanship – cloth and mat making

Of the mode in which the bark-cloth, known as tapa or gnatu, is prepared Mariner gives the following account: A circular cut is made with a shell in the bark above the root of the tree; the tree is broken off, and in a few days, when the stem is half-dry, the bark and bast are separated from it. The bastis then cleaned and macerated in water, after which it is beaten with the ribbed club on a wooden block. This beating enlivens a village in Tonga as threshing does in Europe. In half an hour the piece will have changed in shape from a strip almost to a square. The edges are snipped with shells, and a large number of the pieces are drawn separately over a semi-cylindrical wooden stamp, on which the pattern, worked in coco-fibre, is stretched and smeared with a fluid at once adhesive and colouring. On each a second and third layer is placed; and the piece, three layers thick, is coloured more strongly in the parts which are thrown into relief by the inequalities of the bed. Others are annexed to it both at the side and the end, until pieces a yard wide, and 20 to 25 yards long, are produced.

Mats from Tongatabu. (Vienna Ethnographical Museum.)

For printing their kapa (as they call it) the Hawaiians used sticks broadened at the end, and carved with figures in relief, and drew lines on the stuff with a wooden comb. Some of the most remarkable patterns of Polynesian tapafrom that portion of Cook’s collection which is now at Vienna, are represented on our coloured plate. The tints are black, white, and reddish brown; the patterns, with the exception of a dotted one which seldom occurs, are rectilinear. European influence has unluckily not improved them. Mats from the Gilberts and Marshalls show a special pattern for each island,1displaying a relatively good standard of taste. The women of Micronesia, in Ruk, Mortlock, and Nukuor, weave a fabric from the fibres of a Musa and a Hibiscus. The looms, or rather frames, are like those of the Malays. The Gilbert and Marshall Islanders are clever at weaving mats; the inhabitants of Ponapé sew their mats; the women of Ponapé understand basket-weaving, while the ropes which their husbands make from coco-fibre are famous. From the Gilbert Islands come charming covered baskets and fans of different sorts. The long tough fibres of the Phormium tenax, which grows from 6 to 10 feet high, stimulated the Maoris to the weaving of mats, affording a substitute for tapa of many and various descriptions. Bast mats with borders of feathers woven in are made in Samoa. Cook brought some of the prettiest plaited work from the Tonga Islands: pouches, wooden vessels covered with plaited work and the like; large mats are designed with stripes of dark-coloured bast and adorned with trimmings woven on. A characteristic Tongan object is the fly whisk, which is at the same time one of the king’s insignia. The fans of plaited bast also show pretty shapes; they belong to the toilet of Polynesians of all ages. A great variety of straw plaiting is produced at present in Hawaii. Interesting also are the netting needles, one of which exists in the Cook collection at Vienna, with a net of human hair still wound round it. A strong wooden needle, some 16 inches long, with an eye, was used for the same purpose.

Polynesian fan and fly-whisks, insignia of chiefs, probably from Tongatabu. (Cook Collection.)
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Craftmanship – ornaments

For ornaments, mother-of-pearl was the favourite material to work; it makes a particularly vivid impression when it is employed in glittering natural beads, or lies in broad plates on the breast. Tortoiseshell is split into discs of extraordinary thinness, while valuable chains and girdles are composed of the coloured opercula of certain shells. The laborious putting together of them from numerous small pieces is a particularly favourite task. Feather-weaving reaches its highest pitch in Hawaii. One might say that in the case of the hideous feathered idols of the Sandwich Islands the work is much too fine in comparison with their ugliness. The red feathered head shown in the coloured plate of Polynesian ornaments, with its wide skate’s mouth full of teeth and goggle eyes, is made of plaited reeds and string, into which thousands of little red and yellow feathers are so cleverly worked in tufts that they quite conceal the substratum. The red feathers on the Greek-shaped helmets are from Depranis coccinea, the yellow from Moho fasciculatus.

1 [So to this day many Alpine valleys have their own pattern for home-spun and home-woven cloth, recognised sometimes even in quite remote districts.]

