‘During 1931, Professor A.P. Elkin, then Professor of Anthropology at Sydney University, visited the north-west Kimberley region of Western Australia to make a field study of the Aboriginal cultures thereabouts. He came upon a strange tribe of Aborigines whom he soon found had never before seen a white man. Not only was the professor astounded when tribal leaders greeted him with secret Masonic hand signs, he was struck by the startlingly Semitic features present in the natives.
‘Prof. Elkin soon discovered that the natives worshipped the Sun, that they also had an Earth Mother and Rainbow Serpent cult, and that they practiced mummification of the dead. He recorded these and many other customs including the languages of the region. Only later did he discover that many of the words spoken by the tribes were of Egyptian origin.
‘These findings led Prof. Elkin to conclude that at some time in the distant past the Aboriginal culture of the north-west Kimberley had been influenced by visitors from outside Australia – that is, by visitors from the ancient Middle East, notably Egyptians’ [Gilroy 1995: pp. 248-9]
Could this be true? Could one of Australia’s most eminent anthropologists have discovered such convincing evidence of contact with ancient Egyptian sea-farers? And who kept it secret for half a century? What was the story?
In this post I want to look at the claim made by Gilroy about Elkin, but also mentioned by other explorers and travellers that they had met and exchanged Masonic hand gestures with Aboriginal people. It has some currency among secret visitor claims, and gets repeated often enough on the internet to merit discussing. Here are some other examples.
Atlantis Rising Forum – posted 10 May 2004
RBG Street Scholar – posted 25 Feb 2007
Above Top Secret Forum – posted 10 March 2012
As I said above Elkin is recognised as one of Australia’s most eminent anthropologists, and dominated studies of Aboriginal people across the middle of the 20th century. Both his biography [Wise 1985] and his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography show him to be completely professional. He was not the sort of person to let an awkward or unexpected discovery be kept secret, nor to pretend something didn’t exist. Not only that, such a discovery would have made his career. Why would he keep it secret? That makes me doubt the Gilroy story even more.
A few minor details are worth correcting straight away. Firstly, Elkin was not appointed Professor of Anthropology until 1934. Secondly, and importantly, Elkin’s movements don’t appear to allow time for him to be where the story says he should have been in north-western Australia. Elkin had received a grant to do a comprehensive study of South Australian Aboriginal communities, and this occupied much of 1930. On his return to the Sydney University department late that year he found it imploding, with the sudden resignation of the head, A.R. Radcliffe Brown and his own work at the Morpeth Diocese [Elkin was an ordained minister with a parish to manage as well as being a university lecturer and active field anthropologist. He shuttled between the two locations.]. As a result he was in no position to be in Western Australia at all during 1931. While neither error puts paid to the story, it opens the possibility of other mistakes being made.
I have no confirmation that Elkin was a mason, but it is quite possible. If he was, then the sorts of masonic ritual he would have been familiar with, supposedly directly traceable back to King Solomon, are actually very recent in origin. Most masonic ceremonial was made up no earlier than the 18th century or even later to maintain the cabaret of ancient wisdom among groups of men who are supposed to abide by secret hierarchical power structures. ‘Secret masonic signs’ of Elkin’s time were no more ancient than the Viennese waltz, and with about the same level of insight into ancient Egyptian ritual.
If the quote is so factually wrong, where does it come from? In trying to track down the origin of this quote I hit the internet, which made it clear that there was only a single re-copied source, and this was easily traced back to Gilroy’s Mysterious Australia, shown above. It is possible that Gilroy got it from Michael Terry who was in a sort of casual information-swapping partnership with him in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Terry had read much about the outback and the northwest during his exploratory days and into the Second World War. The quote may have come from a newspaper or Terry’s own imperfect memory of an original Elkin account. Terry also discusses Masonic signs among Aboriginal men in his unpublished ‘Unwritten history of Australia’ manuscripts [NLA MS 611 ]. He also quotes John MacDouall Stuart’s experience near Tennant Creek, where he exchanged ‘signs’ with Aboriginal men [see below].
Terry also recorded, in the 1960s from the context, ‘a lone prospector near Tanami met spearmen, scowling and threatening. He told me he gave a certain sign, and that soon after, having disappeared, the warriors returned laden with edibles they had collected in the bush’ [NLA MS 611 – B15]. Another manuscript version of the story says they exchanged signs ‘only known to the initiated’, but omitted the disappearance and return with food [NLA MS 611 – C9] .
