Tony’s Notes From The Bony Novels (Part 13)

Posted on Sat 04/16/2011 by



Body Language.

This is not what the title suggests in the manner that we currently think of what that phrase suggests, but the literal use of the body as a form of language.

What I am discussing here is probably the single most barbaric thing that the aborigines did, and here I must reinforce that the barbarity is in our European oriented eyes when looking back from this time period we are now in to a time as recent as 200 years back, when white settlement was just beginning to take hold in Australia. Even so, this practice carried on until the early years of even the 20th Century.

It details the carvings made into the skin of the aborigines.

In keeping with Aboriginal convention, rather than include the image of these aboriginal skin cicatrices here at this Post, I will Post this link to that image, with a Warning to persons of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin that the image shows persons who have since passed away, and that this image may cause some sadness or distress.

The image is from The Australian Government site, the National Museum of Australia. If you click on the image it will show at a much larger scale. This image was taken as recently as 1916, and shows those cicatrices carved into the skin. You will note that the three men shown are of different ages, and some have more carvings than others

Something similar in our current time now, although on a lesser scale is tattooing.

As a child grew up in the tribe, they had virtually nothing to do until what we would call the early teenage years.

When it comes to male children, and even mentioning it like this, it might seem that the aborigines perfected the art of male chauvinism, but when you look at it, it all falls into place quite logically, really.

The boys reached the age where they started to turn into men, and the existing men of the tribe then saw the emerging youth as another helper in the food gathering process. So, this youth then had to be trained in the methods of food gathering, as this was the single most important thing to the tribe. They had to gather food for the tribe to survive.

The elders of the tribe, and here again you can see a form of hierarchy appearing, took the youth aside to train him in the methods of food gathering. The existing men of the tribe who were of able age were out gathering the food and leading the tribe to the next source of water, so that is why this task of training the young boys was left to the elders of the tribe. These elders were reaching an age where they could no longer keep up with the able men in the task of chasing and killing animals for food, so it was their task to tutor the youths.

The youths were taken to the source of the tribes ‘magic’, (a word we use loosely and incorrectly) and where all the tribes secrets were kept. These youths were then led in an intensive course of the way the tribe went about its business, teaching them not only the finer points of hunting and gathering, but also the laws of the tribe, and as you can see from this, it is virtually an educational thing. They were taught to track, animals mostly, and how to look for water. They were also tutored in the ways of communication, and other things that we now, also somewhat incorrectly label as ‘secret mens business’.

Then, and here is where we call into memory the barbarity of the process, those youths were then initiated into the tribe.

This process, and I only know of the most rudimentary part of it, entailed the cutting the youths skin with sharpened flints. The skin was cut deeply, and filled with clay, this latter so that when the scar formed, it would stand out more clearly. This being the most obvious part of the process, that then became perceived now, as utterly barbaric, and even though it was only a small part of the process, it became the most obvious.

We perceive it as being barbarism, so, as civilised white people, we wanted to put an end to it. This cutting of the skin was not in any haphazard form, but to a very particular pattern, that was only particular to that tribe, and that tribe alone. The things that were cut into the skin were the totem of the tribe, the boys family, and who he was, and what he was in that tribe.

We look upon it as barbarism, but to them, this cutting of the skin signified many things, the most important of these being communication.

So, as you can see from this, we have arrived back at language.

The men of the tribe went far afield in the search for food and the next place where water could be found. It stands to reason that in their travels, they must have come across other men doing the same thing. They had no language that they could communicate to the men of the other group. The only method of communication that they did have was the patterns on their skin. This signified the totem of the tribe that they were from, their standing in that tribe, and the pecking order of the hierarchy within that tribe.

So, you can see that something we perceive as being one thing, barbarism, was in actual fact something of an entirely different colour indeed.

Over the years we have stopped the aborigines from performing this practice, so in effect, we have taken away a further part their language, one of their ways of communicating between tribes of differing languages.

So, you say, this is not such a bad thing.

We have taught them English as a replacement.

Wrong really.

It’s just another of those things we have taken from them, further weakening their culture. We don’t see it that way, because we cannot comprehend the way they thought of this practice.

A further part of this carving of cicatrices on the bodies of the men, and again, this is closely related to the original initiation procedure, is that of the mentor approach to accompanying the youth. A separate elder was in a way assigned to each of the youths, and this alliance was not just for the initiation process. That mentor then stayed with the youth for a long period of time. In this manner, the mentor could then see if the youth, as he got older, had potential other than just as a hunter gatherer, just another member of the tribe. In this way, any potential could be nurtured by the mentor, and mentioned at tribal meetings of the elders.

Hence, possible leaders could be found at an early age, and this could then be followed through with. In this way, further cicatrices would have been made in the skin, further adding to the reading of the language indelibly engraved into the bodies of the men of the tribe.

So, as a man proceeded towards old age, his skin then became the story of his life, who he was, and what standing he had in the tribe.

So, when Upfield deliberately mentioned the cicatrices on Bony’s body, as he did in numerous of his books, it was not just mentioning that he had these skin carvings, it was as a mention of introduction.

When we meet someone new, we make polite chatter in our language, asking who the other fellow is, where he is from, what he does, and on it goes.

Bony himself had gone through the full initiation ceremony that made him a full tribal aborigine, and over the years as his status as an aboriginal elder rose, further cicatrices were carved into his body at different times, both the front and back of his body. Bony’s Totem was that of the Emu.

Each tribe had a different totem, and some persons within that tribal family ‘may’ have had different totems also. As a youth passing into adulthood goes through this initiation, he also had a mentor that was assigned to him to teach him of all the ways, legends, tribal law, methods of hunting and other aboriginal matters, and Bony’s mentor was none other that the great Illawalli himself.

