Alexander Goldenweiser.

Early civilization; an introduction to anthropology online

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certain areas and their absence from others, strongly sug-
gest the importance of diffusion through historic contact
as an explanatory factor. More specialized forms of social
units and the functional differentiations between correspond-
ing units in different tribes have as a rule a limited distribu-
tion, while the more minute peculiarities are restricted to
single groups. Here there can be only one interpretation:
just as variants of industry, of art, of religion, arise in par-
ticular localities, so also does social organization become
changed in minor details under the specialized conditions
of individual tribes and local groups. Some of these spe-
cialized developments prove congenial to an ever widening
circle of neighbors, and the new form or function may thus
reach a wide distribution; other specialized developments
remain characteristic of a narrow area or even of an indi-
vidual tribe.

The principles laid down in the "Reflections to Part I"
are thus once more vindicated.


Few primitive institutions have aroused such general in-
terest as has totemism, few have provoked so many theories


and such heated controversies. Spencer, Frazer and An-
drew Lang, Rivers and N. W. Thomas, Thurnwald, Graeb-
ner and Father Schmidt, van Gennep and Durkheim, Wundt
and Freud, all of these and many others have contributed
their share to the discussion of this wellnigh inexhaustible

What, then, is totemism? What is its nature and its dis-
tribution in the primitive world?

One speaks of totemism when a tribe comprises a social
organization mostly of the clan or gentile pattern, as well
as a peculiar form of supernaturalism, consisting in the
most typical cases of certain attitudes toward species of
animals or plants or classes of natural objects. In totemism
the social organization and the supernaturalism are com-
bined in a distinctive way presently to be indicated.

The geographical distribution of totemic tribes is extra-
ordinarily wide. In North America totemism occurs in
the Northwest, among such tribes as the Tlingit and Haida;
among the Zuni, Hopi and related tribes of the Southwest;
among large groups of tribes in the Southeast (Natchez,
Creek, etc.), as well as among such Woodland tribes
as the Algonquin Delaware and to include an exceedingly
attenuated form of totemism among the Iroquois speak-
ing tribes of the League. In the Plains, the so-called South-
ern Siouan tribes (the Omaha and others) have totemism.
Our South American material is still full of gaps, but
totemism has been described by Im Thurn in British Guiana,
some of the native groups of Brazil certainly are totemic,
and it does not seem unlikely that, after further investiga-
tion, totemism will be found as prevalent in the southern
continent as it is in the North. In Africa the tribes of the
Mediterranean littoral must be eliminated as belonging to
a distinct cultural layer, nor is totemism found at the ex-
treme southern end of the continent, among such tribes as
the Bushmen and Hottentot. But in the enormous inter-
vening area, among the Bantu and Sudanese speaking Ne-
groes, totemism is very general if not universal. Anker-


mann's recent presentation, moreover, indicates that further
totemic tribes are certain to be discovered in this region.
In aboriginal India the more developed forms of totemism
do not seem to occur, but many of the gotras or clan-like
social groupings of that area have some form of totemism,
while others seem to have had it in the past. Australia is
the totemic continent par excellence. There all the tribes
are totemic with some possible exceptions among the groups
of the southeastern and northwestern shores, and even
among some of these the evidence for former totemism is
not unsatisfactory. Among the islanders of the Torres
Straits and in Melanesia totemism is sporadic, but in the
latter area it is in some cases highly developed. In Po-
lynesia the evidence is doubtful but it is not improbable
that some at least of the western island clusters had totem-
ism in the past.

This enormous geographical distribution of totemism can
only be interpreted in one way. An historic accident of
singular origin followed by diffusion could not account for
it. Totemism must have originated independently several,
if not many times, and among those tribes to whom totemism
was brought by their neighbors, there must have been a
marked receptivity for this institution. In other words,
the complex of ideas, attitudes and practices which is totem-
ism, is congenial to early mentality and therefore charac-
teristic of it.