Mental qualities of the Melanesian population

Drum from Pigville,
in New Guinea
Approx. 840mm high
(Christy Collection)
Spatula for betel-lime
from New Guinea
Approx. 240mm long

Dull and barren stupidity does not characterise the mental endowment of the Melanesians. German observers have drawn special attention to the capacity of the Bismarck Islanders for education. In judging of their intellectual nature we must overlook neither the acuteness of their senses nor their inventive faculty. These “savages” find tools, twine, packing materials, where the white man is at a helpless standstill. To their keen practical eye Nature seems a storehouse of useful articles, where what they require at the moment is constantly at hand. Figurative language is everywhere in use; and by means of obsolete or borrowed words it has attained the position of a regular poetic dialect. In the Banks Islands almost every village has its poet or poetess, whose performances do not remain unrewarded. Death is often referred to as “sleep,” and fluids that have become set as “sleeping”; they speak of dying as a sunset, and denote ignorance by “the night of the spirit.” For modesty they employ the term by which they indicate the gentle half-tones of evening light. To reef the sail is to fold the wing. If their feeling for Nature is less than might be expected when we look at their noble landscapes and their beautiful flowing seas, their poetry and their art make free use of these in description and picture.

Drums from Amboyna in the New Hebrides
(after Codrington).

Apart from its didactic, proverbial, brief terms of phrase which betray keen observation and wit rather than fancy, Fijian poetry finds its most characteristic expression in the so-called Meke, a name which implies both song and dance. To only a few elect is it given to invent these; and those allege that they are carried in their sleep to the spirit-world, where divine beings teach them a song with the appropriate dance. The ideal of the Fijian poet is regular measure and every verse ending with the same vowel. This he seeks to obtain by arbitrary abbreviations and lengthenings, by the use of expletives, omission of articles, and other poetical licenses. Seldom, however, is a poem achieved like that recorded by Mr. Williams, consisting of eighteen verses all ending in au. In the historical and legendary ballads the disposition towards exaggeration often takes a grotesque form; nor are interpolations often lacking, to bring in some quite irrelevant bit of coarseness which for the general public constitutes the main attraction of the poem. The ballads are chiefly sung at night, with the inevitable dances; but so great is the love of the Melanesians for song that they sing at their field-work or when rowing or walking about. As a rule one sings a verse and the chorus repeats it.

Musical instrument from New Ireland. Approx. 180mm long
(Godeffroy Collection, Leipzig.)

Melanesian music on the whole resembles Polynesian. Musical instruments are absent only from the smallest islands. The prevalence of the drum in all forms reminds us of Africa. A small drum, made from a bamboo with a slit in it, and beaten with a stick, is carried especially by the women, in order to announce their approach on occasions at which they are excluded. From New Ireland we have a peculiar wooden instrument from which a vibrating tone is extracted by drawing the flat hand along it. The people of New Britain had pan-pipes varying in size and number of pipes; Solomon Isles. There, too, on festive occasions, bands composed of twenty men perform, more than half of whom play wind instruments, reeds fastened twenty-three in a row, and straight flutes of bamboo some 3 feet long by 2½ inches thick, from which they extract two or three tones with chords of thirds or fifths. The others beat large bamboo drums with a stick. The principle of the Melanesian drum is a bamboo cane or a hollow stem with a narrow slit on the thin edges of which it is beaten. Each of these drums is one size smaller than the next, and gives a note different by an octave from that of the next. The flute is forbidden to women, – indeed superstition says that they die if they see it, and the same with the bull-roarer. Among the Tugeri a signal whistle is found, made from a small coco-nut, with several holes bored in it.

The dances often agree even in details with those of the Polynesians. At funeral festivities they dance round a drum with a human countenance to represent the departed. Sometimes the dancers consider themselves to be ghosts; dancing is also a diversion of ghosts. The individual movements consist of bowings and swayings, or jumping up and down; but they also have mimic war-dances, executed by two ranks of men armed with spear and shield. Masks are worn at these, and if they are beast masks we get an idea very like that of the Dance of Death.

Carved coco-nut from New Guinea – Approx. 100mm high. (Christy Collection)

The Melanesians are often spoken of as among the races who cannot count beyond three or five, but numerals for ten are found everywhere, and in New Britain the money reckonings extend to sums which would make us look for numbers higher than a hundred. A kind of knotted cord-writing and similar aids to notation are also not absent here.

