Anthropology Friday: The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, pt 2

1280px-aboriginal_art_wall_-_panoramioWelcome back to Anthropology Friday, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 32 years among the Aborigines.

To be fair, Buckley was not an anthropologist. He was just a soldier-convict-guy who happened to get lost in Australia and was adopted into an Aborigine tribe. Years later he found colonists, re-joined white society, and dictated his life’s story, resulting in this book.

Buckley doesn’t relate many of the standard “cultural” tropes that I tend to associate with Aborigines–he makes no mention of the Dreamtime, says very little about myths, and is silent on coming of age rituals or magic rites.

Perhaps these weren’t prominent among the Aborigines he happened to live with, or he never learned about them, or he just thought them less interesting or important to his future readers than his accounts of violence. Certainly they were much less important to his life than the constant threat of death.

But he does include some cultural details, many of which I’ve excerpted below. (BTW, I’m including some images of Aborigine art, but none of them are–as far as I know–related to the folks Buckley lived with. They’re just here to look nice.)

Aborigine counting:

“We remained in peace and quietness, until a messenger came from another tribe, saying we were to meet them some miles off. Their method of describing time is by signs on the fingers, one man of each party marking the days by chalkings on the arm, and then rubbing one off as each day passes. ”

The bunyip--a very confused beast
The bunyip–a very confused beast

The Bunyip, a mythical creature:

“In this lake, as well as in most of the others inland, and in the deep water rivers, is a very extraordinary amphibious animal, which the natives call Bunyip, of which I could never see any part, except the back, which appeared to be covered with feathers of a dusky grey colour. It seemed to be about the size of a full grown calf, and sometimes larger; the creatures only appear when the weather is very calm, And the water smooth. I could never learn from any of the natives that they had seen either the head or tail, so that I could not form a correct idea
of their size, or what they were like. ”

EvX: Some people claim that the inclusions of details like the bunyip imply that Buckley’s account is untrustworthy. Obviously any account probably has some inaccuracies, but I don’t think the bunyip should be counted against Buckley anymore than Herodotus’s giant ants against his Histories. Buckley lived in a land of unfamiliar plants and animals, and his friends told him, “That thing in the tree is a koala; that hoppy thing is a kangaroo; that thing that just went swish plop out of sight in the swamp is a bunyip,” and he took them at their word.

Later in the account Buckley expresses some doubts on the matter, noting that the aborigines were afraid of the bunyip and thought it bad luck to try to hunt it, but he wanted to find and kill one when they weren’t around to figure out what sort of creature it was.

On marriage (paging HBDChick):

Bradshaw rock paintings,
Bradshaw rock paintings

“The only ceremonies they use preparatory to marriage are, in the first place, to get the parents’ consent, the suitor’s best claim is being a good fighter, and an expert hunter, so as to be able to protect and provide for a family. They are not at all particular as to the number of wives such men have; consequently some have five or six wives, and others none at all. If a man wishes to have a man’s grown up sister for a wife, he must give his own, if he has one, in exchange; but they are very averse to marrying one of their own relations, even of a distant degree.

“If a woman is supposed to have a child who is not her husband’s, they consider it a great disgrace; and to the infant, death is almost certain. If again, a family increases too rapidly,
for instance, if a woman has a child within twelve months of .a previous one, they hold a consultation amongst the tribe she belongs to, as to whether it shall live or not; but if the father insists upon the life of the child being spared, they do not persist in its destruction, and especially if it is a female.”

EvX: Female privilege.

I have read that the % of fetuses aborted in the US today and the % of infants infanticided in premodern cultures is about the same.


“I may as well here also mention a curious custom they have relative to their domestic affairs … In many instances, a girl, almost as soon as she is born, is given to a man. After this promise, the mother of the child never again voluntarily speaks to the intended husband before he takes her to himself nor to any of his brothers, if he has any; on the contrary she shuns them in the most careful manner.”

EvX: I don’t know if we should take him literally that infants were engaged to grown men, but at any rate, since the stated cause of much violence was that a girl who had been promised at birth to one man was desired at marrying age by another man, it seems like a great deal of violence could have been eliminated by discontinuing this custom.

Air burial:

“The next morning, those who remained went to the tribe to which the murdered man belonged, and found him rolled up in his rug, ready to be tied up in a tree, a mode of disposing of the dead, who were not enemies, unknown to me before. They selected a strong, if not a lofty tree, and in the branches, about twelve feet up, they placed some logs and branches across, and sheets of bark; on these they laid the body with the face upwards, inclining toward the setting sun, and over it was placed some more bark and boughs, and then logs as heavy as the branches would bear; all this being done to protect the body from the birds of prey.”


