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Model of the World in the Traditional Conceptions of Hunters and Gatherers
one of the basic modes of social communication preliterate society used various
graphic symbols. And although the set of these symbols was comparatively small,
people put into them the entire multiform spectrum of their conceptions about
the world, in other words, the entire wealth of their intellectual life.
Conceptual models expressed by graphic symbols were created, for instance, by
the Aborigines of Australia. To the present author the impetus to the disclosure
of the essence and origin of these graphemes was given by an oral story of Kath
Walker, a well-known Aboriginal poetess, about the picture of the world which
exists in the conceptions of the Australian Aborigines. Kath Walker being a
profound scholar of the traditional intellectual culture of her people, the data
obtained from her are of particular interest. Incidentally, their authenticity
is confirmed by other sources.
initiate me and other members of her audience into the aforementioned world, the
poetess above all drew a system of concentric circles which she referred to as a
"circle of life". It is a diagrammatic presentation of an Australian
community – the basic social and productive unit of the traditional society of
hunters and gatherers. Inside this system of three circles are placed the women
and children, between the second and the third circles are put the tribal
elders, then come the adult men. Hunters and warriors, the protectors of their
community, surround, as it were, the old men, women and children. Thus, we have
a diagrammatic presentation of a social entity, of a "social space".
however, is not only a " social space", but also a "social
time". Apart from a spatial, Walker introduces a temporal dimension into
her scheme. The "circle of life" symbolises not only the social
structure of a community, but also the life cycle in time. As they die, people
become reborn as new human beings, and the life of the community, being restored
with every new generation, continues. This synchronic scheme is at the same time
diachronic – the eternal "circle of life".
set of conceptions is connected with initiation rites, held in a special zone
set aside on the tribal territory. The change of adolescent boys into initiated
adult men is reflected in the following diagram charted by Kath Walker: on the
right is a circle of boys, on the left a circle of newly initiated youths and
between them lies what she calls a "sacred path". This path, a quarter
of a mile long, is traversed by the initiates in eight to ten years, and as they
move along it obtaining new knowledge, forming new habits, and gaining new
skills, their social status rises until, when they turn 18 or 20, they
eventually leave the left circle as "ready-made" men. It is clear that
the progress along the "sacred path" should be understood not
literally, but rather symbolically. The notion of "progress" here is
an expression of the gradual gaining of knowledge and of the resulting rise in
the social status, of the boys becoming fully initiated men possessing full
rights. Although in the zone of initiation rites pictures such as Walker's
diagram are also drawn on the ground, this diagram is not only their repetition.
In this particular case the concrete spatial and temporal conception about
initiation is combined with its abstract symbolic conceptualisation. Initiation,
at the same time, is a metaphor for a "circle of regenerations". After
all, in the course of initiation the neophytes, according to the conceptions of
society, "regenerate" or become "reborn" for a new life.
the most important type of the activity of a primitive community is
the economic development of its territory and its economic cycle. This time
Walker drew two concentric circles which schematically represented the communal
territory, and between them the community itself, already as the aforementioned
system of concentric circles, showing with an arrow the community's movement
around its territory. The economic utilisation of the land – hunting and
gathering – has the aim of preserving the ecological balance. Exhausting the
resources on one of the group territories, it moves over to a new place so as to
return to the original place after the passage of several natural and economic
seasons. In this period the natural resources regenerate. Primitive hunters and
gatherers are in constant movement, and this movement is understood to proceed
along a closed circle around the centre of the communal territory, although in
this particular case, too, the circle functions as an ideal, in a sense,
abstract model. The third diagram reflects already not the relations within a
primitive social community (first diagram) and not the socio-ritual process
(second diagram), but a socio-economic process and the relations of a social
entity with the surrounding natural world. And all the three diagrams combined
add up to a certain generalised picture of "the world of an
system of concentric circles by which Walker symbolically depicted the community
and which she referred to as the "circle of life" is one of the oldest
and most widespread motifs. In the art of the Australian Aborigines it occurs in
rock pictures. Participants in rituals drew it on the ground and on their own
bodies. It frequently occurs on tjuringas, which embody a chain of regenerations
and re-embodiments of human beings. Each individual "had" his own
tjuringa, and when he died, it went over to the individual into whom passed his
totemic essence, into whom the man, as it were, became re-embodied. This is why
the depiction of the "circle of life" on the tjuringa does not bear
any accidental character. In a visual form it conveyed the idea believed to be
inherent in this object, held sacred by the Aborigines.
circle or a system or concentric circles symbolised the birthplace of an
individual or the place of origin of his totem or simply a certain place in
space. According to N.B. Tindale, these symbols generalise the "idea of a
home", of the place of habitation.