Terry mentions Elkin assuring him ‘that a ritual practiced by Kimberley aboriginals very closely approximates part of the Free Masonry ceremony’ [NLA MS 611 – B15]. Again this is later more clearly underlined as ‘masonic influence’ in another manuscript [NLA MS 611 – C9].
To be certain that Elkin himself did not say it, I checked in Elkin’s main publications dealing with Aboriginal secret knowledge. He was a prolific writer, but gradually worked my way through Studies in Australian totemism , Aboriginal men of high degree [1944 and 1977 editions], The Australian Aborigines [about 4 editions] as well as any newspaper or magazine articles that were available in Trove and specialist bibliographies. When nothing came from that I asked Elkin’s biographer, Tigger Wise, whether she knew of the quote. She was not aware of it and suggested a trawl through Elkin’s personal papers. These are housed in the University of Sydney Archives. I have not done this yet, although there are other things in the Elkin papers that will eventually make that worthwhile.
As well as these sources I tried a range of other search tools, including Google Books and Google Scholar, to see if there was any other way of identifying the source. None of these searches was successful, and I think it is reasonable to suppose nothing will be found.
In his writings Elkin did try to convey something of the essential nature of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs, which involved initiation from youth to manhood, and then to a succession of deeper layers of knowledge and responsibility. He tried to impart the seriousness of this fundamental life journey for Aboriginal men by sometimes using the familiar analogy of masonic ritual. His book on the development of men of the highest status within traditional society, Aboriginal men of high degree , even uses a masonic allusion in its title. Perhaps a superficial reading missed Elkin’s point that initiation and the maintenance of secrecy in Aboriginal society has an analogy in a more familiar western masonic form. Nowhere does he ever say that they used masonic gestures, nor does he write about the alleged incident from 1931.
Other accounts of masonic signs
The first clear mention of an Aboriginal sign language being given is during John Macdouall Stuart’s ‘sea to sea’ expedition.
After some time, and having conferred with his two sons, he turned round, and surprised me by giving me one of the Masonic signs. I looked at him steadily; he repeated it, and so did his two sons. I then returned it, which seemed to please them much, the old man patting me on the shoulder and stroking down my beard. They then took their departure, making friendly signs until they were out of sight. We enjoyed a good supper from the opossums, which we have not had for many a day. [Stuart 1865]
Nine years later Gason’s account of the Diyeri on the margins of Lake Eyre discussed sign language, and documented about 16 examples [Gason 1874]. Then in 1897 Walter Roth published a detailed chapter of his work on the Pitta Pitta and other groups of western Queensland, illustrated with diagrams showing finger and hand movements giving a total of 218 different meanings. These covered the range of plants, animals and objects, different categories of people and actions, allowing them to communicate in complete silence. From this start it became clear that sign languages were widely distributed among Aboriginal people and were used for a range of purposes, including hunting and warfare, where silence was needed and ceremonial practice such as mourning, where some classes of relative were forbidden from speaking for extended periods. Sign languages also served where there was no common spoken language between people.
On the edge of the Simpson Desert the Aboriginal people about whom Alice Duncan-Kemp  wrote used sign language with amazing felicity, breaking off from spoken conversation at times in mid-sentence and continuing it with fingers when on the hunt, or respecting the silence required during a period of mourning, but being unable to resist continuing a gossipy chat with a close friend. She also noted that as well as the common sign language, initiates of higher degrees and members of particular cults or orders were taught additional signs, so they would not betray their secret knowledge to others.
The truth is that many Aboriginal groups made regular use of sign languages. These were used in a range of contexts, when silence was needed – hunting and warfare – or speaking was forbidden – as in certain ceremonies – or when two strangers could not find a language that they otherwise shared. Although knowledge of much Aboriginal sign languages have been lost in the same way as the great diversity of their spoken languages, a number of things are clear. Firstly, clearly Aboriginal people had entire functional sign languages that could be used to communicate complex messages with variable meanings. Secondly, there were probably many hundreds of gestures and signs in the more fully developed languages. Thirdly, it was entirely reasonable for Aboriginal people, who routinely spoke several languages, plus sign languages, to use them to communicate with the first white strangers they saw.