Bit of etched design on a coco-nut, from Babel in the Solomons. (After Codrington.)

In the calculation of time and the observation of the heavens, some groups of the Melanesians have much the same knowledge at their command as the Polynesians have. In New Guinea the year is divided by the changes of the monsoon; months and longer periods are distinguished according to the labours of the field; but we find also a division according to the position of the Pleiads, the reappearance of which in the northern heaven betokens the return of spring. A large number of constellations denoted as the Boat with its Outrigger, the Bow-bender, the Bird, the Hunting Brothers, serve to obtain bearings in navigation, and to indicate the time of night. We have already spoken of the navigation of these races at The Races of the Pacific and Their Migrations.

New Hebridean ornament (enlarged)


Of writing we know only traces, in the picture-writing as scratched by the New Caledonians on bamboo, or engraved by the Fijians as well as the Tongans in the shape of little figures among the ornamentation of their clubs.

The History of Mankind – The Races of the Pacific and Their Migrations

The taking of proper bearings is of double importance in this ocean, in which the individual islands are often so far apart and so low-lying that one is astonished that they were ever found. Many islands in the Pacific were discovered for the first time in the present century. The islanders are keen observers of the stars, and have names for a good list of them. They distinguish eight quarters of the heaven and winds to match.

In their conception of the world the ocean is imagined as being everywhere full of islands, which helps to explain their daring voyages. They even inscribe their geographical knowledge upon maps, but while on these the bearings are to some extent correct, the distances are given very inaccurately. In the Ralick group the preparation of maps from small straight and bent sticks, representing routes, currents, and islands, is a secret art among the chiefs. The Marshall Islanders also possess a map of their own, made up of little sticks and stones, showing the whole group.

Stick chart from the Marshall Islands. (Godeffroy Collection).

On their greater enterprises they go to sea in a thoroughly systematic way; the longer voyages of from 500 to 1000 nautical miles are undertaken only in squadrons comprising at least fifteen canoes, commanded by a chief who has one or more pilots to advise him. Without compass, chart, or lead, and with but limited knowledge of the stars, these men contrived to make their distant point. On their voyages they steadily observe the angle made by the canoe with the run of the sea caused by the trade wind, which, north of the equator, blows steadily from the north-east. The use of this run, which remains constant even with shifting winds, has been brought by the native pilots to great refinement. The ocean currents are also no less well known to them by experience, so that they are able to take this also into consideration in laying their course.

As a general rule, in order to get the largest possible field of view, the squadron proceeds in line in which the individual canoes are so widely separated that they can only communicate by signal. By this progress on a wide front they avoid the danger of sailing past the island they are looking for. During the night the squadron closes in. This whole style of navigation contradicts the supposition that before the invention of the compass only coasting voyages were undertaken.

Polynesians and Micronesians often ship on board European vessels, where they prove themselves, apart from their limited physical strength, excellent seamen. The Hawaiians or Kanakas, who are often tried in the whale fishery, are, according to Wilkes, skilful men, but not suited for service on board a man-of-war. They are more serviceable in small than in large parties, being very fond of putting their work upon some one else. They are timid about going aloft. Their best place is at the oar, but even so, when going through the surf, they prefer to jump overboard and swim. On board a man-of-war they find difficulty in accustoming themselves to the word of command, but, on the other hand, in whaling ships they show themselves willing, hard-working, and fearless.

The Races of Oceania – Partial List of Illustrations, Section 1

Map of the Races of Oceania and Australasia
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Map of Pacific Islands Groups
General Survey of the Group
Image Title Image Location Link
State club from the Marquesas The Indians of Columbus
State club from the Marquesas The Indians of Columbus
State club from the Marquesas The Indians of Columbus
Araucanian man and woman Racial resemblances of the people of Oceania to Malays and Indians
Maori girl Racial resemblances of the people of Oceania to Malays and Indians
Bakairi girl from the Kulishu river Racial resemblances of the people of Oceania and America
Boy of New Ireland Racial resemblances of the people of Oceania and America
Men of Ponapé in the Carolines Ethnographic Relationships
Polynesian insignia of rank The great groups; Oceanians, Malays with Malagasies, Australians and Americans
Polynesian insignia of rank – detail The great groups; Oceanians, Malays with Malagasies, Australians and Americans
Dyak woman of Borneo The Malayo-Polynesians
Man of New South Wales The vacant space between Easter Island and Peru


