Skip to content

Technology (27): Cosmology, totems and resistance to technological change among the Yir-Yoront aboriginal people

… the totemic system serves very effectively in inhibiting radical cultural changes. The closed system of totemic ideas explaining and categorizing a well–known universe as it was fixed at the beginning of time, presents considerable obstacle to the adoption of new or the dropping of culture traits.

The obstacle is not insurmountable and the system allows for the minor variations, which occur, in the normal daily life. But the inception of major changes cannot easily take place.

Among the bush Yir Yoront the only means of water transport was a light wood log to which they cling in their constant swimming of rivers, salt creeks, and tidal inlets.

These natives know that tribes 45 miles further north have a bark canoe. They know these northern tribes can thus fish from midstream or out at sea, instead of clinging to the river banks and beaches, that they can cross coastal waters infested with crocodiles, sharks, sting rays and Portuguese men–of–war without danger. They know the materials of which the canoe is made exist in their own environment.

They also know, as they say, that they do not have canoes because their own mythical ancestors did not have them. They assume that the canoe was part of the ancestral universe of northern tribes.

For them, then, the adoption of the canoe could not be simply a matter of learning a number of new behavioral skills for its manufacture and use. The adoption would require a much more difficult procedure; the acceptance by the entire society of a myth, either locally developed or borrowed, to explain the presence of the canoe, to associate it with some one or more of the several hundred mythical ancestors [and how decide which?], and thus establish it as an accepted totem of lore of the clans ready to be used by the whole community.

The Yir Yoront have not made this adjustment, and in this case we can only say that for the time being at least, ideas have won out over very real pressures for technological change.

In the elaborateness and explicitness of the totemic ideologies we seem to have one explanation for the notorious stability of Australian cultures under aboriginal conditions, an explanation which gives due weight to the importance of ideas in determining human behavior.

Lauriston SharpSteel Axes for Stone–Age Australians

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...