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.


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