The Races of the Pacific and Their Migrations
Image Title Image Location Link
Polynesian Weapons and Costume The Island Groups
Dancing Hats – Cook or Society Islands Their Climate
Taro Their Cultivated Plants
Coco and Sago Palms Their Cultivated Plants
Boat of the Hermit Islands Number of the population, its decrease and shifting
Sepulchral monument in Ponapé, Caroline Islands Traces of denser population and of civilization
Boat of Niue, Savage Islands Involuntary migrations in the Pacific
Boat of the Mortlock Islands, with outrigger and sail of rush-matting Famine, war, and other grounds of emigration and immigration
Wooden baler, New Zealand Shipbuilding resource limitations
Wooden baler, New Guinea Ship design
Ornamental gorget – Tahiti Ship design
Water bottle – Fiji Shipbuilding comparisons
Outrigged boat, New Britain Shipbuilding comparisons
Wooden baler, New Zealand Ship navigation
Stick chart, Marshall Islands Orientation
Boat of the Luzon Tagals Trading Journeys
A Tagal Village: Luzon in the Phillipines Trading Journeys
Bread-fruit tree showing inflorescence and fruit Migrations in mythology
Thakombau, the last king of Fiji Legends of migrations
Rattan cuirass, throwing-sticks of dark wood, and bark belt, from Kaiser Wilhelm’s Land Community of speech
Feather mask – Hawaii Legend of Hawaiki
Carved boat from New Zealand The New Zealanders’ songs
Feather masks – Hawaii Legends of migrations
Jade battle-axes and jade hatchet Legends of migrations
Axes from the D’Entrecasteaux Islands Polynesians in Melanesia and Micronesia
Feather helmet – Hawaii Ethnographical groups in the Pacific
God of dances in the form of a double paddle, toothed club from Tutuila, ancient club from Tonga, short clubs from Easter Island Ethnographical groups in the Pacific
Sumatran prahu Ethnographical groups in the Pacific
Carved wooden plaques, used as stamps, from the Fiji Islands Ethnographical groups in the Pacific
Man of New South Wales Genealogy of the Australians


MR. JAMES PAYN has recently compared the translator’s functions to those of the typewriter, and in many respects the comparison holds good. Both are expected, like little boys in the nursery code of etiquette, to be “seen and not heard”; that is to say, each is expected to reproduce, in his own medium, what is laid before him in another, and say nothing about it. However, the present translator, with some diffidence, craves leave for a moment to depart from this rule. One fault leads to another, and having on a few occasions in the body of the work ventured, as the merest outsider, to append an illustration drawn from his own reading or experience, in confirmation or otherwise of Professor Ratzel’s views and statements, he is almost compelled to make himself “heard” once more, if only to deprecate reproof for what, now that he looks back on it, seems to have been an impudent intrusion into other people’s domain. It appears to be held in many quarters at the present day that a man cannot know anything about a subject unless he knows nothing about any other; and the “expert” is perhaps justly intolerant of Margites.