As one analyzes totemic clans or gentes in a broad sur-
vey of the globe, a variety of beliefs and practices with
reference to totems are observable. The totemites mem-
bers of a totemic group trace their descent from an
animal or bird or thing, or they regard themselves as in
some other way related to the totem; the totem and the
totemite share physical and psychic traits; the totem pro-
tects the totemite against danger; the totem is represented
in art and figures as a sacred symbol at ceremonies; the
totem is taboo it may not be eaten or killed or seen or
touched, or all of these; the totemic group is named after


the totem; ceremonies are performed by the totemites to
multiply the supply of the totem animal these are only
some of the positive and negative rules observed by totem-
ites with reference to their totems. In addition to this
it must be noted that the totem is scarcely ever some one
animal or plant or thing; no, it is an entire species or class
of creatures or things that figure as totems. And, finally,
the members of a totemic group may not intermarry this
rule is almost as wide as totemism itself.

It is, however, not quite satisfactory to thus characterize
totemism by a number of features of belief and practice.
For, if the question is asked whether these totemic features
are found everywhere comprised in totemism or whether
some appear in one tribe, others in another, the latter
proves to be the case.

Discarding the differences between minor totemic dis-
tricts, broad continental areas appear clearly differentiable
from the standpoint of totemism. In North America the
artistic side of totemism is often developed and among the
tribes of the Northwest Coast this is highly marked. The
totemic name is common but not universal, and the same is
true of the totemic taboo. Where totemism is richly de-
veloped it becomes associated with the belief in guardian
spirits. Then again, there are tribes like the League Iro-
quois and many tribes of the Southwest, where the only dis-
cernible features are clan exogamy and the animal or bird
name of the clan barely enough to justify the designation
"totemic," and perhaps scarcely enough.

In Africa, the gentile totemic name for here gentes pre-
vail is often absent and so are the artistic representations
of the totem. Double totems occur, as among the Baganda,
where most of the gentes have two totems. The idea of
descent from the totem is very rare, instead a variety of
stories are told among the different tribes to explain how
the totems first made their appearance. But the most typical
trait of African totemism is the taboo the prohibition to
eat or kill the totemic creature. The term for totem among


many Bantu speaking tribes means "that which is for-
bidden." The punishment for the transgression of this
taboo is severe, the usual conception being that nature it-
self takes revenge upon the offender: he (or she) is af-
flicted with a skin disease, which is interpreted by the natives
as at least a partial transformation of the culprit into the
tabooed animal.

In Australia the number of totemic groups in a tribe is
frequently very large much larger than either in Africa or
in North America and the number of individuals in each
totemic group is correspondingly small. The totemic clan
or gentile name is universal and so is the taboo. The con-
ception is common that the totemite and the totem are
closely related. The idea that the totemites are in one way
or another descended from the totem is general. Totemic
art, where it occurs, is peculiar insofar as identical designs
are used to represent their totems not only by different
totemic groups of one tribe but even by totemic groups
belonging to separate tribes. On the other hand, each to-
temic group interprets these designs in accordance with its
own totemic ideas. In Central Australia individuals of one
totem and locality perform magic ceremonies which are be-
lieved to bring about the multiplication of the totemic

This characterization of the three continental areas will
suffice for our purpose. It will be seen that what might
be called the "totemic complexes" of these areas differ con-
siderably in the number as well as in the character of the
totemic features they contain. There is further difference
in the prominence accorded certain traits. Thus, in Cen-
tral Australia the magical aspect predominates, in Africa
it is the taboo aspect, in North America the guardian
spirit aspect, and specifically on the Northwest Coast the
art is the dominant feature.

If we cared to push our analysis still further, we might
note that the degree to which the culture of different tribes is
saturated with totemism is by no means always the same.


