The consequences of the adoption of steel axes by a tribe of Australian aborigines vividly illustrates the need for consideration of the undesirable, indirect, and unanticipated consequences of an innovation. The Yir Yoront traveled in small nomadic groups over a vast territory in search of game and other food. The central tool in their culture was the stone ax, which the Yir Yoront found indispensable in producing food, constructing shelter, and heating their homes. A complete revolution was precipitated by the replacement of the stone ax by the steel ax.
Anthropologist Lauriston Sharp (1952) conducted his investigation of the Yir Yoront by the method of participant observation. He studied Yir Yoront culture by taking par in its everyday activities. Because of their isolation, the tribe was relatively unaffected by Western civilization until the establishment of a nearby missionary post. The missionaries distributed many steel axes among the Yir Yoront as gifts and as payment for work performed.
Previously, the stone ax had been a symbol of masculinity and of respect for elders. Only men owned stone axes, although women and children were the principal users of these tools. Axes were borrowed from fathers, husbands, or uncles according to a system of social relationships prescribed by custom. The Yir Yoront obtained their stone ax heads in exchange for spears through bartering with other tribes, a process that took place as part of elaborate rituals at seasonal fiestas.
When the missionaries distributed the steel axes to the Yir Yoront, they hoped that a rapid improvement in living conditions would result. There was no important resistance to using the steel axes, because the tribe was accustomed to securing their tools through trade. Steel axes were more efficient for most tasks, and the stone axes rapidly disappeared among the Yir Yoront.
But the steel ax contributed little to social progress; to the disappointment of the missionaries, the Yir Yoront used their new-found leisure time for sleep, “an act they had thoroughly mastered.” The missionaries distributed the steel axes equally to men, women, and children. Young men were more likely to adopt the new tools than were the elders, who did not trust the missionaries. The result was a disruption of status relations among the Yir Yoront and a revolutionary confusion of age and sex roles. Elders, once highly respected, now became dependent upon women and younger men, and were often forced to borrow steel axes from these social inferiors.
The trading rituals of the tribe also became disorganized. Friendship ties among traders broke down, and interest declined in the annual fiestas, where the barter of stone axes for spears had formerly taken place. The religious system and social organization of the Yir Yoront became disorganized as a result of the tribe’s inability to adjust to the innovation. The men began prostituting their daughters and wives in exchange for the use of someone else’s steel ax.
Many of the consequences of the innovation among the Yir Yoront were undesirable, indirect, and unanticipated; these three types of consequence often go together, just as desirable, direct, and anticipated consequences are often associated.