On one other point a word of apologia must be said. A fashion has sprung up among the learned of spelling barbarous names according to a system of their own, made it would seem in Germany, but so far as can be judged from the present work, intended chiefly for English use. In this matter a distinction has to be made. In names “transliterated ” from a language with old-established written symbols differing from our symbols, it may be necessary on philological grounds to adopt a conventional system of equating letter with letter, even at the risk of suggesting to the English reader a sound quite unlike that of the original word, or of breaking through an old tradition. It may be all right, for instance, to spell the name of a well-known cricketer so as at once to make the ordinary newspaper-reader pronounce his first syllable as if it rhymed to “man,” and disguise the fact that he is namesake to the Lion of the Punjab. But in the case of names which till Europeans heard them never had occasion to be spelt, surely in a popular work it is best, whenever possible without great violation of custom, to give the form which most nearly conveys the sound from an English eye to an English ear. It would be pleasant indeed to write Otaheite and Owhyhee, stamped as they are with the seal of literature; but here we have surrendered to France, and it is hopeless to revive the old forms. In some cases, however, we are still at liberty to consider our own countrymen. Why, for instance, write Tunguses, which nine Englishmen out of ten will rhyme to “funguses”; when by following our fathers and writing Tungooses we at least give some approximation to the right sound? Again, why write Shilluks for the people whom Gordon reasonably called Shillooks? Other nations would not hesitate. A German writes Schilluk; a Frenchman doubtless Chilouques; an Italian, Scilucchi; a Spaniard, if he ever needs to mention them, Xiluques. Why are Englishmen alone not to keep within their own “sphere of influence” in this matter? Forms like tapu and tatu may be all very well in scientific periodicals, but taboo and tattoo are the English words, and should be used in English books.

In conclusion, the translator has to express his best thanks to two experts, who have very kindly revised the proofs. Mr. Henry Balfour performed this most necessary office for the first two or three parts, and when he was incapacitated by illness for continuing the work, Mr. H. Ling Roth was good enough to come to the rescue. Thanks to his careful superintendence, it may be hoped that few errors remain in the text. He is not responsible for the spelling of names, nor for mistakes in the descriptions of the cuts – about some of which Professor Ratzel appears to have been misinformed. These will mostly be found corrected in the index.

Decorative Art

In a work whose value depends so largely on its illustrative pictures, decorative art must be conspicuous. It is well that it should be so, opening out, as it does, an important problem which we are obliged in great measure to deal with empirically from imperfect knowledge of its principles. Even practically the civilized world has no exclusive possession of the secret of decorative art. There abound in our shops costly things made and sold for little other purpose than to be pretty, which are nevertheless unsatisfactory to the educated eye. On the other hand, savages or barbarians, though looked down upon as of low intelligence, produce objects which all must admit to show artistic taste. The reader will find proof sufficient of this in the pictures of carvings and mats from Papua and Polynesia.

Carved spatulas for betel-lime from Dorey in New Guinea
largest height approx. 210mm (Christy Collection.)Wickerwork (basket, pouches, and fly-whisk), from Tongatabu.
(Cook Collection, Vienna Ethnographic Museum.)Wicker fans from the Gilbert or Marshall Islands (British Museum).

Bamboo drinking horns from New Guinea
(Christy Collection.)
Larger approx. 230mm height.

Carved gourd, used for betel-box, from the Trobriand Islands – Height approx 230mm. (Christy Collection.).

Mats from Tongatabu. (Cook Collection, Vienna.)

Now what is it that makes some lines beautiful, and one more beautiful than another? It will be said in answer that beauty of outline depends on boldness, firmness, and evident intention in drawing, which no doubt is partly true, but some lines are stiff and ugly, some flowing and elegant, and again much stiff ornament is admirable, and flowing patterns may flow clumsily. We may respect Hogarth for attempting the problem of the line of beauty, for with fuller knowledge the moderns may succeed where he failed. The more types of tasteful ornamentation in varied styles can be stored in our minds the nearer will be the approach to its understanding.

It is encouraging to consider what progress has been made of late toward solving not so much indeed the direct problem of decorative beauty, as the intermediate problem of the origin and meaning of ornament. The researches of General Pitt-Rivers on the gradual transformation of human figures into ornamental designs, and the derivation of coil, wave, and step patterns of cultured art from realistic representations of cords and plaitings, gave an impulse to this interesting study which has continued to be worked out in the museum bearing his name, with added series such as Mr. Everard im Thurn’s pegals or baskets made by the natives of British Guiana, where the plaited pictures of birds and monkeys dwindle into graceful patterns, unmeaning unless their derivation is known.