Thus, among the Northwest tribes almost every side of civi-
lization is touched by a totemic flavor, religion and mythol-
ogy, social organization, ceremonialism and economics, in-
dustry and art; while among the Omaha, material culture
seems wholly free from totemic connection, and ceremonial-
ism almost entirely so. Here totemism is relegated largely
to the religious and mythological domains. In Africa, again,
totemism is often little more than a system of food restric-

It is, however, possible to overemphasize these differ-
ences at the expense of equally fundamental similarities. In
the first place, some features are much more common than
others. For example : whereas magical ceremonies to mul-
tiply totems are performed only in central Australia and
totemic art has nowhere developed so prolifically as on the
Northwest Coast, other traits occur with fair uniformity
in most or all of the major totemic areas. Among such
widely diffused totemic attributes are totemic clan or gen-
tile names, totemic taboos and the idea of some form of re-
lationship with the totem. Nor is this all. Exogamy of
the totemic unit is an almost universal trait of totemism.
Whether one holds with some that exogamy is of the very
essence of totemism, or with others that it is merely a clan
or gentile attribute and enters into the totemic relationship
secondarily, the fact remains that the prohibition to marry
one's totem mate is almost co-extensive with totemism it-
self. 1 And now we come to still another trait which is even
more characteristic of totemic communities than exogamy;
this trait is a negative one: totems are not worshipped.
Animal and plant worship and the deification of inanimate
Nature, are not totemism. Almost everywhere, in fact,
these forms of religion exist side by side with totemism.

This brings us to the kernel of the totemic situation. The
most distinctive thing about this institution is not the vio-

this negative aspect is not all there is to exogamy and that in a
particular social system clan or gentile exogamy may be a secondary, not a
primary feature, has been explained before (see pp. 249 sg.).



lence of the religious regard for the totem that, as just
noted, is not discernible but the way totemic ideas and
rites are interwoven with a social system. 1

It would be wholly satisfactory to regard this peculiar re-
lation of an ideological and behavioristic supernaturalism
to a social system as the most distinctive trait of totemism,
if not for one circumstance which, at first sight, seems not
a little disturbing: our diagram would serve as well to illus-
trate a tribal set of religious societies; for here also a
tribal pattern of traits appears in a variety of concrete
forms. It thus becomes necessary to stress with added
emphasis the character of the social skeleton underlying a
totemic complex. The skeleton is always a social system.

following diagram may serve to illustrate how a totemic complex
fits into a social organization:


Here the segments I, II, III, . . . are social units (in totemism generally
clans or gentes), while a, b, c and d are totemic features, say taboo (a),
nAme (b), relationship (c), and artistic representation (d). Now a+b+c+d
is sufficient to characterize the totemic complex, if one notes in addition
that in each segment these features appear in somewhat different form
(fli, 02, tb, . . ., b\, bt, bz, etc), for each totemic unit has a different animal
or bird or plant or thing for its totem, and to that extent its taboo, its rela-
tionship, its artistic representation are different in their concrete aspects
from the corresponding features in the other totemic units of the complex.


It may be a tribal set of families or of local groups, but in
a surprisingly large majority of cases it is either a clan or
a gentile system. The totemic complex may constitute the
very flesh and spirit of that system, but if the totemic com-
plex were conceivably removed, the skeleton would remain :
there would still be a social system.

Thus it appears that neither the socio-psychological na-
ture of totemism, nor its geographical distribution, nor its
historic role can be understood without a proper appraisal
of the underlying social skeleton. This, in a majority of
cases, will be found to be a clan or a gentile system, although
instances where families or villages appear as carriers of a
totemic complex are not unknown. Socio-psychologically
this means that there is some delicate correspondence be-
tween the supernaturalistic aspect of totemism and clan or
gentile systems, some fitness 1 in their inter-relation. Geo-
graphically this means that wherever clans or gentes occur,
there also totemism is likely to be (although there are excep-
tions). And historically this means that whatever elements
of primitive life clans and gentes expressed, whatever ele-
ments they brought into it, totemism had its share in the pro-
cess. For it must be remembered that whereas families and
local groups are shared by early and modern civilization,
clans and gentes are known to primitive life alone; they are
equally foreign to earliest man and to historic man.

