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Australian Aboriginal Kinship

Laurent Dousset

Part one: A historical and ethnographic overview

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1While I will be discussing issues and concepts that are applicable to Aboriginal Australia more widely, it is always good practice to clarify the context from which most examples illustrating the explanations are drawn; in this case, it is the Western Desert culture area. What is known as the ‘Western Desert’ comprises the Gibson Desert, the Great Sandy Desert and the Victoria Desert and stretches from approximately Port Augusta in South Australia across the continent to Jigalong in Western Australia.

  • i The name of the Western Desert kinship system as given by Elkin (1931). Aluridja really is an Arand (...)
  • ii A group of ‘tribes’, linguistic groups or societies that share a common cultural background.

2Since the 1930s, the many Western Desert peoples and groups have been described by anthropologists and linguists as being culturally very similar, as speaking dialects of the same language, and as having the same type of kinship system. Professor Elkin (for example Elkin 1931 and 1938-40), a well-known anthropologist who had been working for decades amongst Aboriginal peoples, called the Western Desert people and their kinship system the Aluridjai. In 1959, another well-known anthropologist, Ronald Berndt (The University of Western Australia), labelled the area the Western Desert cultural blocii, comprising some 40 dialectal groups.

3Because the Western Desert has been defined in terms of the many cultural features that are shared across a huge region covering one sixth of the continent, we shall first need to examine more closely the notion of ‘culture’ and how it has been defined and used in anthropology and beyond. We will then consider characteristics used to define and describe Australian Aboriginal societies. In a third step, I outline a general history of the Western Desert, mentioning archaeological work undertaken in it and then summarise some of the more important recent events that have occurred there. The fourth part deals with issues surrounding the language and its many dialects spoken in the Western Desert. A common language and similarities between dialects are among the most tangible elements that justify the Western Desert being defined as a cultural bloc. Seen from an Aboriginal perspective, members of this culture area often speak in terms of being ‘one people’ having ‘one Law’ (which will be discussed later).

The notion of culture

4The meaning of the Indo-European word ‘culture’ in English (culture in French, Kultur in German, cultura in Italian, Kulttuuri in Finish, etc.) is not as straightforward as it may appear, so it is certainly necessary to discuss this concept before applying it, especially since it does not have identical counterparts in many of the world’s languages. In the following pages, I discuss some general aspects of the concept of ‘culture’ while keeping in mind the Australian context.

5First, it is important to note that in its Latin origins cultura was used in the context of ‘agriculture’ in the sense of caring for and guarding land. In English, it is only since the 16th century that it has been extended to include the care (cultivation) of education, and only from the beginning of the 19th century has it been applied in contexts describing the intellectual dimension of a civilization. From the mid 19th century onwards, its use shifted to mean the collective customs of a people. This understanding of ‘culture’ is anthropology’s gift to the world.

6When Captain Cook landed in Botany Bay in 1770, and later when the first settlers arrived at nearby Sydney Cove in 1788, it was immediately evident that Australia was already inhabited. The instructions of the English Crown were unambiguous: occupy uninhabited land in the name of King George III or, if the future colony was already inhabited, take possession of suitable portions of land with the approval of the relevant indigenous groups. Despite these instructions, Cook did not consult indigenous groups before declaring all the eastern Australian coast a British colony, the property of the English Crown. Australia was to be understood as terra nullius, an uninhabited land. How did this lie come about? Why did Cook declare Australia a colony without any sort of negotiation while in New Zealand, for example, there was some consideration of indigenous peoples and later important treaties?

7One reason, which goes back to the notion of ‘culture’ as described above, was that in the European conception of the times, an uncultivated piece of land was seen as unoccupied, in the sense of unappropriated (see also Reynolds 1992 [1987]). Working the land, as farmers do, was conceived as the unique and absolute way to designate ownership over it. The fences surrounding animals and the limits of crops established boundaries in space, distinguishing ‘wild nature’ from ‘domesticated nature’ and reflecting the underlying notion that domestication was the fundamental requirement for the recognition of land ownership. This conception induced a practical problem for the Englishman of the time: if land is not cultivated, with whom is one going to negotiate?

  • 1 ‘Etymology’ is the science that deals with the history of the spelling and meaning of words.

8As already mentioned, this problem relates directly to the word ‘culture’ itself, which still causes much confusion today. There is a widespread incapacity to differentiate between ‘culture’ as a form of acquired ownership, whether of land, knowledge or goods, and ‘culture’ in its social meanings: the sharing of acquired or learnt features, ways of thinking and of behaving among groups of people. Both meanings have the same etymologica1 background. The second meaning is the more recent: the acquisition of knowledge, especially religious knowledge. Cultivating ones mind was seen as analogous to cultivating and transforming ones plot of land. The domestication of land came to refer to the domestication of the mind. It is much later, and after Cook arrived in Australia, that the meaning was extended to other features of ‘civilisation’, while still keeping its original usage as well. A ‘culture’ was to become what people share, the way things should be done and thought.

  • iii A mode of human adaptation typically identified by nomadism, the absence of agriculture and domesti (...)