The Evolution of Decorative Art by Mr. Henry Balfour, the curator of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, should be known to all students taking up this attractive line of research. Dr. Ratzel, whose feeling for ornamental design is very definite, has reproduced many instructive objects, among which mention shall only be made here of the Sandwich Island calabash slung in a carrying-net, placed close by two other calabashes without nets, but appropriately decorated with patterns which, according to the island habit, are conventionalised pictures of the absent network . Such evidence goes far to abolish the old-fashioned idea that the patterns which have been the pleasure of ages were devised by ingenious artists out of their inner consciousness. Looking at them as originally derived from real objects, we see none the less how they develop into variety, so that, notwithstanding unity of principle, each tribe or district tends to form patterns of its own, which again being characteristic, are patriotically encouraged as local badges.

Utensils from Hawaii (Arning Collection, Berlin Museum)
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Utensils from Hawaii

Thus every Melanesian and Polynesian knows which island a mat or carving comes from, just as in Switzerland outlying villages are still known by their special embroidery. When one of these populations, savage or civilized, is destroyed or reformed into uniformity with the general fashion of the country, a local school vanishes, and even the examples of its productions disappear. So natural is this that it is a pleasant surprise when they come back sometimes from a hiding-place.

Covered vessel in shape of a bird, inlaid with shell, from the Pelew Islands. (British Museum.)
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Covered vessel in shape of a bird

It brought back to me such a memory when, in this book, I opened on the cut of the “covered vessel in shape of a bird, from the Pelew Islands.” About 1880 I had chanced to go to the county parish of Holcombe Rogus in Devonshire to pay an afternoon visit to the vicar, Mr. Wills. A remark of mine as to a stone implement on the mantelpiece led to the unexpected remark that there were things upstairs from the Pelew Islands. When I protested that nothing from thence had come to England since the time when Captain Wilson brought over “Prince Lee Boo,” whose sad story is told in the once familiar poem, it was answered that the late Mrs. Wills was of Captain Wilson’s family, and had inherited his curiosities. Before that, two generations of children had played havoc with them, but in the attic there were still the great bird-bowl and the inlaid wooden sword, and the rupak or bone bracelet, that prized ornament of chiefs, with other familiar objects figured in Keate’s book. I represented that they ought to be in the national collection, and not long after, Mr. Wills, on his death-bed, ordered that they should be sent to me. They duly took their deserved places in the ethnographic department of the British Museum, where no doubt they will long outlast the amiable but hopelessly degenerate islanders, the picture of whose social decay has been drawn with such minute faithfulness by Kubary.


Study of Specimens

In our time there has come to the front a special study of human life through such object-lessons as are furnished by the specimens in museums. These things used to be little more than curiosities belonging to the life of barbarous tribes, itself beginning to be recognised as curious and never suspected of being instructive. Nowadays, it is better understood that they are material for the student “looking before and after.” In the collections which enshrine them for perpetual knowledge, they fulfil in two different ways their illustration of the course of culture. In the way which is, and probably always must be, the more usual, all the objects which go to furnish the life of a people are grouped together, each group finding its proper level.

Thus in the Ethnographic Galleries of the British Museum, the general condition or “altogether” (to use the useful old-fashioned term) of Australians, Polynesians, Negroes, Tartars, presents more or less definite groups of objects in which art and habit have fixed themselves at a consistent level. Where the rooting-stick appears among the Bushmen as a savage implement, we find in Africa an iron hoe . The South Sea Islander can sketch a rough map, and ingeniously ties together a little framework of sticks to serve as sailing directions on his voyages across the ocean; this bears no discreditable comparison to the compass and measured chart of civilized navigation.

A Bosjesman Family [Click on image for higher resolution]

A Bosjesman Family

The group-pictures, which show not only the bodies but the conditions of a rude race, illustrate this stratification of culture in a suggestive if rough educational way. Here in the frontispiece of the first volume the Bushmenleans against a rock, which also conveniently supports his knobkerry; in his hand is the pipe of antelope-horn for smoking hemp; one child is splitting a bone for marrow with a stone implement (which, however, does not belong to modern times), while another child carries a bull-roarer, as the Berlin street-boys did lately till the police stopped the whirling of this mystic toy; the wife carries ostrich-eggs in a net, and round her neck are teeth strung as charms, while her glass beads, made probably at Murano, show the beginnings of contact with the civilized world; the small bow with its quiver of poisoned arrows, and the water-skin which makes life possible in the thirsty desert, fills up the foreground of the picture.

