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Totemism is a system of belief regarding the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world. The term totem is derived from an Ojibwe word meaning “a relative of mine” and first appeared in print in 1791 by a trader James Long. It has been recorded across native tribes of America, Africa and Australia and has been the subject of much ethnographic research. Typically the totems of a kinship group will be animals or plants, be represented in sacred objects and will belong exclusively to them.
Early Records [change]
Totemism was considered a primitive religion by many European thinkers in the early late 19th century such as B Morris and McLennan. It was attributed to the supposedly universal ideas of food and incest taboos. In 1869 J.F. McLennan said that 'there is no race of men that has not come through this primitive stage of speculative belief'. Early thinkers are associated with the idea of totemism being an expression of ignorance by indigenous clans of the difference between humans and animals and are not often considered in contemporary discussions on totemism.
History of totemic theory [change]
Emile Durkheim argued in 1915 that totemism was a way of societies thinking and considering groups. Durkheim drew his conclusions from work with Aboriginal Australian clans. Each clan had its own totem, which could be any natural feature such as animals, plants or rivers. These totems and symbols of them were worshiped and protected as their health was associated with the health of the clan. Durkheim concluded that the worship of the totems as symbols of the tribe was therefore the clan self-worshiping.
Radcliffe Brown followed Durkheim's arguments closely in his early work but argued later in 1951 that totemism was not just the basis for religion and society but also scientific thought as the creation of distinctions between every animal or plant taken as a totem took careful observation and categorisation.
Malinowski went on to propose in 1948 that totems are worshiped and protected because the animals and plants they represent are 'good to eat'. This view of totemism sees it as a practical strategy to preserve the natural resources available to various tribes. This utilitarian theory has mainly been debunked because the area of North America he was considering was so rich in wildlife that even without totemic food taboos it would have been almost impossible for the Indigenous tribes living there to cause extinction of any species through hunting.
Levi-Strauss published 'Totemism' in 1962. In this book he extended Radcliffe-Browns later arguments and dismisses any utilitarian or religious claims about totemism. He proposes that totemism is a manifestation of humans universal tendency to classify things into similar groups. Once a population has established rules such as exogamy (marrying outside the group) it becomes important to keep the clan distinct from other clans. However humans themselves do not have distinctive features such as a wolf or a bird. Therefore, applying the identity of an animal to the clan distinguishes its member from another clan and creates social boundaries.
- Frazer, J.G. (1910) Totemism and Exogamy (4 vols) London: Macmillan
- Levi Strauss, C. ( 1969) Totemism, Harmondsworth: Penguin
- Barfield, Thomas (ed) (1997) The Dictionary of Anthropology, Blackwell
- Bernard, Alan and Spencer, Jonathan (eds) (1996) Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Routledge