In 1894, William Augustus Horn, a wealthy South Australian pastoralist and miner, organised an exploration of central Australia. The Victorian government commissioned Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929), Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne, to participate as the expedition zoologist. Walter Baldwin Spencer was one of the founding fathers of anthropology in Australia, and was Director of the then National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria) from 1899 to 1928. Spencer not only joined the group on its arduous journey but also edited a major publication on its results. The Horn Expedition lasted only three months, but its findings in all fields were widely acclaimed and greatly increased knowledge about central Australia. For Spencer it was the beginning of a life-long interest in, and study of, the Aboriginal people of central and northern Australia. Over the next four years he made as many trips to the desert around Alice Springs, where he observed and photographed the Arrernte people, recording their social organisation and varied customs and ceremonies.
In this photograph Spencer is seated with the Arrernte Elders. Each of these men is the head of a particular totem group and together they directed the group of totemic ceremonies called the Angkwerre. All Aboriginal men must pass through a series of initiation ceremonies. These vary between peoples but in central Australia they basically begin when a boy is judged ready to live and hunt with the men, at ten or twelve years of age, and last until he is well into adulthood. The Angkwerre ceremonies are the final initiation stage for all Arrernte men, devised to show the now-adult men the 'sacred secrets of the tribe' and to impart 'courage and wisdom', as noted by Spencer. Attendance by all the local groups is necessary at an Angkwerre and hundreds of people may gather at the site chosen for the ceremonies. During the months of continuous performances and rites the old men, 'heads' of their local groups and respected for their conduct and their concern for their people, meet together to direct the ceremonies and to discuss issues important to the welfare of the Arrernte.