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Howitt, A. W.


HOWITT, A. W. (18301908), was an English-born explorer, geologist, and amateur anthropologist who made first-hand studies of Aboriginal life in southeastern Australia. To the many aspects of indigenous culture that he described (social and political organization, as well as religion), Alfred William Howitt brought a comprehensive and systematic approach. He did have blind spots, however. He doubted, for example, whether Aboriginal beliefs in the supernatural were religious, apparently because of their remoteness from an ideally conceived Christianity. One of his notable achievements was to show that prolonged and highly organized ceremonies could be celebrated by people with a simple economy and material culture.

Howitt's descriptions of human-making ceremonies (initiation rites) in Southeast Australia, such as the Kuringal and Jeraeil ceremonies, stand comparison with the renowned studies of such rites in other parts of Australia made by Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis James Gillen. His studies are especially valuable, however, because Aboriginal beliefs and ceremonies have become moribund in the Southeast, whereas much traditional culture survives in the central and northern parts of the continent. Howitt made it clear that ceremonies are ordered sequences of action, and he brought out the complex articulation of art, myth, choreography, and social organization that characterizes them. In documenting these vital aspects of sequence and articulation, Howitt displayed an intuitive grasp of the structural considerations stressed around the turn of the century by the French comparatistsby Arnold van Gennep in analyzing rites of passage and by Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss in analyzing sacrificial rites. Another of Howitt's services was to show how widespread in the Southeast, and how essential to the intelligibility of the ceremonies, was belief in the powerful sky spirit he named the All-Father.

In addition to his obvious importance as recorder of a now-vanished way of life, Howitt is noteworthy for his urge, at that early date in the history of Australian anthropology, to typify and generalize. It was no mean feat to see in the Kuringal, Jeraeil, and many other ceremonies particular examples of a general type, to classify all Aboriginal initiations as belonging to either an eastern or a western type, or to perceive the All-Father in such diverse mythic personages as Baiame, Bunjil, Daramulun, Kohin, and Mungan-ngaua.


Howitt published many articles and notes on aspects of Aboriginal culture. Most were drawn upon, together with additional material, in his major work, The Native Tribes of South-East Australia (London, 1904), which is the essential source for an understanding of his anthropological contribution. Come Wind, Come Weather (Melbourne, 1971) is a comprehensive and readable biography of Howitt by his granddaughter, Mary Howitt Walker. It includes several chapters on his work in geology and anthropology, as well as complete bibliographies.

New Sources

Seddon, George. The Ballad of Bungil Bottle: A. W. Howitt's Exploration of the Mitchell River by Canoe in 1875. Churchill, Victoria, 1989.

Kenneth Maddock (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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