9As a matter of fact, the development of at least two interwoven meanings of the word ‘culture’ — one first agricultural then religious producing the basis from which ‘civilisation’ was believed to have emerged, the other social or sociological — is not so much a confusion but a subtle overlapping and the extension of Western ideologies to the understanding of social structure: both became the temporal and spatial signature for civilisation (see also Attwood, 1996). How was Cook to negotiate with people who did not cultivate land, that is did not practise what Europeans thought of as the foundation of civilisation? In 18th century thought, Australian Aborigines did not exist as a group, as a civilisation, because they did not have what was considered to be a ‘culture’ since their form of ‘culture’ did not in any way reflect established western categories of thinking of the period. Indeed, Australian Aborigines were not farmers and did not cultivate the land but were what is called hunter-gatherersiii. In this mode of human adaptation, people do not domesticate animals for food or grow crops and therefore do not delimit space with boundaries reflecting agricultural activity. For the moment, let us simply note that 18th century Europeans could not conceive hunting and gathering as having anything to do with ‘civilisation’.

10The misunderstanding (or non-understanding) of the hunter-gatherer mode of social existence was justified in the scholarly writings of the era when Cook landed and was therefore part of an explicit government policy. William Blackstone, an authority on law in England during the 18th century, wrote in his book Commentaries on the Laws of England (1823 [1766]) that two kinds of land for colonisation must be distinguished: ‘un-cultivated’ land in its agricultural sense, which immediately becomes the property of the Crown, and ‘cultivated’ land, which has to be acquired through negotiation or conquest. Only in the second case does the author recognise ‘indigenous laws’, and hence a ‘civilisation’, which, he writes, remain in force until the King decides to replace them with British law (see Kirk 1986; Reynolds 1987).

  • 2 ‘Ethnocentric’ refers to a very human view or world-view that is heavily biased by the personal his (...)

11Given what has been alluded to so far, a discussion of the notion of ‘culture’ is essential, since it entails both a Western ethnocentric2 history and a view of what a society is or should be. Anthropologists have, however, formulated new understandings and definitions of the concept, some of which are particularly useful for understanding what the expression ‘Western Desert cultural bloc’ means.

  • iv The process of learning cultural symbols and ways of thinking and behaving.
  • v A complex version of direct exchange (see direct exchange) where at least three groups need to exch (...)

12The first anthropologists to make extensive use of the notion of ‘culture’ were those of the Culturalism school of thought, also called Culture and Personality, which began in the 1930s. These researchers centred their studies on a distinction between the ‘natural’ and the ‘cultural’ parts of a human being. The natural was considered everything that is inherited and cannot be changed (the fact that humans usually have two hands, for example); the cultural everything that is acquired through learning and copying. A baby is not born with clothes, food habits or preferences, religion, language and so on, even though some linguists have argued that there is an underlying universal language or grammar and that every child is born with a specific capacity for language. A child is considered to be born as a tabula rasa, a blank sheet of paper or board (as the Greek philosopher Aristotles termed it) on which society and culture inevitably inscribe their beliefs, values and customs on individuals over time. This process is termed socialisationiv and the internalisationv of cultural rules and norms. Generally speaking, norms and rules are ways of doing and of thinking (Durkheim 1999 [1984]) and cultural norms are the ways of doing and thinking that are particular to a society or group. Culture, not just language, is what makes people understand each other when they communicate since words have different meanings depending on ones experience when learning them.

13The so-called culturalists emphasised the process of acquisition or learning of ‘culture’ in their studies. These researchers and scholars tried to analyse how mothering, fathering and other forms of education are the means through which different cultures transmit different norms and values. Subsequently, they defined culture as the sum of attitudes, ideas and behaviour shared by members of a society.

14The distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ mentioned earlier was important in other early anthropological schools. Researchers either tried to crystallise the universal features of human cultures or to conceptualise how the transition from ‘nature’ to ‘culture’ operated in evolutionary terms. In other words, they sought answers to these questions: what distinguishes humans from animals and how did human society come to be?

The Culturalist School

The best-known and most important culturalists were Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Ralph Linton, and Abram Kardiner. Margaret Mead (1935), for example, studied gender relationships in three societies in the Pacific (the Arapesh, the Mundugumor and the Chambuli) and compared the attitudes towards gender differentiation. She concluded that gender is defined by cultural norms and not by ‘biological’ difference. Personality is dependent on the systems of social roles imposed by the cultural model or pattern rather than by the biological sex of a person. Culturalist anthropology gave rise to other approaches and schools that continue to be influential. Clifford Geertz (also see Ortner 1999), for example, describes culture as a web of meaning in which individuals are suspended, and Mary Douglas (2002 [1966]), known for her work on the notion of ‘pollution’, defines society on the basis of shared symbols.

  • 3 Generally speaking, a symbol is something that stands for something else, especially an idea or a v (...)

15Numerous books and scientific papers have addressed these questions. Leslie White (1969:22ff), for example, explains that all human behaviour originates in the use of symbols3 and that the ability to use ‘symbols’ transformed our ancestors into human beings. Indeed, few kinds of animal can use differentiating symbols. The fact that in some cultures people believe in the world being created by one God while others do not, or that snails have souls, or that animals can speak to them, are the result of our human capacity to elaborate on symbols and invest them with a range of meanings. To quote White’s example: no chimpanzee or laboratory rat can appreciate the difference between holy water and distilled water. It is this capacity to manipulate symbols whose meanings are, at least to some extent, shared among a group of people that differentiates human beings from animals, or ‘nature’ from ‘culture’.

  • vi A fundamental rule, not identical in every society, but every society possesses one. This rules pro (...)
  • vii The obligation to marry or practice of marrying outside ones family, group or tribe. Exogamy can be (...)