Before we leave the subject of totemism a further query
must be met. Has totemism and all it stands for been left
definitely behind? or can certain adumbrations of it be dis-
cerned in modern society? It can be shown that neither
the supernaturalism involved in totemism nor the peculiar
form of socialization implied in it, are wholly foreign to
modern life.

While plants and inanimate things have long since been
relegated to the realm of the matter-of-fact, animals still
inhabit a region where fact and fancy are peacefully wedded

'C/. my article, "Form and Content in Totemism" (American Anthropol-
ogist, vol. 20, 1918, pp. 280-295).


together. As between the animal and its human master,
verbal usage reveals a common range of physical and psy-
chic qualities. One thinks of the eagle eye, the lionine
heart, the dogged perseverence, the bull's neck. Current
metaphor, half earnest half in jest, has introduced the fox
and the beaver, the bear and the rabbit, the cat and the
cow, the hog and the ass, the ape and the shark, as charac-
ters of the human scene. Some mothers treat their children
with an affection we think ape-like, while others make chil-
dren of apes, and of cats, dogs and parrots as well.
And it is typical that phychic qualities intellect, affection,
understanding, sensitiveness are wont to be ascribed to
these creatures by their masters, who, curiously enough,
often tend to deny these traits to man.

From the days of Lavater's physiognomies to those of
Lambrosian criminology, note has been taken of animalistic
suggestions in human countenances, and these were bal-
anced, perhaps less commonly, by the reading of human
features and expressions into the faces of animals. In that
inimitable fragment of life, "Marie Claire," unique in its
simplicity and directness, Marguerite Audou has given us
a rich collection of such observations.

To those who love animals, live with them, learn their
ways, the temptation to see them as what they are not is
wellnigh irresistible. The "true" stories of most "nature
fakers" are quite sincere, and the highly imaginative pages
of Georgette Leblanc represent but a literary culmination
of the opinions about dogs of many women and men.

To this must be added the often noted tendency on the
part of equivalent social units to adopt as classifiers names,
badges, pins, flags, tatoo marks, colors. One thinks of high-
school and college classes, baseball and football teams, po-
litical parties, the degrees of the Elks and Masons and the
regiments of our armies.

The names and things that are thus used as classifiers and
symbols, habitually rest against a background of emotion.
In the case of regimental banners, the emotions aroused


may reach great violence, while in the instance of animal and
bird mascots there arises a complex of attitudes and rites
so curiously exotic as to invite an exaggerated analogy with
primitive totemism.

The fact remains that the supernaturalistic as well as
the social tendencies of totemic days live on in modern so-
ciety. But in our civilization these tendencies, in the ab-
sence of a crystallization point, remain in solution, whereas
in primitive communities the same tendencies, clustering
about the skeletons of clan and gentile systems, function as
highly distinctive vehicles of culture.




Before us is a survey of many aspects of primitive civili-
zation. In economics and industry, in art and religion, in
social structure and political organization, early society
presents a multiplicity of forms and functions. After an
analysis of these features, one question naturally suggests
itself. How can they be explained? Why so many differ-
ences? Are there any general conditions with which these
differences can be correlated? It was hinted in the open-
ing sections of this book that racial factors cannot be held
responsible for the variety of civilizational forms. It
would indeed be absurd to refer the civilizational pecu-
liarities disclosed to racial or sub-racial factors, for a multi-
plicity of differences in all of the aspects of civilization
reviewed have repeatedly appeared within the range of
one physical type.