Among such rude tribes the simplicity of life is such that from a group like this, or the picture of a farm among the lgorotes of the Philippines Islands , which shows these rude negritos engaged in their various occupations, something like a real representation of their life as a whole is possible. More advanced states of civilization become too complex for this to be any longer possible. Among barbaric and much more among civilized peoples, a mere trophy of ordinary weapons and utensils is enough to fill the picture, and life has to be divided into many departments to give even an idea of what useful and artistic objects belong to each.

Weapons and Utensils from Melanesia and Micronesia
(Original print by the Bibliographisches Institut. Leipzig)
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Exhibit of Weapons and Utensils from Melanesia and Micronesia

In ethnographic collections, where the productions of a tribe or nation are grouped locally or nationally together, the student of culture has before him the record of similar human nature and circumstance working so uniformly as to present in each class of objects evident formative principles, developed in various degrees. He finds, or hopes by further research to find, in every such class courses of gradual invention resembling growth. Thus among the implements of different regions, the withe-bound stone hatchet of the Australian takes an early place in the series among whose later members are the bronze hatchet of Egypt and the steel axe of modern Europe. So among means of literary record, the picture-writing of the American Indian presents a lower form than the mingled pictures and phonetic symbols of ancient Egypt, which again lead on to alphabetic writing.

At Oxford, the Pitt-Rivers Collection in the University Museum is devoted to the material evidence of the laws of development of art, custom, and belief, to investigate which by means of specimens brought together from all accessible regions and ages, and arranged in series according to their form and purpose, has been one of the lifelong labours of the founder. The working of such a method may in some degree be shown from the illustrations of the present work.

The Damara bow, though no longer carried as a weapon, retains the purpose of a musical instrument which is gripped by the teeth and the tense bowstring struck with a stick; other tribes improve this primitive stringed instrument by fastening to the wood a hollow gourd or similar resonator to increase the sound, and from some such stage, by making the bow and resonator in one piece and stretching a series of strings across the bow, there arises the African harp, a typical form representing the primitive harp and lute forms of the world . Not indeed that such progressive improvement is the sole rule, for degeneration is active also, as when low culture leads to inferior adaptation of a known type. It has been thought that the rude wooden crossbow of the Fans of the Gaboon represents an early rude stage in the development of the weapon, but it is on the contrary a feeble copy of the arbalest carried by the Portuguese of the sixteenth century, and thus interesting as an example of degeneration.


This Work in Context

It is especially because the present work comes under the class of popular illustrated books that it is desirable to point out that this does not detract from its educational value, but on the contrary makes it good for providing a solid foundation in anthropological study. To discuss the theoretical part, attacking or defending Professor Ratzel’s views on the diffusion of the human species over the globe, the classification of mankind by race and language, and the geography of civilization, would be to go outside the purpose of this introduction. Still less is it the duty of the introducer to seek out errors. He has simply to recommend a foreign book, pointing out to what classes of readers, and for what purposes, it is likely to be useful.

It should, however, be clearly understood that great as the progress of anthropology has been during the last half-century, yet, as in other subjects modern as to their scientific form and rank, the collection of the evidence has not yet approached completion, nor has the theory consolidated into dogmatic form. In the next century, to judge from its advance in the present, it will have largely attained to the realm of positive law, and its full use will then be acknowledged not only as interpreting the past history of mankind, but as even laying down the first stages of curves of movement which will describe and affect the courses of future opinions and institutions. This will be a gain to the systematising of human life and the arrangement of conduct on reasonable and scientific principles.

It is true that such results may be accompanied by some dwindling of the adventurous interest which belongs to the early periods of a science, and possibly the anthropologists of the next century, rich in theoretical and practical knowledge shaped into law and rule, may look back to our days of laborious acquisition of evidence and enjoyment of new results with something of the regret felt by the denizen of a colonial town in looking back to the time when settled occupation was only beginning to encroach on the hunters’ life in the wild land.