16One explanation of the distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ that had far-reaching influence a few decades ago was proposed by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1967 [1947]), who pushed these questions and his conclusions almost to their logical limits. While some of his other ideas will be discussed later, here I summarise Lévi-Strauss’ distinction between animal and human societies. The difference, he explains, lies in the human recognition of kinship. In human societies, kinship follows rules not instinct. The transition from nature to culture takes place via the prohibition of incestvi, which is universal in human societies: all of them have rules that allow or prohibit some types of sexual relations and marriages. In Aboriginal Australia, as in European societies, marriage and intercourse with a brother and sister is prohibited, and in all human societies some types of marriage are forbidden. In most cases, the prohibition is against the marriage of a man with his mother, sister or daughter and the marriage of a woman with her father, brother or son. The direct consequence of the universality of some sort of incest prohibition is that all cultures define rules of exogamyvii. These rules state that a man or woman has to marry somebody from outside his or her own group. Taken in its most limited sense, the rule of exogamy proclaims that because a man is not allowed to marry his mother, daughter or sister, he must find a spouse in another family. From Lévi-Strauss’ point of view, this also means that every man marries the sister, daughter or mother of another man and that these two men engage in some sort of relationship of exchange: both give each other’s sister or daughter in marriage. This exchange relationship is a consequence of exogamy, which in turn stems from the prohibition of incest that produces human society or culture as opposed to an animal group. Exchange of words (communication and language), exchange of goods (economy), and exchange of human beings (marriage) are the foundations of human society.

17Lévi-Strauss was not the first to underline the prohibition of incest as being the hinge between nature and culture. Indeed, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, saw the origin of human society as the consequence of the murder of the ‘original’ father and the subsequent establishment of the incest prohibition. Freud (1989 [1913]) thought that, in early stages of human social forms, people must have lived in large family groups in which one man, the father, controlled all women, including his own daughters. His sons, thus deprived of partners, killed the father and split into several groups. To ensure this situation would not happen again, these sons decided that henceforth men could not have sexual relations with their own offspring and their sons must marry women from other groups (exogamy).

18Alongside these general and very hypothetical theories about the origins of human societies, other more applicable and concrete ideas have been advanced. Searching for universal features of ‘culture’ was hence sometimes described as the search for what is ‘natural in culture’. Indeed, if some feature appears in every cultural system, then the temptation is to consider it to be a natural rather than cultural fact. The concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ do not reflect meanings as such but are themselves products of culturally specific interpretations of the world. Thus the distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ is not as straightforward as one might expect. Philippe Descola (2010) quotes illustrative examples in which, as he explains, many more things belong in some intermediary space rather than wholly to ‘nature’ or to ‘culture’. Does a house pet belong to ‘nature’ or to ‘culture’? During a walk alongside a hedge composed of wild plants, one could say that this is a ‘natural’ hedge, unlike the wooden fence enclosing the nearby field. But this hedge has also been fitted, trimmed and maintained by humans; it is therefore the product of a technical, that is to say ‘cultural’, activity. Is this hedge therefore ‘natural’ or ‘cultural’?

  • viii This is the indigenous word for the Dreamtime or Dreaming in Western Desert dialects. This concept (...)
  • ix In Western Desert languages, Mularrpa is the ‘here and now’ and is contrasted to the Tjukurrpa (Dre (...)

19Other examples could readily be quoted with respect to Australian Aboriginal cultures. As we shall see, Aboriginal people did not grow crops but collected seeds, fruit and vegetables that grew wild. However, in some groups, people often threw a few seeds on the ground before grinding the rest into flour to make sure these would grow again and in different places from where they were originally collected. Groups would then move on, more or less abandoning the seeds or seedlings, which received neither care nor water from those who left them behind. Nonetheless, since a human hand sowed these plants and since such sowing is not simply a natural human action that people do anywhere automatically and without thinking, the question remains: is this a ‘natural’ or a ‘cultural’ phenomenon? What results from my brief discussion of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ is that these concepts are themselves cultural. In the Western Desert, I have not encountered such a distinction. What comes closest to it is that between Tjukurrpaviii, the Dreamtime, and Mularrpaix, the ‘real world here and now’, a distinction to which I return later.

20An interesting analysis of these problems was proposed by Serge Moscovici (1977). He analysed European understandings and uses of the notions of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’, explaining that both concepts reveal specific social and cultural values working as stereotyped contradictions. The idea of ‘culture’ is associated with ‘orthodoxy’, reflecting images of sedentarism, domestication and distance from animality, with values such as hierarchy, perfection and progress. Additionally, the idea of ‘nature’ is associated in European culture with ‘heterodoxy’, which reflects images of nomadism and restlessness, spontaneity, sensitivity, enjoyment and confusion with animality. We now better understand the mechanisms at work during the negation of indigenous peoples’ presence in Australia. Cook and his fellows considered themselves ‘orthodox’ people of culture, but viewed Aborigines as ‘heterodox’ people of nature.

21Up to this point, we have encountered three meanings of the notion of ‘culture’. The first reflected its European etymological origin and its representations in history: culture is the result of a specific type of transformation of land or nature and of mind or soul. Culture is seen as a domestication of the wild, pagan world in order to form civilisation.

22The second definition of culture, which again is based on its conceptual distinction from ‘nature’, conveys the idea that groups within human societies exchange people for marriage, words for communication (and thus have a language), and goods for a living. According to this understanding, ‘culture’ is a means of distinguishing human social organisation from animal social organisation. However, it can also be extrapolated to distinctions among human organisations themselves by stating that the modes and principles of exchanging people, words and goods divide human society into various, diverse cultures.

