National Geographic : 1949 Dec
Exploring Stone Age Arnhem Land BY CHARLES P. MOUNTFORD Leader of the National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution Expedition to Arnhem Land, Australia, in cooperation with the Australian Government With Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer Iowell Walker A STRANGE world below our plane un folded like an ancient chart on weath ered parchment. Scattered rains and mist blurred brown watercourses, swathed soggy green plains, and beveled gray edges of sharp escarpments. It seemed almost un fair to fly with such ease over country where so few white men dared to venture on foot. Hundreds of feet above Arnhem Land one could feel its inhospitable vastness and infi nite emptiness. Scarcely scratched by European exploration, Arnhem Land, an aboriginal reserve about the size of Maine, lies in northern Australia (map, pages 748-9). Except for the ever spreading influence of widely spaced Christian missions, it remains blackfellows' country with a Stone Age look. Here nomadic natives follow their age-old customs. In small groups they hunt with spears over the black-soil flats, among the monotonous eucalyptus forests, and in steep walled gorges of the stony plateau. In primi tive dugout canoes they fish off the coast, gather food in the swamps, or along the many tidal rivers. Often the aborigines hold an all-night corro boree (tribal song and dance), their painted bodies flashing grotesquely in the firelight. And sometimes their spears fly in a fight to the death over women. In early April, 1948, two Catalina flying boats moved the majority of our expedition staff from Darwin to Groote Eylandt in the wide Gulf of Carpentaria. A supply ship fol lowed with three more members, the bulk of equipment, and food supplies.* Aborigines Studied in Natural Environment Ten Australians and five Americans made ours the largest purely scientific expedition ever to take the field in Australia. Original plans called for a much smaller group. However, through the personal atten tion of the Commonwealth Minister for Immi gration and Information the party expanded; the Honorable Arthur A. Calwell was anxious to further collaboration between the scientists of his country and the visiting ones. As the story unwinds, you will meet the members; so we won't herd them all on the stage at once (page 760). The National Geo- graphic Society and the Smithsonian Institu tion (both of Washington, D. C.) and the Commonwealth Government of Australia spon sored the international expedition, hand-pick ing their respective representatives for the comprehensive eight-month survey. Main objectives were to observe the every day life of Arnhem Land aborigines; try to determine where they originally came from; learn how they coped with their own environ ment; collect specimens of their material cul ture, such as spears, throwing sticks, mats, and baskets. No less important was the task of recording mammals, fish, birds, and plants in the region. The scientific departments helped one an other in the field. Naturalists supplied an thropologists with information on the natives' environment, while the nutritional unit judged how well aborigines lived off the country. No other expedition in Australia has embraced so many interlocking branches of anthropology, natural history, and medical research. Three Main Bases We divided our time in the field fairly among three main bases. Our first camp, at Umbakumba in northern Groote Eylandt, offered an island environment with a generally arid, sandy hinterland. Secondly, Yirrkala, in the northeast corner of Arnhem Land, let us study life on the sea coast as well as among fresh-water billabongs (lagoons) and rich eucalyptus forests. Oenpelli, our final site, was some 40 miles from the sea; here the great stony plateau of Arnhem Land rose abruptly from flood plains where extensive lagoons and marshlands teemed with fish and wildfowl and crocodiles lived in the writhing tidal rivers. Although among the first areas of Australia discovered, Arnhem Land remains the least known corner of this island-continent. As early as 1606 a Dutch East India Com pany vessel penetrated 300 miles into the huge Gulf of Carpentaria to Cape Keerweer. * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Cruise to Stone Age Arnhem Land," by Howell Walker, September, 1949; "An Arnhem Land Adven ture," by Donald F. Thompson, March, 1948; and "Earth's Most Primitive People," by Charles P. Mountford, January, 1946.