National Geographic : 1946 Jan
Earth's Most Primitive People A Journey with the Aborigines of Central Australia BY CHARLES P. MOUNTFORD With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author ON BOTH sides of the lonely western section of the border between South Australia and Northern Territory there is a tribe of about 300 aborigines who are living probably the most primitive existence on earth today. Their homeland is so inhospitable that few Europeans have ventured into it. Indeed no white man can live there unless he carries his supplies with him. Yet the aborigines, without a stitch of clothing and with only five implements to aid their bare hands, have been able, for untold generations, to wrest an adequate livelihood from their desolate surroundings. When the Board for Anthropological Re search of the Adelaide University asked me to lead an expedition to observe and photo graph the art and culture of these people, I accepted with alacrity. I took with me only my wife, who was to help in the study of the life of the women; Mr. Lauri E. Sheard, who was to inquire into the social organization, games, and art of the women; Tjundaga, a half-caste camel man, and Tjundaga's full blood wife, Nibiana. Scorning superstition, we started on May 13 and traveled 650 miles on the fortnightly train through a vast, sparsely inhabited region to Oodnadatta. The trip took 40 hours. Beyond Oodnadatta we proceeded by motor over roads so bad that we were more than 30 hours covering 350 miles (map, page 91). On the Edge of a Stone Age Land We made our main camp at the outlying Ernabella Mission Station. There we stayed a month while we were obtaining information from the aborigines about the distribution of their tribal lands, the location of the water holes, and any other data that might help us in our later research. We quickly made friends with the dark folk, particularly the children. They were the continual companions of my wife, often getting in her way, I am afraid, when she was performing her share of the camp chores. There was one attractive baby that every one seemed to love, for it was the center of attention. Men, women, and children wanted to carry it about and fuss over it. Only at mealtimes did we know who was the mother. The life of the aboriginal child is full of all the love and affection that one could wish for any child. I have yet to see an aboriginal child chastised by its own people. As I watched them day after day, rolling in the dust, sitting in the damp sand of the water hole, and climbing trees, I realized the advantage they had in not wearing clothes. They had nothing on to tear or get dirty. Early one morning I heard the sound of music behind a low pile of rocks close to our tents. Judging something unusual was afoot, I picked up my camera and strolled over. Paintings on Human Bodies There I came across about twenty boys, seven to twelve years of age, painting with charcoal, chalk rock, and red ocher symbolic designs on one another's bodies (page 99). They were getting ready for the ceremony of the mountain devil. This ceremony belongs exclusively to the young boys. No women or girls are allowed to come near, nor do the elder men attend. The leader, himself little more than a youth, directed the body paintings and the perform ance of the rituals that told of a time in the long-distant past when, according to legend, the mountain devil (a fearsome-looking, but perfectly harmless desert reptile) with his companion, the sleepy lizard, invited all the small birds and lizards to a ceremony. The little creatures came from near and far, for no one refused such an invitation. But as they were busy painting each other for the coming rituals-just as the boys I watched were doing-someone lit a fire that set the whole countryside ablaze. Before that time the birds had had glossy white plumage, but in that disastrous con flagration all the little birds were badly scorched. Some were burned black all over, some only in patches, while many of the other birds and lizards were so badly smoke-stained that they carry the colors even to this day. The clean-limbed naked boys, led by their tutor, himself extraordinarily graceful, danced the story of the mountain devil and his un fortunate companions. I have seen no other performance to equal that one for sheer beauty. The stage was a grass-covered plain and the backdrop a tumbled pile of granite boulders.