23The third and most sophisticated definition, which is in fact complementary to the second one, sees culture as a set of people who share common symbols, ways of thinking and of acting. Social norms and rules are acquired in each group through learning processes called socialisation. This understanding of ‘culture’ does not impose an ethnocentric and evolutionary interpretation. A specific culture is not better or worse, older or younger, more or less ‘natural’, but is the sharing of common symbols and identical or similar understandings thereof by a group of people.

  • 4 By the term ‘etic’ one understands the point of view or explanation of a feature as proposed by som (...)

24Let us now return to the Western Desert, bearing in mind the above definitions and understanding culture as the aggregate of shared attitudes, beliefs, actions and symbols — ways of acting and of thinking — that are embedded in and organise the human necessity to exchange and engage in social relationships. Groups and families of the Western Desert thus qualify as a ‘cultural bloc’. Although hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometres apart, people share many common symbols and beliefs and a set of known principles that underlie the exchange of people, words and goods. Their kinship systems, which constitute the domain of people exchange, are in many respects very similar, their dialects are mutually intelligible, and their economic systems are in most respects homogeneous and rely on extensive material and non-material cooperation. This is my view, an etic4 one (seen from the outside), regarding the validity of defining the Western Desert as a cultural bloc.

Culture and Society

It is necessary to underline the fact that ‘culture’ defined on the basis of shared symbols is not sufficient to describe human social forms. Indeed, it is not enough that symbols are shared; people must also adhere to these symbols, explicitly or implicitly, and they must be effectively applied and used. Richard Rorty (1991: 30-1, 192, 199-200, quoted in Antonio 1998: 37-8) wrote that the moral self is a web of shared beliefs and feelings that has no centre, and he defines ethnos as the circle of believers. Indeed, if ‘culture’ is a set of symbols, people who share and enact these symbols may be called an ethnic group or society. In this work, I shall use the words culture and society in a slightly different way and follow Godelier’s proposition (2009) that culture comprises norms, values and symbols, whereas society is a political unit constituted by people who adhere to these shared norms, values and symbols. Importantly, culture and society are not coextensive since it is possible to state in certain cases that two Australian tribes have similar if not identical cultures and wish this to be recognised but are not the same society.

25But there also is an emic, or insider’s, point of view which testifies to the accuracy of calling 40 or more dialectal groups, scattered across some 600,000 square kilometres, a cultural bloc. Although the word ‘culture’ does not exist as a literal translation in many languages of the world, it is nevertheless defined by way of the indigenous person’s selfrecognition. Western Desert people use expressions such as ‘we are one mob’ or ‘we are all the same’ to express the existence of and their belonging to a community that shares a cultural domain and to differentiate this community from groups and tribes outside the cultural bloc (also see Glowczewski 1998). We now examine the nature of this Western Desert culture and community, starting with some basic definitions, in particular that of ‘hunter-gatherer society’.

What are hunter-gatherer societies?

26Social scientists categorise the Aborigines of Australia as ‘hunter-gatherers’. As the name given to these societies indicates, it primarily relates to a society’s mode of extracting goods such as food and other raw material from their environment. The same typology proposes other categories, of course, such as ‘horticulturalists’, ‘pastoralists’ and ‘industrial’ modes of extraction and production. Horticulturalists are for example New Guinean and other Pacific Islanders who use hand tools, grow crops in gardens and raise animals such as pigs and chickens. Pastoralist societies entail the keeping of herds of domesticated animals and a heavy reliance on the products of these animals (milk, cheese, hides), which are typically consumed or exchanged for the products of nearby settled peoples. Examples are the Nuer in Sudan or the Bedouins in Arabia and Yemen.

27Hunter-gatherers were or are represented in many parts of the world, typically but not exclusively in areas not suitable for agriculture, horticulture or pastoralism: in Asia (examples are the Agta of the Philippines or the Ainu in Japan); in the Americas with the Great Plain Indians or the Guarani in South America; in Africa, in particular the !Kung, also called Bushmen, in the Kalahari desert, the Mbuti people in Central Africa or the Hadza in Tanzania and so on. In the northern polar region, many northern Siberian societies are hunter-gatherers, the best known being probably the Inuit people of Canada and Alaska. Australia is unique in this respect, being the only continent in modern times to be populated by people following a single mode of adaptation (hunting, gathering, and fishing where possible).

28Anthropologists usually associate the hunter-gatherer type of society or culture with a number of features. The extent and intensity of these features vary from region to region and continent to continent but are generally speaking considered to apply. We now briefly examine each of these features.

Food production and storage

29As the name of this type of society suggests, hunter-gatherers do not usually raise animals for food, or cultivate crops in gardens, but hunt, fish and collect wild vegetables and fruit. They also have what is called an immediate-return type of economic production and exchange system (Woodburn 1982), meaning that hunter-gatherers do not usually produce (hunt or forage for) more food than is immediately needed or shared among the group. Food storage is not a significant element of most hunter-gatherer societies in which fresh food is much preferred.

30It has, however, been demonstrated that hunter-gatherer societies are often what one could call ‘indirect horticulturalists’. These societies, and Australian Aborigines are to be included here, intervene in natural processes of animal and plant reproduction. For example, parts of tubers are left in the soil so that a plant can regain its full strength, or people ensure that seeds fall into the appropriate soil (see, for example, Goodale 1986 [1982]: 203, Campbell 1965: 206-207, and Kimber 1976 for Australian examples). Aboriginal Australians have also been called ‘fire-stick farmers’ (Jones 1969) since the organised burning off of certain areas of land is a strategy for regenerating food sources by destroying weeds and other plants that may hinder their growth and productivity. Additionally, the ashes produced by fires favour certain plant species’ growth.