Another favorite explanation lies in the direction of
physical environment. Granted the psychic unity of man-
kind, it is the environmental differences, climate, Flora,
Fauna, geographical position, which are responsible for the
differentiations of civilization. This type of explanation
has often been attempted. Montesquieu must be counted
among the early environmentalists. Taine once made a
great stir by his attempts to interpret forms of civilization,
especially in its artistic and literary aspects, by environ-
mental conditions. And the staunch environmentalism of
Buckle still has its charms for many of his readers. The
whole subject was placed on a more scientific foundation by
the German geographer-anthropologist, Friederich Ratzel.
Ratzel was primarily interested in material culture, and
being by training a geographer, he conceived of civilization



as a sort of an outgrowth of physical environment, a psycho-
sociological culmination of the geological process. Among
more modern writers, Miss Semple, the talented American
interpreter and translator of Ratzel, must be classed as a
non-compromising environmentalist, having embodied her
creed in a brilliant discussion of American history and its
geographic environment. But undoubtedly the most suc-
cessful of modern environmentalists is Ellsworth Hunting-
ton, author of "The Pulse of Asia," whose work centers
around the idea of a climatic rather than a general environ-
mental interpretation of civilization.

Whether true or not, environmental interpretations of
civilization are often accepted with favor on account of their
apparent objectivity and definiteness. Culture and mind
are evanescent and elusive; environment is definite, con-
crete, measurable. Hence the modern mind, ever eager
for measurable results and mathematical formulations, is :
easily thrown off its guard by any at all ingenious attempt
to reduce civilization to environmental determinants.

But let us glance at the facts. It is clear from the start
that of all aspects of civilization, material culture is the
one most closely allied with environmental factors. People
eat, dress, build and move about in accordance with the re-
quirements and by the use of the facilities and materials
furnished by their physical environment. Industry is also
clearly affected by the materials available and the uses sug-
gested by the character of the physical milieu. That ma-
terial culture should thus be found in close touch with the
physical factors of Nature is indeed to be expected for is
not material culture the physical environment itself, or part
of it, transformed into civilization through the creativeness
of man?

Plausible though all this seems, an inspection of the
actual conditions at once introduces a variety of complicat-
ing factors. People do not use all that is offered them by
their physical environment, and they often use things which
can be obtained only with great effort or by transgressing


the narrow limits of the immediate physical surroundings.
Thus the wood industry of the Northwest Coast would
readily suggest an environmental interpretation. The great
trees are there, and the wood industry, including the won-
derful art, seem almost preordained by the very nature of
the physical environment. But further south, along the
Pacific slope, is a great region inhabited by the tribes of the
California area, a region almost unique in the vastness of
its forests. Now, in the culture of the California Indians
this is in no way reflected, for among them wood industry
has not developed.

The distribution of pottery in North America is another
case in point. The clay necessary for this industry is avail-
able practically throughout the entire expanse of the conti-
nent, but pots are made only among certain tribes. Roughly
speaking, a line drawn from the northeastern corner of the
continent to the southwestern one would divide North
America into a pot making district south and east of the
line and one in which no pottery is made north and west
of it. The fact that the tribes with pottery as well as those
without, cluster in continuous geographical areas at once
suggests that an entirely different factor is involved here,
namely the diffusion of an industry from tribe to tribe.

The oft cited example of the Eskimo of arctic America
and the Chukchee of Northeastern Siberia might once more
be adduced here in view of its suggestiveness. What is
more natural, exclaims the lusty environmentalist, than that
the Eskimo should build snow houses ! Are they not plenti-
fully provided with this material almost the whole year
round and does it not lend itself admirably for structural
purposes, its use being, moreover, suggested by the natural
forms assumed by the snow? Yes, for once the environ-
mentalist seems to stand on firm ground until a glance
across Bering Strait reveals to one the cultural conditions
of the Chukchee. Here is another arctic people, living'
under conditions practically identical with those of the
Eskimo. The snow, in particular, is supplied by Siberian


Nature as generously as it is in the arctic of the New World.
The Chukchee, however, do not build snow houses. In-
stead, they build their large clumsy tents of hide over heavy
wooden supports and, in the face of considerable incon-
venience, drag them along in their frequent migrations.
Again, among the same two peoples reindeer are avail-
able in large quantities and both peoples do indeed
make use of them. But in what way? When the
Eskimo needs a reindeer whose meat he eats, whose
hide he uses to line the outside of his kayak and the

Online LibraryAlexander GoldenweiserEarly civilization; an introduction to anthropology → online text (page 24 of 36)