In the graphic symbols of the Aborigines of Central Australia a circle,
concentric circles and a spiral stand for the place of habitation of people or
their totemic ancestors – one of the most important system-forming notions
modelling the Aborigines' conceptions about the world, space, time and life
As he relates about the deeds of mythical beings, a Central Australian
Aborigine, like Kath Walker, begins with a picture of a circle, which designates
the habitation or home of this mythical being, and the subsequent events unfold
This is how around a circle, understood as a certain centre, a myth models the
one circle to another or from one system of concentric circles to another
frequently extend straight or winding lines. Each line is a stretch of a certain
distance expressed in a traditional system of measures, for instance, days of
travel. Ancient petroglyphs of Central and South Australia and Tasmania
(ethnically and culturally connected with Australia in the distant past) have
many such pictures hacked out on them. On the rocks of Mt. Cameron West
(north-western Tasmania) a series of circles are inscribed in a big circle.
It is, as it were, a symbol of several social entities forming part of a big
entity and comprising a certain unity. Incidentally, researchers usually
interpret such graphemes in naturalistic terms as attempts to depict phenomena
of the surrounding world. Thus, without any grounds, is denied the ability of
the Stone Age people for abstract thinking and for creating abstract symbolism.
a tribe of the Australian Aborigines or other hunters and gatherers was an
amorphous social unit, a community, on the contrary, had a clearly expressed
structure. Every tribe fell into many communities, all of them independent,
socially and economically autonomous and having their own hunting grounds.
Communities were distinguished by customs, rituals, religious beliefs and
sometimes languages (or dialects). Economically and socially, people were above
all community members. That was why in a traditional hunting and gathering
society man's social horizons were usually confined to his community and its
immediate neighbours, with whom his community maintained close marriage,
exchange and other relations. Representatives of societies located outside the
scope of direct intercommunal contacts were believed to have properties of
dangerous beings who had alien and strange customs, spoke obscure
"non-human" languages and were therefore denied recognition by
full-fledged people. Speaking about the people of their community, the
Australians not infrequently considered it alone to be "their people".
Similar phenomena are also observed in the group self-consciousness of the
Bushmen. For instance, the Bushmen Kung San did not recognise as members of
their own people individuals coming from remote communities even if they spoke
the same language. At this level of social development the "distance
factor" was one of the key ethnoforming factors. And the fact that the
community was the centre of the social world of an individual left a stamp on
his entire world outlook. It was ethnocentric and sociocentric, the social
medium implying, above all, the community. The connection between the community
(or a group of related communities) and the land found expression in regional
mythology, which told people how the world they populated, limited to their
comparatively small community, had come into existence and how they had come
into existence themselves.
historical sources of ethnic structures lie in the primitive community. It is a
community which reproduces itself from one generation to the next biologically,
psychologically and culturally, as the bearer of a specific culture and
self-awareness and sometimes of a specific language or dialect, as a community
which opposes itself to other communities, in other words, as the earliest
social unit having the properties of
community of a member of a hunting and gathering society was the reference point
in the development of the world, both in terms of practical actions and in terms
of conceptions. It was not a coincidence that at the centre of the system of
circles symbolising the community Kath Walker placed a point – not only the
centre of an Aborigine's social world, but also the centre of the Universe,
since the entire surrounding world is patterned on the model of a community. The
community is the reference point in world modelling. The system of concentric
circles in this graphic symbol depicts more than a community.