Political system

31The vast majority of hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian in spirit, having no chiefs or hereditary leaders but what anthropologists call ‘situational’ leadership, where those in charge are different according to the particular circumstances and kinship is the key to understanding who does what to whom, when, where, and to what effect. Some researchers, such as Alain Testart (1979), have demonstrated a relationship between the absence of food storage and an egalitarian social organisation. Testart claims that storage, which may in some cases be the consequence of seasonal variation because of the necessity to store food for periods of scarcity, may be the basis for individually or collectively owned wealth and thus also give rise to inequalities.

32Here again, we need to enquire into the definitions of ‘political system’ and ‘power’. If one understands by the notion of ‘power’ the capacity to take decisions in the name of a group, then indeed there are many fewer such opportunities in Aboriginal Australian societies than in European societies, with their institutionalised political systems embracing local, regional and national power structures. Conversely, Thomson (2003, but see also Burbank and Chisholm 1989; Keen 1982 and 1994) reported that one Arnhem Land elder possessed twenty-two wives. This man was obviously not poor, considering that such multiple marriages placed him at the centre of multiple networks of mutual obligation and exchange with brothers-in-law, sons-in-law, fathers-in-law etc.

Division of labour

33Hunter-gatherers typically do not have a strong, general division of labour. Every adult man and woman will possess the range of skills appropriate to each their gender and can make all the tools and weapons they need to forage, hunt, or defend themselves with, whereas in other types of societies specialists are usually important figures (e.g., potters, blacksmiths, carpenters). The hunter-gatherer division of labour is based heavily on gender, that is women usually forage for plant foods and fish and collect small game, whereas men generally hunt or fish for large game. This division, however, is not always as clear-cut as some writers suggest. In the Western Desert, men will also forage while out hunting and women own hunting dogs that can bring down large game such as kangaroos. A strict gender division exists though in certain domains of ritual and other religious activity. Although the bulk of religious life is in the hands of mature men, women also have religious hierarchies and sacred paraphernalia, and certain rituals from which all men are excluded. Women play essential support roles in men’s ritual lives, especially during large gatherings devoted principally to rituals, and senior men and women exercise control over their younger counterparts and are active in organising and carrying out ritual activities, both separately from and in the presence of the other gender.

Residence and demography

34Nomadism and the scattered nature of their everyday social groups characterize the hunter-gatherer mode of adaptation. Because hunter-gatherers are nomadic, they do not have permanent settlements; they also usually live in regions with low population densities. The absence of intensive production of food resources means that people move between natural resources and that the capacity of a given area to sustain people, something which has been called the carrying capacity, has been described as being less with hunter-gathering than it is with horticulture, for example.

35However, as was the case with the division of labour, the reality is not always as straightforward as text-books might indicate, and the notion of carrying capacity must be qualified. Some hunter-gatherer groups, such as in tropical Arnhem Land (Northern Territory) and Cape York (Queensland) or along the large rivers of New South Wales in Australia, do not have to move far because of their food-rich environment. Lourandos (1980), for example, showed that Arnhem Land hunter-gatherers have a greater demographic density than some horticulturalists in nearby Papua New Guinea. Chase and Sutton (1987), who worked with groups in Cape York, Queensland, noted that ranges of movement in search of foods are quite small in these well-resourced areas. Jones (1980) explains for the Rittarngu people of Arnhem Land that the range of movement is little more than 15 kilometres a year in an area of fourteen square kilometres. In contrast, desert areas make very large ranges of movement necessary. In the Western Desert, families often walked 20 kilometres a day over extended periods of time, in an area of extremely low demographic densities. In the case of one such group, the Ngaatjatjarra, for which I have good estimates, prior to the coming of Europeans about 500 people occupied an area of some 100,000 square kilometres. This yields a population density of about 0.005 person per square kilometre, or 200 square kilometres per person.

36The variability among so-called hunter-gatherer societies has led some scholars, for example Arcand (1988) and Kelly (1995), to reconsider the typology defining societies as ‘hunter-gatherers’, ‘horticulturalists’, ‘pastoralists’ etc. Given the differences in the extent of nomadic practices, as well as those observed in residential and demographic patterns, it may not be correct, according to Arcand, to characterise societies using these variables. Kelly argues similarly and even more strongly but nevertheless retains the term ‘huntergatherer’ for what he calls pedagogic reasons.

Kin-based societies

37Hunter-gatherers have also often been called ‘kin-based’ societies in which relationships of kinship are fundamental in the organisation of daily activities, economic exchange and decision-making. Although Godelier (2004) and I, myself, (Dousset 2007) have heavily criticised the notion of ‘kin-based societies’, its importance in Aboriginal Australia in particular is beyond doubt. Aboriginal kinship is embedded in all aspects of social life and, as we shall see, every member of a given society or region is related to all the others by the web of kinship.

The Ngaatjatjarra

  • x A father (or husband) and mother (or wife) and their children.

