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Thread: Alfred Russel Wallace: Probable Origin of the Australian Race

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    Post Alfred Russel Wallace: Probable Origin of the Australian Race

    Probable Origin of the Australian Race
    (S720, Chapter V.10.: 1893)

    Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: The following is excerpted from Chapter V of the 1893 edition of Wallace's regional study Australasia (S720); it was later expanded into a longer essay (S583) included in his Studies Scientific and Social (S727) in 1900. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

    [[p. 149]] The aborigines of Australia differ remarkably from those of all the surrounding countries, while they agree so closely among themselves in every part of the continent that they evidently form a single race. To recapitulate their main characteristics: they may be described as men of medium stature, muscular, but with slender arms and legs, rather large heads with broad foreheads and overhanging brows, the nose thick and very broad at the nostrils, as with many of the lower races, the mouth large and lips thick, but far less so than in the negro races. In colour they are a deep copper or chocolate, never sooty black as in the negro; the hair is long, glossy black or very deep auburn, usually wavy or curly and very abundant, and the face is adorned with a luxuriant growth of moustache, beard, and whiskers, usually with an auburn tinge. These characters, in their combination, give to the face as a whole a familiar appearance resembling that of the coarser and more sensual types of western Europeans; while they are as totally removed from any of the beardless Malayan and Polynesian tribes, or the woolly or frizzly haired Papuans. They have sometimes a considerable growth of hair on the body, especially on the chest and back, while the infants are much lighter in colour than the adults, and [[p. 150]] have a considerable amount of soft fur on the neck and back.

    If we turn to habits and customs for some light as to their probable derivation, we find equally clear proofs that [[p. 151]] we must go far beyond the limits of all immediately surrounding peoples. While Malays, Papuans, and Polynesians all cultivate the ground, and all build good permanent houses, the Australians never do one or the other. The pottery of the Malays and Papuans, the bows and arrows of the Papuans and other Melanesians, and the elaborate canoes of all these races are equally unknown to the Australians, who thus remain among the savage tribes who have made the very smallest advance on the road to material civilisation.

    In Mr. Curr's elaborate work on "The Australian Race" an attempt is made to show that there is a great resemblance in language and in many customs between the native races of Australia and Africa. By comparing some words of the numerous languages of Australia with the words of the same meaning in some of the still more numerous African languages and dialects, a considerable number of striking resemblances are found. But it is probable that an equal number of resemblances could be found if the languages of any other part of the world were taken for comparison, because many of the words used are either onomatopœic or what may be described as functional. Thus words for the "lips," "mouth," or "head" are expressed by labial sounds, for the teeth by dental sounds, for the nose by nasals, such as n, ng, or ny; and thus the names for these parts of the body often resemble each other in the most remote parts of the world. So in the names for father and mother the infantile ba, pa, and ma occur in every part of the world, though sometimes transposed in their meaning. Similar resemblances have been found by other writers among the languages of the hill tribes of India, and with these races there is rather more accordance in physical characters. Mr. Curr also adduces a considerable [[p. 152]] number of curious customs which are common to Australia and Africa: such as the great importance attached to sorcery, the forming raised scars on the body, the habit of knocking out the front teeth, of circumcision, of prohibition of marriage within certain class divisions, the forms of burial, and some others. But some of these customs are very widespread among savages; and unless it can be ascertained that a considerable number of them are strictly limited to Africa and Australia, they can afford no proof of a common origin to the two races. More interesting is the fact that the peculiar Australian weapon, the boomerang, finds its nearest representative in Abyssinia and among the ancient Egyptians. This may indicate that the weapon had a wider range in early times, but was gradually supplanted by the bow and other superior weapons, but can hardly be held to prove identity of race in opposition to so many characteristic differences.

    Looking broadly, and without prejudice, at the physical features of the Australians, they evidently belong neither to the Negroid nor to the Mongoloid types of man, while in all essential characters they must be classed as Caucasians. If we look abroad for other isolated fragments of the same type, we find one in the Ainos of Japan. These singular people agree wonderfully with the Australian type, but are somewhat more hairy and of a lighter colour. They are also in a more advanced stage of material civilisation, and are probably on a somewhat higher intellectual and moral plane. Other fragments of the same great primitive race exist in the Khmers and Chams of Cambodia, who are said to be decidedly Caucasian in type; while their language has affinities with those of Polynesia, where also Caucasian affinities are shown, especially in some of the [[p. 153]] inhabitants of Micronesia. Of all these widely scattered Caucasian fragments we must look upon the Australians as the lowest and the most primitive. Their antiquity is, in all probability, very great, since they must have entered their present country at a time when their ancestors had not acquired the arts of making pottery, of cultivating the soil, of domesticating animals, of constructing houses, or of fabricating the bow and arrow. They thus afford us an example of one of the most primitive types of humanity yet discovered.