And we could also add, fourthly, they were not, as masonic signs appear to have been, simple arm waving and finger wiggling. Such ‘secret signs’ and ceremonies seem to have been part of the play-acting of fraternal societies such as the Freemasons. they may have been popular and served the purpose of differentiating those ‘in the know’ from everyone else, but they were not doing much more than being an elaborate social exclusionary device. Macoy, writing in 1870, puts the use of signs in freemasonry into perspective:
‘Signs, tokens and words do not constitute freemasonry, but are local marks whereby they know each other, and may be altered or done away, without the least injury to scientific Freemasonry. It is with too many Freemasons too absurd a belief, and still a more absurd practice, to build our science upon so shallow a foundation of signs, tokens and words, which I fear constitute with some the only attainment they look for in Freemasonry.’ [Macoy 1870: p. 686]
Macoy’s view may have been the official line but, for most, the association of seemingly secret hand signs used by Aborignal people with masonry was too strong, a link that has persisted into recent times. Another fictional account of masonic handshakes opening doors comes from Rudyard Kipling. His popular story, The man who would be king , tells the story of two British adventurers who meet a remote white tribe on the borders of British India, the Kafirs, and obtain their trust through their knowledge of masonic signs and symbols.
The first and most important conclusion that we can draw is that the claim attributed to Elkin can be completely rejected as false. Elkin did not find what Gilroy attributed to him in his error-filled account. There is no evidence suggesting any part of the three paragraphs at the start of this article is in any way correct. Not only that but Elkin would have been completely aware of the vast difference between Aboriginal ritual and masonic ceremonial, as well as between Aboriginal sign languages and masonic ‘secret signs’.
The second conclusion is that other observations, such as Stuart’s in 1865, must similarly be seen as misrepresenting Aboriginal sign languages in terms of masonic signs.
I dislike calling such mistakes racist, as they mainly result from a combination of lack of thinking and ignorance. However, the irony is that Aboriginal sign languages are [or, sadly, were] complex forms of communication, perhaps the most elaborate of their kind, while it was the European settlers who were taken in by dress-ups, made-up rituals and secret handshakes into thinking they are reliving millennia-old ceremonies.
Tigger Wise, A.P. Elkin’s biographer, for assistance with his written and unwritten work.
Duncan-Kemp, Alice M. 1968
Where strange gods call, W.R. Smith and Paterson Brisbane.
Elkin, Adolphus Peter 1933
Studies in Australian totemism,
Elkin, Adolphus Peter 1944
Aboriginal men of high degree, Australian Publishing Co., Sydney.
Elkin, Adolphus Peter 1977
Aboriginal men of high degree, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2nd edition.
Elkin, Adolphus Peter 1961
The Australian Aborigines, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 3rd edition.
Elkin, Adolphus Peter 1970
The Australian Aborigines, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 4th edition.
Elkin, Adolphus Peter 1979
The Australian Aborigines, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 5th revised edition.
Kendon, Adam 1989
Sign languages of Aboriginal Australia: cultural, semiotic and communicative perspectives, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Macoy, Robert 1870
Geneal history, cyclopedia and dictionary of Freemasonry; containing an elaborate account of the rise and progress of freemasonry and its kindred organisations – ancient and modern, Masonic Publishing Company, New York. Available here.
Roth, Walter E. 1897
Ethnological studies among the north-west-central Queensland Aborigines, Government Printer, Brisbane. Available here.
Stuart, John Macdouall 1865
The Journals of John McDouall Stuart during the years 1858, 1859, 1860, 1861, & 1862, when he fixed the centre of the continent and successfully crossed it from sea to sea, Saunders, Otley and Co., London, second edition. Available here.
Terry, Michael 1974
The war of the Warramullas, Rigby, Adelaide.
Wise, Tigger 1985
The self-made anthropologist: a life of A.P. Elkin, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
National Library of Australia
Terry, Michael undated
‘Unwritten history of Australia’ – Two typewritten manuscripts ‘B’ and ‘C’
NLA Manuscript series 611 – Michael Terry papers
Above top Secret Forum – http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread816543/pg6
Atlantis Rising Forum – http://forums.atlantisrising.com/ubb/Forum1/HTML/000969-2.html
RGB Scholar – http://rbgstreetscholar.edublogs.org/2007/02/25/knowledge-from-solitude-hieroglyphs-found-in-australia/