38I now illustrate some of the features mentioned above in relation to a specific Western Desert group, the Ngaatjatjarra. However, what is explained here is equally applicable to almost all the groups in this region. People had a highly nomadic way of life, travelling usually in small family groups of one or more nuclear familiesx through their hunting and gathering grounds and uniting into larger congregations only for particular circumstances, such as initiation ceremonies, and when favourable ecological conditions made it possible for a large number of people to remain at one spot over an extended period of time.

39The extent of the land these families regularly visited during their travels could amount to walking-distances of two to three hundred kilometres. Nomadism can take three forms which are sometimes combined: it can be circular, radial or linear. In circular nomadism, as the word explains, people never travel through the same place twice in the course of making a full cycle. In radial nomadism, people regularly come back to a centre point, which may be an important religious site or a permanent waterhole. In linear nomadism, people move back and forth over a chain of sites.

Figure 3: Types of nomadism (the small circles represent watering places or campsites)

Figure 3: Types of nomadism (the small circles represent watering places or campsites)

40While the nomadic adaptation of the Western Desert people in general, and Ngaatjatjarra people in particular, includes all three types of nomadism, radial nomadism is generally the most popular form. Circular nomadism was used mainly by families living in flatland country, travelling through sand dunes between watering sites and areas with denser vegetation. Linear nomadism, on the other hand, was often followed by people living along hilly outcrops. Hills offer many places of shade and rocky ground where water persists over longer periods of time than in dune country. Radial nomadism was employed in two different and contrasting situations. First, during periods of severe drought, when people had to return regularly to a more permanent water resource while travelling out from it in search of game and bush foods. It was also used during periods of relative abundance, in which case semi-permanent camps were established at the centre point and people would move out to other locations, on trips of one to several days, to hunt and forage.

41Men would generally hunt large game, such as kangaroos or emus, while women and children would collect vegetables, fruit and grass-seeds and gather small game such as lizards, snakes, grubs and so on. Food was shared among people who travelled together, especially larger game, which was cut up following strict rules and distributed according to kinship relations.

42Carrying some of their belongings and very small children, families would sometimes travel 30 or more kilometres a day, then build a windbreak (yuu) or a shelter (wiltja) in the evening around a few fires. Indeed, the Western Desert is one of the harshest environments ever inhabited by human beings before the industrial revolution (Gould 1969). The unpredictability of the amount and location of rainfall is one of the reasons for the rather specific social and territorial organisation, including low demographic densities and shared access to and responsibilities for sites and areas in the landscape.

43Meggitt (1986 [1962]: 32) estimated a demographic density of one person per 35 square kilometres among the Warlpiri in the Central Desert, north-west of Alice Springs, a region already well known for its sparse resources compared to, say, Arnhem Land or Cape York. Long (1971) indicates a density of one person per 200 square kilometres in the Western Desert in general. Cane (1990:151) calculates for an area in the Great Sandy Desert a density of one person per 170 square kilometres. Compare these figures to one person per 200 square kilometres for the Ngaatjatjarra.

44Catherine and Ronald Berndt (1992 [1964]: 26 and Berndt 1959: 86) described the Western Desert as covering some 670,000 square kilometres, with a population of 3,200 persons in the 1960s (about one person per 200 square kilometres). Their estimate for the time immediately prior to the establishment of settlements and missions on the fringes of the desert is about five times higher. However, this figure seems highly improbable since food would have been scarce during droughts, a regular occurrence given the very low population density. Hence, accepting a mean Western Desert population density of one person per 140 square kilometres, a compromise estimate between the harsher areas in the centre and the slightly more abundant areas on the desert fringes, we can estimate a total population for the Western Desert of about 4,800 persons.

45Another interesting figure is the mean distance between family groups. Among the Ngaatjatjarra, a camp, composed of one to two nuclear families, was situated on average about 50 kilometres away from the next camp. This number sheds some light on the territorial and social organisation of Western Desert people, providing an image of rather small groups scattered throughout the desert and travelling from water place to hunting grounds and important religious sites for which they had the responsibility of carrying out the necessary ceremonies. Strictly delimited land ownership with tribal boundaries, such as other Aboriginal societies apply, especially in the more abundant parts of the continent, would have been a difficult and even a dangerous strategy to sustain. The unpredictability of rainfall and solidarity and mutual access to resources between families was bound to have had an influence on the formal aspects of landownership, which is here not defined in terms of boundaries and exclusive ownership but of shared responsibility and privileged though not exclusive access. It was and is possible for members of a family group to have ownership of and responsibility for sites that were or are outside the area through which they would usually travel and forage.

46I use the word ‘responsibility’ rather than ‘ownership’ with respect to land and I believe the former word is more accurate for the Western Desert case. The idea of ownership involves the right to exclude others from accessing resources (Barnard and Woodburn 1988: 13-14). This is not the value underpinning Western Desert culture, in which the maximisation of inclusion rather than exclusion is a dominant value, reinforced by the nature of the kinship system (Tonkinson & Tonkinson 2010), as we will see below. Responsibility for land and sites is an idea that directly stems from Aboriginal religion.

