‘tied in rolled knots and powdered with ochre’: Aboriginal hair and eighteenth-century cross-cultural encounters
Australian National University
The eighteenth-century is a significant period in the history of cross-cultural contact in Australia, as it is when Europeans first meticulously recorded their encounters with indigenous peoples. Yet, lacking a common tongue and any knowledge of the Aborigines’ cultures and cosmologies the Europeans’ understanding of Aboriginal society and culture was limited to what they could see with their own eyes. Consequently, descriptions of the Aboriginal body figure largely in their accounts, and it was through their perceptions of the indigenous body that they apprehended and comprehended Aboriginal people and culture. One part of the body that caught the European explorers’ attention was the Aborigines’ hair. Scrutinizing its colour and texture contributed to emergent racial taxonomies; the manner in which it was dressed suggested indigenous cultural practices; and the Europeans’ reception of these styles reflected contemporary western ideas and aesthetic ideals. Further, hair grooming provided opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges, which could be amicable, hostile, or bemusing.
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© borderlands ejournal 2008