Accepted Paper:

Human origins as represented in Bushman and Australian Aborigine agents of supernatural potency  


Ian Watts

Paper short abstract:

The attributes and structural role of 'Rainbow Serpent-type creatures' in southern Africa and northern Australia are analysed. These constructs of supernatural potency constitute a field of identity rather than difference, best understood in the light of a short chronology for symbolic culture.

Paper long abstract:

Barnard's (1999) comparison of Bushman and Aborigine hunter-gatherers identified six domains in which Aborigines differed from all other hunter-gatherers. In 'belief', he noted that while Rainbow Serpent-type creatures also feature in African mythology and rock art, they do not carry the symbolic weight of Australian counterparts, and there was no African equivalent to the Dreaming. While accepting this overall judgement, I will draw on the 'Female Cosmetic Coalitions' model of symbolic origins (Knight et al. 1995) to highlight and make sense of the remarkable parallels in the physical attributes, mode of operation, and structural role of agents of supernatural potency in the two contexts. My focus is a comparison of Bleek and Lloyd's /Xam narratives concerning 'New Maidens' and their relationship to !Khwa, the Rain Bull, and Knight's (1983) analysis of the Wawilak Sisters myth from Arnhem Land, and the sisters' relationship to the Rainbow Serpent. The key to both mythological complexes is the set of relationships between women's blood, water, game animals, and cooking fire. Agents of supernatural potency, whether in human or therianthropic form, stand in opposition to marital relations and cooking. Their principal perceptual attributes are redness and brilliance, providing a key to wider aspects of belief and to the investigation of temporal depth.

Panel P41
Social anthropology and human origins