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The continuation of the ‘primitive’ trope: an examination of an ongoing legacy

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posted on 2023-04-19, 05:55 authored by Jess Binet

It is largely accepted that the term ‘primitive’ is no longer appropriate to use- whether in academia or in public life. The question has been raised however (Kuper 2005), of whether the ‘primitive trope’ continues to exist today, but in altered forms. To answer this question, it is crucial to understand the historical context of the development of the trope, the consequences of its perpetuation, and the spaces in which it is evidently still occurring.

Through a mixture of interviews, archival research and literature studies, this thesis examines the changing nature of the ‘primitive trope’, specifically in how it has evolved within academic scholarship and in museum spaces. It questions classification practices within both of these fields, and queries the ramifications of supposedly ‘unbiased’ labels. Further, in line with decolonisation scholarship, this thesis seeks to critique current practices of ethnoarchaeology and history-writing disciplines. This project therefore explores the effect of connecting contemporary societies and their way of life with the prehistoric past. By questioning linear narratives of time based on an increasing trajectory of development, the thesis highlights how contemporary communities are often located ‘outside of time’. My thesis does so with a focus on West Papuan and Papuan material culture and its representation given the centrality of material culture to categorisations of the past and ideas surrounding development.


Table of Contents

Introduction -- Chapter One: Classification and the primitive trope -- Chapter Two: Analogy, prehistory, and the present -- Chapter Three: Classification, databases, and decolonisation in museum contexts -- Conclusions -- References

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis MRes

Department, Centre or School

Department of Anthropology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Anna-Karina Hermkens

Additional Supervisor 1

Ronika Power


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:




78 pages

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