47Australian religious systems are termed in English, and today by many Aboriginal peoples themselves, the ‘Dreaming’, a word originally forged by Francis J. Gillen who accompanied Baldwin Spencer during his scientific journeys among the Aranda (Arrernte) people in the Central Desert at the end of the 19th century. The ‘Dreaming’, or Tjukurrpa as it is commonly called in the Western Desert, has various important parallel meanings, even though the definitions are not identical for all Australian societies. Firstly, it is the time in which everything, including people and society, was created. Secondly, it also names the creative beings or mythical heroes of that momentous time, who created and shaped the landscape through their journeys on, above and below the surface of the earth and waters. These journeys are enacted by people through rituals, dances, songs and paintings. Thirdly, it is also used to denote the ‘Law’, as Western Desert people term it in English. It defines the code of conduct: how people should behave, what they should do and, conversely, what is not appropriate or is forbidden. Fourthly, Tjukurrpa also means the enactment of the law in the present. Tjukurrpa has no definite beginning or end; it is not only about ancestral times but is always here and present, always relevant to human affairs. The esteemed Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner (1979: 24) captured this idea perfectly with the expression ‘the everywhen’: something that is everywhere and eternal.

48In the Western Desert, another concept closely linked to the Tjukurrpa is Mularrpa, which denotes reality as immediately recognisable by humans, the here and now, the tangible. Tjukurrpa and Mularrpa are complementary; they are two sides of the same coin. While Tjukurrpa defines the essence of things, of all that exists, Mularrpa represents the existence of what Tjukurrpa has defined: the things themselves and the enactment of the Tjukurrpa. Both worlds interact with permanence and intimacy; both are necessary and fundamental. Humans share a responsibility to care for the landforms and places created and defined during the Tjukurrpa. If they neglect these responsibilities, people believe that the worlds of both Tjukurrpa and Mularrpa are endangered.

49An important aspect of Western Desert land tenure and territorial organisation is that responsibility to care for sites is, strictly speaking, not inherited but must be acquired through the demonstration of shared cultural values and behaviours. Responsibility over land is thus expressed in the form of an accumulation of criteria that legitimate the privilege or right to speak for a specific site or area. The place where a person was thought to have been conceived or born, where their umbilical cord dried and fell off, where he or she lived for extended periods of time, are just as important as all the sites with which a person’s parents and grandparents are affiliated.

Coming into being

50One important criterion establishing an unalienable link between a person and a site in space is birth. Not so long ago, until the 1970s and 1980s, expectant mothers withdrew from the group, accompanied by other women, to give birth to their babies. The link to birthplace, ngurrara, as well as to the place where the umbilical cord falls off when it dries, called ngurra nyuntjinatja, is strongly felt. Ngurra generally means ‘home’ or ‘homeland’, and when the suffix -ra (‘coming from’) is added, such as in ngurrara, it means the ‘place of origin’. Nyuntjin(pa) is the umbilical cord but also the centre of the circular and central ceremonial design (see also Hansen and Hansen 1992: 94). Most babies are now born in hospitals, with the result that many children have identical birthplaces. In many cases, the community in which the pregnant mother lived just before giving birth is today considered to be the child’s homeland.

51People have rights to visit and the duty to look after their birthplace as well as the place where their umbilical cord fell off. They are bound to these sites through a personal relationship. Birth, however, is not the starting point of a person’s existence. Indeed, the site and event of conception that prefigures life establish the individual as part of a network of people and places.

52What is conception? Western Desert people believe that every person is the outgrowth of a spirit-child. These spirit-children, called tjiijikarrkalypa by the Mardu speakers on the western side of the desert (Tonkinson 1991:79), were left behind by the Dreaming beings, they are everywhere, waiting to embody themselves first in an animal, or less frequently a plant, and then to enter the body of their mother as a tiny humanoid being. Once in the womb, they will soon be born as a human being (Tonkinson 1978). Ngaatjatjarra people of the central Western Desert talk of this phase of their existence using the expression parkangka ngaralanta (‘when I was sitting among the leaves of a tree’). All spirit-children came from the original creative beings of the Tjukurrpa. The Mularrpa form in which the spirit-child appears before entering the body of the mother thus provides some understanding about which mythical being is intended to become the baby’s conception totem, called tjuma among the Ngaatjatjarra (nyuka among the Mardu). This totem is itself again linked to particular sites in space for which the person-to-be will have particular responsibilities; it is their tjuma ngurra, their ‘totem place’.

53While every person derives from a spirit-substance, and is directly linked to a being of the Tjukurrpa, it may not be immediately obvious to the parents which spirit-child has entered the mother. Once a woman realises she is pregnant, she and her partner need to be able to recall unusual recent events or behaviour by elements of the natural world. They need to identify the event and place where conception occurred, where the spirit-child is believed to have entered the mother’s body. In this way, they can identify the tjuma of their child.

54Spirit-children always communicate, in one form or another, their intention to enter their chosen mother, so human beings must listen to and understand such communication. These messages are quite diverse: for example, strange encounters with animals, feeling ill after eating an animal or plant, or a dream. Below I give two examples of such encounters as reported to me. Note, to further illustrate the examples, that the word tjuma means birthmark as well as totem.

A woman was walking with her son among mulga (acacia) trees when she encountered an echidna, an animal similar to a porcupine. She attempted to turn the animal over onto its back, so as to pick it up, kill and cook it. After many unsuccessful attempts, she grabbed a bigger stick and tried even harder and with more force, but the animal resisted, displaying unusual strength. She pushed and pushed with the stick on the back of the animal and finally succeeded in turning it over and picking it up. She fully understood that this was an unusual encounter, and that it could indicate her pregnancy. This was later confirmed since her second son was born with a birthmark on his back, exactly there where his mother had pushed the animal with the stick.