Propagation of Art and Culture

In understanding the likeness which pervades the culture of all mankind, the great difficulty is to disentangle the small part of art and custom which any people may have invented or adapted for themselves, from the large part which has been acquired by adopting from foreigners whatever was seen to suit their own circumstances. Original invention and modification of culture must take place somewhere, but to localise it in geography and chronology is so perplexing that anthropologists are fain to fall back, especially as to the more simple and primitive developments, on the view that they arose each in some one centre, or possibly more than one, thence propagating themselves over the world.

Who shall say, for instance, where and by whom were begun the use of the club and spear which are found everywhere, and of the bow, which is found almost everywhere? The problem becomes more manageable as it passes to special varieties of these simple weapons, and to appliances which are more complex and elaborate. For though as yet no definite rule has been ascertained for distinguishing similar inventions which may have arisen separately, from the travelling of one invention from place to place, yet at any rate experience and history lead us to judge that the more complex, elaborate, and unfamiliar an art or institution is, the more right we have to consider that it was only devised once, and travelled from this its first home to wherever else it is found. History often helps us to follow these lines of movement which have spread civilization over the world, while on the other hand the tracing of the arts through the regions of the world is among the most important aids to early history.

Thus in the case of the Bushmen already mentioned, mere inspection suggests that the glass beads which reach them through the traders are to be traced through an art history leading back through Phoenicia to Egypt, while the dakka-pipe is a record not of native African invention, but of the migration of the deleterious habit of hemp-smoking westward and southward probably from Central Asia.

It is well for the student to cultivate the habit, of which this book will give many opportunities, of endeavouring to separate, in the inventory of life among any people, the products of native invention from the borrowed appliances of the foreigner. Thus in the war-dance of the Sioux, the guns and iron-headed tomahawks bartered from the white trader figure beside the more genuine drum and stone-headed club; and the swords and daggers of the African countries show at a glance the influence of Asia which has spread with and beyond the range of the Moslem religion.


Understanding Mankind Through the Material Furniture of Life

For the study of earlier stages of social life, and even of morals and religion, with their manifold bearing on the practical problems of modern life, there is no more useful preparation than familiarity with the modes in which material art and representation are developed and propagated. The same underlying human instinct, the same constancy of human faculty through low and high stages, the same pliability of life to the needs of outward circumstances, which precedes the cultured state where circumstances have to yield to the needs of man, the same adaptation of artificial means suggested by nature, the same copying by the whole tribe of the devices which individuals have started, and then their wider diffusion by one tribe copying from another – these actions go on throughout the human race, and the principles we learn from mere things may guide us in the study of men.

The habit of constant recourse to actual objects is of inestimable use to us in the more abstract investigation of ideas. Its scope is limited; yet as we have to depend briefly on verbal description for our knowledge of the habits of distant and outlandish peoples, their social condition, their rules of right and wrong, their modes of government, and their ideas of religion, the sight of the material things among which such institutions are worked out gives a reality and sharpness of appreciation which add much to the meaning of words. The rude but of Tierra del Fuego, inhabited by the natives occupied among their scanty appliances, brings the race before us in a framing to which we adjust, almost as travellers among them may do, our ideas of the life, morals, and religion of the isolated savage family. So the models or pictures of the huge village-houses of Malays or the higher American Indians enable the spectator to understand the social condition of the communities of grouped families, patriarchal or matriarchal, to which brotherhood and vengeance, communal agriculture and tribal war, naturally belong.

Thus in every direction the material furniture of life, taken in its largest sense, gives clues to the understanding of institutions as tools do of the arts they belong to. The paraphernalia of birth, marriage, and death among the American Indians, the backboard of the papoose, the whip of the initiation ceremony, the beads and paint of the bride, the weapons and ornaments sacrificed for the use of the dead man’s soul, tell in outline the story of their rude life. The great totem-system, which binds together in bonds of amity the tribes of the barbaric world, takes material shape in the pictured and sculptured animals which decorate the mats and the roof-posts of British Columbia with commemoration of the myths of divine ancestors.

In half the countries of the world the conception of the soul and of deity is best to be learnt from the rude human figures or idols in which these spirits take their embodiment. To learn what the worshippers say and do to the idols, and what the indwelling spirits of the idols are considered to do to the worshippers, is to obtain a more positive knowledge of the native theology than is to be had from attempts to extract scholastic definitions from the vague though not unmeaning language of the savage priest.