Ten of thousands of years apart

Colin Ross casts Australian Aborigines as remnants of prehistoric times and uses them to make a point about the complacency of Europe’s young generation.

Ross claims that the Australian Aborigines are likely the “most primitive people in the world” [p. 409], comparable to Europe’s population even before the stone age. “This means that an almost fantastic period of time lies between us and these people who are still living on the earth to-day.” [p. 410] This last assertion is a textbook example of what anthropologist Johannes Fabian has called ‘allochronism’: a denial of the simultaneous existence of the subject and object of observation, which places the observed in another time. So the Aborigine becomes prehistoric man, rather than a human living within a different culture at the same time.

This is crucial to the point that Ross subsequently makes: how can it be that Aborigine children, when brought to Western schools, are learning just as well as their counterparts of European stock? “For what is left of all evolution if the entire experience, the entire training, the  entire heritage of knowledge and intellectual skills accumulated over thousands and tens of thousands of years can be acquired in a few generations?” [p. 410]

The obvious answer is that ethnicity does not imply different mental faculties. Here and elsewhere, Ross seems open to that idea.1 But his main point here is another one. Western civilization has used its head start of millennia not only to amass knowledge, but also to make that knowledge easily digestible. This benefited not only the indigenous people all over the world, but also the young generation in Europe. The latter can acquire the most complicated special knowledge without having to summon up much intellectual vigor, Ross complains. Wisdom, the ability to help and lead, is sorely missing among that pampered generation. Written during the depths of the Great Depression, this is a rather self-righteous criticism of Europe’s youth. Pitting them not only against each other in a devastated job market, but also against their counterparts in Australia or Africa lends a geopolitical spin to the lament.

Joachim Schätz

Colin Ross. Primitives and Civilization. The Living Age. 1933 Jan;409–12.

Topic: Indigenous peoples
Case: Oceania-Asia trip 1928-30


1 See: Colin Ross. Amerika und das schwarze Weltproblem. Zeitschrift für Geopolitik. 1934 Jul; 11 (2. Halbband, H. 7); 399–409. See Library.

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