This Illawalli character was brought into the Upfield novels right from the very first of the Bony novels, and was mentioned in nearly every second or third novel, establishing Illawalli as a very senior tribal elder, the intent being to foster an impression that Illawalli was widely known as a very senior elder, but this is something where Upfield uses his ‘author’s license’, as Senior Tribal Elders would be very little known outside the main homeland area of each overall tribe, and that would have been due to the nature of travel in those days prior to white settlement, when the only mode of transport was by foot, so long distance travel would have been unheard of, as, in the main, aborigines stayed within the boundaries of their homeland, even if in smaller more manageable groups.

So, when Bony met with other aborigines, he took his shirt off and let the other aborigines see who he was. His cicatrices explained that he was a Worcair tribal man descended from the Emu totem, that he had been initiated into that tribe, and that he had a high standing in that tribe. You say that he could just have explained this in the language that they were all now very slowly becoming accustomed to, but the older aboriginal elders, chiefs and medicine men were probably not as accomplished at speaking the new language, English, and it was easier to let them see it for themselves.

This also then became a thing of power for Bony. He was, in a way, still one of them, and he had gone through the processes, just as they had.

So, perceived barbarism in our eyes now becomes something of a necessity for them, as aborigines.

The process of initiation also entailed much more than the handing down of clues as to how to be a good hunter gatherer, and the carving of these scars into the skin. It was a long procedure carried out over many years, and during this, the stories of their origin were handed down from generation to generation. We hear of dream time stories, and it means little to us. We have a very strong written history going back thousands of years, but for the aborigines, the only way history was kept was through the verbal handing down of that history, which then became similar to a time long gone, as in dreams, hence legends, hence dream time stories, but actually the history of that tribe.

With respect to cicatrices, these were also carved into the women, and here it was also used as a form of communication also. A young girl in the tribe was promised at an early age to a man from the tribe.

There were very few cases of women marrying men from other tribes, and this in was fact looked upon as being against tribal law, and quite often punishable by death.

Barbaric, we say again, without understanding the full significance of the meaning of what we are looking at. In nature, the strongest survive. Australia was a very harsh place to live for these people. Tribes were small, not for the purpose of their being drifting nomads, but purposely kept so. Small units could survive more easily than huge groups of people. It was easier to feed a small group, and considering they had to roam around in search of food, moving from one source of water to the next, constantly on the move within the boundaries of their group.

So, this small group of families needed children to keep the group alive. It needed boys to grow into men for hunting purposes, and girls to grow into women to bear more children, hopefully boys who would grow to men, so that the food procurement process could continue.

Considering that old age for these people would be anything over forty or so, when they started to become of little use to the tribe, there was a constant need for up and coming youths to replace the old men and women

It’s not as if they were discarded as they aged, because they were still valuable parts of that tribal family, so as they aged beyond the hunter gatherer young fit men, they then became the elders, and the source of tribal knowledge for those younger children.

Back to young girls.

Hypothetically speaking, if a young girl took it into her head to run off with a man from another tribe, that would be a significant loss to the losing tribe, a loss of a potential child bearing woman, and this effectively meant that there was a loss of part of one generation.

So, when a female baby was born, she was marked down as being the future partner of one of the tribal males, not for the purposes of male chauvinism as we would perceive it in this day and age, but out of necessity, for the future of the tribe. This could also run along lines that today, we as seemingly civilised people, look upon in an entirely different way. With our supposed enlightened way of perceiving things like this, we look on something like this as being barbaric in the extreme, but to the aborigine of that time, it was out of necessity.

The young girl was promised to one of the existing men in the tribe who most probably was one of the men who had already proved himself to be of a strong value to the tribe, whether as a good hunter gatherer, or as being of strong value in other areas. As the young girl reached sexual maturity, she also went through a form of initiation, where the women of the tribe took her away and taught her the female role in the scheme of things for that tribe, the thing we now erroneously call ‘secret woman’s business’.

She also had cicatrices carved onto her body, these in the form of chevrons between her breasts. When she came back from this initiation, she was then effectively the wife of the man she was promised to at such an early age. She then also had a front tooth knocked out, signifying she was now what we call a married woman.

Barbarism is again what we would call both of these processes.

However, this was a necessity for the tribe, and another form of communication between tribes of differing languages. So, as we can now see from this, it was out of necessity that they did these things. If a woman was to leave the tribe, it probably posed a dire threat to their future, so there was a tribal law against intermarriage, the punishment for this being death, a harsh punishment, but one of necessity. It was not just against the law to marry or have a child to a white man, it was against the law to marry a man from another tribe, and here you must realise that marry is a word that we would use for it. They looked upon the white man as just another tribe, so the law applied as it would to any other tribe, be it another aboriginal tribe, or of the white man’s tribe.

So, when we look at something like this with eyes from the 20th and 21st Century, all we see is barbarism, and an extreme form of it at that.

To them however, this was indeed a form of communication, a form of language, and something now that is lost forever. Having said that, there is no need for something like this in our day and age, but, at that time, this was all that they had, and in fact was quite an effective way of communication at a time when there were so many aboriginal languages and dialects.

These days, something similar is enacted at times of aboriginal gatherings, and to signify what in those days was that form of language, those skin carvings, these days, something similar is achieved with the painting of their bodies with Earth tones, ochre and the like in patterns reminiscent of those original carvings.

This further painting of the skin was also something done in those earlier years at great gatherings of tribes and families, only in those days, the painting was not on plain old bare skin, but over those carvings to further accentuate them.

I understand it’s a difficult thing to comprehend with the thinking of today, but for these highly moral people, something like this was done with a distinct meaning, and that was one form of communication.

In the next Post, I will go into how music becomes another form of communication that these early aborigines used.