“They have no notion of a Supreme Being, although they have of an after life, as in my case; and they do not ofler up any’ kind of prayer, even to the son or moon, as is customary with most other uncivilized people. They have a notion, that the world is supported by props, which are in the charge of a man who lives at the farthest end of the earth. They were dreadfully alarmed on one occasion when I was with them, by news passed from tribe to tribe, that unless
they could send him a supply of tomahawks for cutting some more props with, and some more rope to tie them with, the earth would go by the run, and all hands would be smothered. Fearful of this, they began to think, and enquire, and calculate where the highest mountains were, and how to get to them …so as to have some chance of escape from the threatened

“The next day we moved on to another fresh water lake of considerable extent, where we encamped, not very much at our ease, as we saw another tribe on the opposite shore. In the middle of the night we heard a dreadful uproar in that direction, and in the morning learned that those we had seen before dark had been fallen upon by some others whilst they were sleeping; so on hearing this we went to their assistance. On our arrival a horrid scene presented itself, many women and children laying about in all directions, wounded and sadly mutilated. Several of the poor creatures had rushed into the lake and were drowned. The few who had escaped were hiding themselves in the reeds; but on our proffering assistance and protection, they joined us, and went to our huts. The dead were left, it not being safe to lose time in burying them, as our number was not sufficient to make us safe from a similar attack.”


“Having come to another halt, the better way perhaps will be, for me here to state, that the tribes are divided into families; or rather, I should say, composed of them, each tribe comprising from twenty to sixty of them. They acknowledge no particular Chief as being
superior to the rest; but, he who is most skilful and useful to the general community, is looked upon with the greatest esteem, and is considered to be entitled to more wives than any of the others. They contrive to keep a tolerable account, by recollection, of their pedigree, and will not, as I observed before, knowingly marry a relation, except where two brothers happened
to be married, and one dies; in that case the survivor claims the widow; in fact, as many wives or widows as he has left behind him. Should the women object, there is little chance of their lives being spared, as this law of custom is absolute.”

EvX: Not female privilege.

“They are in general, very kind to their children, excepting the child is from any cause, believed to be illegitimate ; and again, when a woman has been promised to one man, and is afterwards given to another; in such case, her first-born is almost invariably killed at its birth. The tribes would be much more numerous were it not for these barbarous and inhuman sacrifices.

“As soon as the children are able to toddle about, they begin, as if by instinct, to search for food, and at four or five years of age, are able to dig roots and live without the aid of their parents, to whom, as may be supposed, their drapery, and washing and combing, etc., is no sort of trouble. They are all stark naked, and tumble about in the lagoons and rivers, like so many jolly young porpoises playing in the sun.”

EvX: I suspect he is overestimating the foraging capabilities of 5 yr olds.

Cannibalism and mental illness:

“They have a brutal aversion to children who happen to be deformed at their birth. I saw the brains of one dashed out at a blow, and a boy belonging to the same woman made to eat the mangled remains. The act of cannibalism was accounted for in this way. The woman at particular seasons of the moon, was out of her senses; the moon, as they thought, having affected the child also, and, certainly, it had a very singular appearance. This caused her husband to deny his being the father, and the reason given for making the boy eat the child
was, that some evil would befall him if he had not done so.”

“However, the man himself having escaped, he, with others, went in the night to the hut of the savage who had killed his brother, and speared him dead; having done which, they cut the most of the flesh off his body, carrying it away on their spears to mark their triumph. The next day and night there was a continued uproar of dancing and singing, to notify their joy at these horrible events, during which, the mangled remains of the man were roasted between heated stones, and they eat part of them, and no mistake; for I saw them join in the horrible repast, and was requested to do so likewise, which of course I refused to do, evincing the greatest disgust at their proceedings.”

EvX: Buckley appears to feel some guilt upon relating this incident, because it will reflect badly upon his friends in the minds of his readers:

“Having been rescued from death by starvation, it is only natural that I should, from a feeling of gratitude, desire to save the natives from so great a reproach; but the truth must prevail, and that many of the natives inhabiting this part of the continent of New Holland are cannibals, under particular circumstances, cannot be doubted.” …

“Strange as all these cannibal ceremonies may appear, it is proper to explain, that many are performed out of what they consider respect for the deceased, the cap bones of whose knees, in this instance, after being carefully cleaned, were tied up in a sort of net of hair and twisted bark. Under such circumstances, these relics are carried by the mothers, tied round their necks
by day, and placed under their heads by night, as affectionate remembrancers of the dead. ”


“All those I met with, excepting in times of war, or lamentation, I found to be particularly fond of what they consider music, although they have no kind of instrument except the skin rug, which, stretched from knee to knee, they beat upon, others keeping time with sticks. So passionately attached are they even to this noise, that they often commence in the night, one family setting them on, until at last they one and all become a very jolly set, keeping it up in one continual strain until daylight. I have often wished them and their enchanting enlivening strains on the other side of the Continent, with the queer old conjuror who manages the props already mentioned…”

Life and Death:

“Considering how they are exposed to the weather, it is wonderful how little they suffer from idleness; for, excepting a sort of erysipelas, or scurvy, with which they are sometimes afflicted, they are In general very healthy. I never observed any European contagious disease prevalent, in the least degree; and this I thought strange. There was at one time however, I now recollect, a complaint which spread through the country, occasioning the loss of many lives, attacking generally the healthiest and strongest, whom it appeared to fix upon in preference to the more weakly. It was a dreadful swelling of the feet, so that they were unable to move about, being
also afflicted with ulcers of a very painful kind. ” …

“The natives live to about the same age, generally, as civilized people, some of them, to be very grey-headed. They have an odd idea of death, for they do not suppose that any one dies from natural causes, but from human agencies: such as those to which I have alluded in previous pages of this narrative. The women seldom have more than six children, and not often so many. So soon as they have as many as they can conveniently carry about and provide for, they kill the rest immediately after birth : not to eat them, as may be supposed, but with the idea that, for the sake of both parties, and under such circumstances, death is practical mercy.”

Technology and trade:

“… I must say something about their tomahawks … The heads of these instruments are made from a hard black stone, split into a convenient thickness, without much regard to shape. This they rub with a very rough granite stone, until it is brought to a fine thin edge, and so hard and sharp as to enable them to fell a very large tree with it. There is only one place that I ever heard of in that country, where this hard and splitting stone is to be had. The natives call it karkeen; and say that it is at a distance of three hundred miles from the coast, inland. The journey to fetch them is, therefore, one of great danger and difficulty; the tribes who inhabit the immediate localities being very savage, and hostile to all others. I was told, that it required an armed party of resolute fighting men, to obtain supplies of this very necessary article; so that the tomahawk is considered valuable for all purposes.”

EvX: Constant war makes trade impossible.

In a second incident that, like the Bunyip, appears to be based more in myth than reality, Buckley relates having met the Pallidurgbarrans:

“I had almost forgotten to say, that in my wanderings about, I met with the Pallidurgbarrans, a tribe notorious for their cannibal practices; not only eating human flesh greedily after a fight, but on all occasions when it was possible. They appeared to be the nearest approach to the brute creation of any I had ever seen or heard of; and, in consequence, they were very much dreaded. Their colour was light copper, their bodies having tremendously large and protrubing bellies. Huts, or artificial places for shelter, were unknown to them, it being their custom to lay about in the scrub, anyhow and anywhere. The women appeared to be most unnaturally ferocious, children being their most valued sacrifice. Their brutality at length became so harrassing, and their assaults so frequent, that it was resolved to set fire to the bush where they had sheltered themselves, and so annihilate them, one and all, by suffocation. This, in part, succeeded, for I saw no more of them in my time. The belief is, that the last of the race was turned into a stone, or rock, at a place where a figure was found resembling a man, and exceedingly well executed; probably the figure-head of some unfortunate ship. ”

The Pallidurgbarrans are apparently mythical, (I’ve been able to find rather little about them at all,) and Buckley’s account is given with no particular context connecting it to the rest of the narrative, indicating that it might, indeed, have been made up.

Of course this does not rule out the possibility of the account having some basis in fact–perhaps they are a tribe known more popularly under another name–though it seems unlikely that Buckley himself ever actually encountered them.

The story is actually a very common mythic trope–the woods (or swamps) are filled with sub-humans who engage in various acts seen as evil by their neighbors, such as cannibalism, incest, rape (carrying off women from nearby tribes,) etc. For example, the aboriginal people of Taiwan have a festival that commemorates a tribe of “dark-skinned pygmies” which they claim to have wiped out 400+ years ago for being too friendly with their women. Folks on the isle of Flores, Indonesia, speak of the Ebu Gogo–literally, “grandmother who will eat anything.” Wikipedia recounts:

The Nage people believe that the Ebu Gogo were alive at the time of the arrival of Portuguese trading ships in the 17th century, and some hold that they survived as recently as the 20th century, but are now no longer seen. The Ebu Gogo are believed to have been hunted to extinction by the human inhabitants of Flores. They believe that the extermination, which culminated around seven generations ago, was undertaken because the Ebu Gogo stole food from human dwellings, and kidnapped children.[4]

An article in New Scientist (Vol. 186, No. 2504) gives the following account of folklore on Flores surrounding the Ebu Gogo: The Nage people of central Flores tell how, in the 18th century, villagers disposed of the Ebu Gogo by tricking them into accepting gifts of palm fiber to make clothes. When the Ebu Gogo took the fiber into their cave, the villagers threw in a firebrand to set it alight. The story goes that all the occupants were killed except perhaps for one pair, who fled into the deepest forest, and whose descendants may be living there still.

Europeans, of course, have their child-snatching fairies and man-eating trolls, and we Americans have our “the woods are full of creepy serial killers” horror-movie trope.

We’ll continue next week!


6 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, pt 2

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