It is a cosmos or sociocosmos with the world axis in its centre. According
to the conceptions of a member of this society and this level of social
integration, his social world – his community and perhaps a group of closely
connected communities – is always located in the centre of the world. The
individual views the world, as it were, from within his own community, in which
he was born and in which he spends the greater part of his life. Developing the
world, cognising his natural and social environment, man, as it were, looks
father and farther, his horizons spread more broadly, and this finds visual
expression in the system of concentric circles like the annual rings of a tree.
primitive community as a world-forming model combines the three conceptions
which are so pithily expressed in the Russian word "mir" (meaning both
"world" and "peace") – the world as a social entity, or
community, the world dominated by peace and a social environment dominated by
stable harmonious relations between people, and, finally, the world as the
Universe. Ascending from one meaning to another, we, as it were, follow ancient
consciousness, which ascends from asocial entity to the cosmos. For this
consciousness the community was a little world, a microcosm. On it this
consciousness built its conception of the great world – the macrocosm.
idea about the settlement of a human entity as a circle, even when in reality it
had a different shape, has struck deep roots in human consciousness. It is to be
found among many peoples, for instance, the Indians of North America. For some
members of the Winnebago tribe the village had the shape of a circle with the
huts located all over its expanse divided into halves. In the consciousness of
other members of the same tribe it also had the shape of circles – concentric
circles, the huts being inscribed in the internal circle, while the external
circle stood for cleared ground bounded by forest. Thus, in the consciousness of
members of the same tribe, depending on their affiliation to one half of the
tribe or the other, changes even the structure of the settlement, although both
structures go back to a common archetype, rooted in social consciousness – a
circle. C. Levy-Strauss refers to the former structure as diamatric and to the
latter as concentric.
Both exist in reality as well – in North and South America and in Melanesia.
Malinowski, for instance, describes the village of Omaracana on the Trobriand
Islands. In plane the village looks like a system of concentric circles. In its
centre it has a square – the place of meetings and festivities, around it are
storehouses of sacred yam (the central, or sacral part of the village), and
around them are family huts (its peripheral, or profane part).
A more elementary but basically the same structure of the settlement is
characteristic of many hunters and gatherers. Thus, in the settlements of the
Andaman Islanders the family huts were located around an open expanse where
social ceremonies and rituals were held. It was also the location of a common
hearth. If one communal hut was built it was round in plane itself. The free
space in its centre, just as the square in the middle of the village, was
intended for meetings and rituals. A communal hearth happened to be located
here, too. In other words, it was a replica of the settlement, but under one
roof. The circular or elliptic plan of settlements characterises the Semangs,
too. In common with the Andaman Islanders, the Semang dwellings surround an open
internal space. The same is observed among the Mbuti pygmies of Central Africa.
The Mbuti huts stretch along the perimeter of a forest clearing forming a circle
in whose centre is an open expanse – the place of rituals and other social
functions. In the middle of a site not infrequently burns a bonfire – the
focus and a symbol of communal life.
In all these cases, just as in the Trobriand village, the central, sacred part
of the settlement is surrounded by a peripheral, profane part. The centre of a
community is the centre of a circle, the starting point of the development and
structuration of the environing expanse. It is developed in every direction from
the settlement, and this development bears both a concentric and a radial
character. And the very circular plan of the dwelling and settlements goes as
far back as the Stone Age. Developing the expanse practically, people also
develop it conceptually, extending their conceptions to it.
According to M. Eliade, both the character of the development of an
inhabited expanse by a traditional society and the structure of its settlements
are a reflection of mythological cosmogony, an expression of cosmic symbolism.
In reality, the causal relationship here bears the direct opposite character. At
the basis of the cosmic symbolism of the archaic social medium lies its own
structure, this medium's relationship to the Earth and to the place of
habitation and the process where by it develops the expanse. The sacralisation
of the expanse, which M. Eliade writes about, has a real, earthly, social
origin. In contrast to his assumption, an earthly, social model is not a
reflection of conceptions about a cosmic model. On the contrary, the conception
of a cosmic model springs from the real life of primitive society and is
determined by the conditions of this life, including ecological, and has deep
origin of the ancient graphic symbolism, which conveys the image of the world is
also shown by the archaeology of the Stone Age, beginning from the Early
Palaeolithic. It points to the
conscious, purposeful division of labour and the entire social life in space and
time, to the "human" character of the development of space and time,
in other words, to their "humanisation". The spatial organisation of
this activity can be given a geometric expression: in the main, it was
ring-shaped (an artificial dwelling, frequently round in plane, and the
territory around it, being developed by people) and linear-radial (the movements
of hunting and gathering groups from their places of habitation and back). The
world's oldest dwelling in the Olduvai Gorge, in Eastern Africa, was round in
plane. A stone circle which, according to archaeologists, formed the dwelling's
fence, has survived.
