A totem is an animal, plant, or natural object (or representation of an object) that serves as the emblem of a clan or family among a tribal or traditional people. A totem represents a mystical or ritual bond of unity within the group. In prehistoric societies, totems were key symbols of religion and social cohesion; they were also important tools for cultural and educational transmission. Totems were often the basis for laws and regulations. In some African societies, for example, it was a violation of cultural and spiritual life to hunt, kill or hurt an animal or plant totem. This attitude may have been the basis of environmental laws and regulations that existed in such societies. However, this worldview changed with cultural, economic and technological developments; today, totems are as scarce as the traditional societies that use them.

Origin and development

There is no properly documented evidence concerning the origins of totemism; however, it could have begun when humans started living in organized communities. Many anthropologists believe that totem use was a universal phenomenon among early societies. Pre-industrial communites had some form of totem that was associated with spirits, religion and success of community members. Early documented forms of totems in Europe can be traced to the Roman Empire, where symbols were used as coats of arms, a practice which continues today.

The word totem, from the Native American Ojibway language, was noted in the early 1770s in a North American traveler's report. The writer also noted the similarity of totems to English coats of arms. However, an observer in the 1790s differentiated between the two, noting that each individual has "his totem, or favorite spirit, which he believes watches over him. This totem they conceive assumes the shape of some beast or other, and therefore they never kill, hunt, or eat the animal whose form they think this totem bears."

Most African chiefs decorated their stools and other items with their personal totems, or with those of the tribe or of the clans making up the larger community. It was a duty of each community member to protect and defend the totem. This obligation ranged from not harming that animal or plant, to actively feeding, rescuing or caring for it as needed. African tales are told of how men became heroes for rescuing their totems. This has continued in some African societies, where totems are treasured and preserved for the community’s good.

Totemism and environmental protection

In Africa, totemism still plays a significant role in community bonding, but few scholars have examined its role in the development of environmental protection. Indeed, a concern for the environment has developed in every society twith totemistic beliefs. In most traditional African cultures, it was illegal to kill or hurt a totem. It was likewise illegal for a relative such as wife, who may have hailed from a different tribe and therefore had a different totem, to hurt the totem of a husband or son. This was mainly because totems were viewed as part of the kindred, and it was believed that these totems shared blood with the ancestors. To hurt a totem was tantamount to hurting the community's ancestors. Severe punishments, such as banishment, fines, hard labor, or death, were applied to anyone who disrespected their totem.

Totemism can lead to environmental protection due to the fact that many tribes have multiple totems. For example, over 100 plant and animal species are considered totems among the Batooro (omuziro), Banyoro and Baganda (omuzilo) tribes in Uganda; a similar number of species are considered totems among tribes in Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR). In Zimbabwe, totems (mitupo) have been in use among the Shona people since the initial developemnt of their culture. Totems identify the different clans among the Shona that historically made up the dynasties of their ancient civilization. Today, up to 25 different totems can be identified among the Shona, and similar totems exist among other South African groups, such as the Zulu, the Ndebele, and the Herero.

Today, the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre uses a community-based approach for animal protection. Individuals are encouraged to donate funds for feeding animals in the former zoo. Donations are applied to the donor's totem; such a donation is considered an act of "feeding one's brother" who is unable to feed himself. By taking a cue from such activities, environmental activists can use of knowledge of totems and their cultural significance to revitalize environmental awareness, especially where animal protection laws are weak and unimplemented, and where the community has become detached from the environment.



Peter, M. (2007). Totem. Retrieved from


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