    What renders their uniform low condition more remarkable is, that they must have been many times brought into contact with more advanced races. There are some signs of intermixture in the north with both Malays and Papuans, but this has had little or no effect on the customs of the people. Some still higher race has evidently at one time formed a settlement on the north-west coast, as indicated by the very remarkable cave-paintings and sculptures discovered by Sir George Grey. These exist in the valley of the Glenelg River in North-West Australia, about 60 miles inland, and about 20 miles south of Prince Regent's River, in a very rugged tract of country. The figures consist of representations of human heads and bodies, apparently of females clothed to the armpits, but all the faces are without any indication of mouths. The heads are all surrounded with a broad kind of headdress or halo, and one of the figures wears a necklace. They are executed in bright red on a clear white ground, the clothing marked with a red pattern, and the broad hat or halo in some of the figures is executed in blue, red, and yellow. The figures are nearly life-size, and the largest is on the sloping roof of a cave, appearing to look down upon the visitor. There are also some drawings of kangaroos far [[p. 154]] more finished than anything done by modern Australians. On the roof of another cave was found a full-length figure 10 feet high dressed in a loose red garment from neck to ankles, the hands and feet well executed, and the latter apparently covered with shoes. The white face is mask-like, showing the eyes only, around which are circular concentric bandages, the inner one yellow, the outer red, looking something like a broad cap and outer bonnet. On the upper part of this are five letters or characters having an oriental aspect. Although poorly executed, these figures all have a refined appearance as utterly out of place among the Australian natives as would be any modern work of art. Very near one of the caves there was found on a large vertical sandstone rock a well-executed human head hollowed out to about an inch and a half deep in the centre, the head being 2 feet in length and 16 inches broad. The singularity of it is that it is perfectly European in type, both in form of head and features. The only other paintings which appear to have a similar character are those discovered by Captain Flinders in Chasm Island on the north-east coast, and which have been preserved in a sketch by W. Westall, A.R.A., who accompanied Flinders as artist. These form a long procession of human figures in pale red colour, rudely executed but all apparently clothed in long garments. Near the head of the procession is a much taller male figure, with arms outstretched and holding a stick, and towards the middle is an equally tall female figure. There are also some turtles and a swordfish pretty well drawn.

    Whoever were the people who executed these singular paintings, they were probably the makers also of the two large square mounds found by Sir George Grey in the same district. These were formed of loose stones, but [[p. 155]] were perfect parallelograms in outline, and were placed due east and west. From the drawing given of them they must have been heaped up with great care, since they are finished to a sharp ridge with triangular ends just like the roof of a building. Both were exactly the same length, 22 1/4 feet, but they differed somewhat in width and height. One was opened, but nothing was found inside it but a quantity of fine mould.

    In this same district Sir George Grey noticed among the dark-coloured natives a few individuals who were very much lighter in colour, he says, "almost white"; and he thinks that these lighter people exercised authority; and he also describes the native houses as being better constructed here than in other parts of Australia.

    A good deal farther south, on the upper Gascoyne River, Mr. Giles met with some natives who were exceptionally good-looking. He says: "Some of these girls and boys had faces, in olive hue, like the ideal representation of angels; how such beauty could exist among so poor a grade of the human race it is difficult to understand, but there it was."

    It is quite evident that some colony has once existed on the north-west coast either of shipwrecked Europeans, or of some of the higher or more civilised Malays, and that after maintaining themselves for some time and leaving behind them the curious paintings and carvings here described, they have either left the country or been exterminated by the natives. The remarkable costume of the figures should give a clue to the designers, and there is, so far as I know, only one locality where a similar costume is in use--the islands of Siau and Sanguir north of Celebes. It is, however, difficult to see how these islanders could have wandered so far away [[p. 156]] from home. Is it possible that some Chinese Christians, converts of the early Jesuit missionaries, may have been wrecked on this coast, and that the figures may represent their recollection of the pictures of saints with haloes round their heads? Whoever the people were who executed these paintings, it is quite certain they were not Australians.

    The conclusion here reached that the Australians, usually classed as one of the lowest of existing races, are really of Caucasian type, and are more nearly allied to ourselves than the civilised Japanese or the brave and intelligent Zulus, may appear to some to be improbable or even absurd. But I venture to think that it nevertheless most nearly accords with all the facts of the case; and since it has been admitted that even some of the darkest Hindoos are nearly allied to Europeans, there is less improbability in the existence of some more archaic and less developed examples of the same type. It also accords with all we are now learning of the vast antiquity of the human race; since, if all the tribes now living can be classed in one or other of the three great divisions of mankind, Negroid, Mongolian, and Caucasian, or as probable mixtures of them, we are impressed with the conviction that we must go back to periods to which the earliest historical dates are but as yesterday in order to arrive at an epoch when the common ancestors of these three well-marked types alone inhabited the earth. Even then we shall have made no perceptible approach to the "missing link"--to the common ancestor of man and the higher quadrumana. . . .

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    Post Re: Alfred Russel Wallace: Probable Origin of the Australian Race

    My impression is that the Australian Aborigines are made up of four races:

    1. A type either related to, or the same race as, the Neanderthals of Europe, with a middle brown skin colour; probably the first people to arrive in Australia.

    2. A fairly short, stocky type, also middle brown skinned, and particularly hairy, with thick, often concurrent eyebrows; many Japanese Ainu are of this type.

    3. A Negro type, the same race as Sub-Saharan Africans, and the predominant race in Papua New Guinea.

    4. A type characterised by medium or perhaps tallish stature, slim build, skin colour almost as dark as Negros, hair black, straight and somewhat silky looking, and facial features which are European enough that people would probably class this type as Caucasian if it were light-skinned; this race may have come from India considering it is very common there and also that most Aboriginal languages have quite similar sound systems to the the languages of South India; there are some striking similarities between Aboriginal and South Indian music as well.

    The Tasmanian Aborigines (of whom there have been no full-blooded representatives alive for about a hundred years) were said to be much more curly haired than the mainlanders and of a somewhat different appearance. So it seems that the Indian type probably never reached the island of Tasmania.

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