Possibly, this shape of the inhabited expanse, both of the dwelling and of the
settlement, was the most economical and best adapted to the surrounding expanse
and its ecological conditions and offered effective protection from the hostile
environment. It was, as it were, the external protective shell of the primitive
social medium. Its spatial
organisation retains this character among the modern hunters and gatherers as
well. On the development of space, geometric in character, was superimposed its
socio-psychological development: man's self-identification bore a distinctly
localised character. It was confined to the entity to which he belonged and to
the territory inhabited and developed by it.
can thus be assumed that the structure of an inhabited expanse since deep
antiquity has been built of the following elements: (1) a community as the
primary and universal social entity, isolated from the surrounding social world;
(2) the territory which belongs to it, isolated from the surrounding space; (3)
the dwelling of a small kinship-based group or a family as an expanse isolated
from this territory.
these three elements show the development of space, the fourth element – the
ecologically conditioned seasonal, cyclic character of economic activity –
shows the development of time. The development of space and time had an
expression in representational symbolism, widely disseminated in the
Palaeolithic. Circles, including concentric, spiral, meander, and labyrinth all
are symbols of "humanised" space and time, indicating comparatively
complex abstract conceptions which have survived even in modern primitive
societies. The polysemy and multifunctionality of the motifs of fine art enabled
a primitive artist to reflect, using limited pictorial media, the wealth and
multiformity of the surrounding world and of his own inner world. A composition
of several symbolic elements could have coded in it the content of a whole myth
and of a whole system of conceptions about the world. And the symbolic graphemes
of primitive art which lie at its sources date from the oldest conceptions about
the world, and are rooted in the development of it by man have become universal
archetypes of human culture.
 N.B. Tindale. Aboriginal Tribes of Australia. Berkeley, 1974, p. 38; ibid. Notes on a Few Australian Aboriginal Concepts. - Australian Aboriginal Concepts. Ed. by L.R. Hiatt. Canberra, 1978, p. 157.
 N.D. Munn. Walbiri Iconography. Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society. Ithaca, 1973, pp. 10, 138, 218; ibid. The Spatial Presentation of Cosmic Order in Walbiri Iconography. – Primitive Art and Society. Ed. by A. Forge. London-New York, 1973, pp. 213-214.
F.G.H. Strehlow. The
Art of Circle, Line and Square. Australian Aboriginal Art. Ed. by R.M.
Berndt. Sydney, 1964, p. 46.
 D.J. Mulvaney. The Prehistory of Australia. Harmondsworth, 1975, pp. 170-171.
 For a detailed discussion see O.Yu.Artyomova. Lichnost i sotsialnye normy v rannepervobytnoy obshchine (The Individual and Social Norms in the Early Primitive Community). Moscow, 1987, pp. 23-26; O.Yu. Artyomova, V.R. Kabo. Sovremennoe etnicheskoe razvitie Aborigenov Avstralii (Modern Ethnic Development of the Australian Aborigines). – In: P.I. Puchkov. Etnicheskoe razvitie Avstralii (Ethnic Development of Australia). Moscow, 1987, pp. 157-162; V.R. Kabo. Pervobytnaia dozemledelcheskaiao bshchina (Primitive Pre-Agricultural Community). Moscow, 1986, pp. 260-261, 265-267.
 C. Levy-Strauss. Anthropologie structurale. Paris, 1958.
 B. Malinowski. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia. London, 1929, vol. 1, p. 10.
 V.R. Kabo. Pervobytnaia dozemledelcheskaia obshchina, pp.88, 98, 119.
 M.Eliade. The Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion. New York, 1957, pp. 52-53.
 M.D. Leakey. Olduvai Gorge. Cambridge, 1971.
Published in the Proceedings of the 12th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Zagreb, Yugoslavia, July 24-31, 1988.