A man, known to be a skilled hunter who never missed his quarry, often brought home kangaroos that he had shot with his rifle and shared them with his family and parents-inlaw. One day, however, he encountered a kangaroo that he was sure his shot had killed. However, the fallen animal suddenly stood up again, stared at him, and then hopped away. Surprised, he ran after the animal on a long pursuit, which eventually tired him. Suddenly, the kangaroo stopped, turned to face him and then stood firm, as if offering his chest to the hunter. The man aimed his gun and shot the kangaroo through its heart. His son, born a few months later, had a birthmark on his chest, right over his heart, and everybody understood that the kangaroo was the boy’s conception totem.

55Because a spirit-child has always been left behind by a Tjukurrpa being, the myth of this being and all the places, not just the conception site, visited by the being during the Tjukurrpa become significant elements of a person’s relationship with the landscape.

56Birth and conception-place are the most important criteria establishing a strong bond between a person and a place. But they are accumulative with other criteria, such as the parents’ and grandparents’ birthplaces or the place where a person spent most of their life. Moreover, marriage may also play a role in the distribution of privileges of access to sites, as we shall see in other chapters. The more criteria a person accumulates for a specific place or region, the stronger is his or her claim to privilege over this site and the more compulsory are his or her responsibilities for looking after it, such as cleaning the site, organising the ceremonies linked to it etc.

57The absence of strict territorial boundaries in the Western Desert may at first glance appear as a lack of a tangible territorial organisation. It is certainly true that the type of organisation prevalent in this region of the continent is not defined by non-negotiable boundaries but by way of dynamic mechanisms of affiliation to particular religiously important sites that allow for flexibility if needed. A boundary-based territorial organisation, in which land is divided up into clearly demarcated stretches owned exclusively by identifiable people or groups of people, would be difficult to imagine in this area. It was and is important to develop solidarity with regard to responsibility and to allow mutual rights of access when drought may drive people out of their own territories. In this harsh and unpredictable environment, the sparseness and unpredictability of rainfall encouraged inclusive rather than exclusive cultural adaptations. The central question is not ‘are there exclusive rights to access and use a site or region?’, but ‘who has more rights and responsibilities than others to do certain things in certain places?’ Allowing access to sites to people, even if they cannot always demonstrate strong connections, results in an expectation that the host group can expect to exercise the same rights. This type of non-exclusive territorial organisation ensures that families and groups throughout the desert have rights of mutual access and reciprocity.


Some have argued that the belief in spirit-children’s entry into their mother in order to produce human beings is an example of nescience. Nescience is the lack of knowledge or awareness; in this case it concerns the reproductive mechanisms of human beings. According to early writers such as Frazer (1898), Malinowski (1937) and Ashley-Montagu (1937 and 1960), Aboriginal people allegedly did not know that sexual intercourse is necessary to produce children, and so they explain human reproduction through ideas about spirit-children and totemic associations between people and the things of nature. Others, like Lang (1905) and Roheim (1938), considered that totemic and spirit-children explanations are simply another level in the description of coming into being and that Aborigines consider that physical intercourse is not sufficient to explain all that happens (see Merlan 1986 for an overview of the literature). Godelier (2004) shows that in most, if not all, human societies, elements other than sexual intercourse are believed to be relevant to procreation.

A historical perspective

58You now know that the Western Desert region is characterised by widely shared symbols and world views, such as the concept of Tjukurrpa and explanations of coming into being, as well as by similar principles governing affiliation to both land and territorial organisation. The most explicit similarity, however, lies in their common language: all groups of the Western Desert speak different dialects of a common, shared language, so they should be labelled ‘dialectal groups’ rather than ‘tribes’.

59Because of the homogeneity of the Western Desert language, the similarity between the dialects spoken, linguists such as McConvell (1996) have argued that expansion of the language in the Western Desert is relatively recent, about 1000 to 2000 years ago. This of course does not mean that human beings did not previously occupy the Western Desert. Indeed, archaeologists have suggested that the Western Desert region has been inhabited for 22,000 to 25,000 years at least (Flood 1995:102-4 and Veth 2000), though possibly not continuously. Archaeological sites such as Allen’s Cave, on the southern fringes of the Western Desert, have been dated to at least 40,000 years ago. What may have happened is that, about 2000 years ago, either the language spoken by people inhabiting the Western Desert was replaced by a new language, or other people, speaking a different language, moved into the Western Desert and amalgamated with the local population.

60The linguistic unity of the Western Desert can be partly explained in ecological terms. After a phase of climatic amelioration and the occupation of marginal and ecologically difficult areas between 5,000 to 1,500 years ago, the people occupying the Western Desert established regional exchange and information networks (Veth 2000: 15). During this period the Western Desert language would have expanded into and across the desert. The establishment of vast networks over large areas between groups and families can take place in very difficult periods as well as in times of abundance. During droughts, people rely on both cultural conventions and their connections with other groups and families to maintain access to territories that have been favoured by some rainfall. During good periods, such as after heavy rains, people are able to meet up with visitors and neighbouring groups and then remain together for longer periods when food resources remain plentiful. These networks encourage people to intensify feelings of friendship and mutual solidarity. They exchange religious and ritual knowledge. They intermarry and thus increase the strength and efficacy of the network even further.

61Human occupation in the Western Desert spans a history of at least 25,000 years. With the spread of Europeans to the far reaches of the globe, however, most hunter-gatherers abandoned their traditional mode of subsistence in the wake of colonisation, settlement policies, loss of traditional lands and the adoption of new cultural elements. A change in mode of subsistence does not though lead inevitably to a systematic change in all other cultural features. In the Western Desert, as elsewhere in Australia, hunting and gathering are no longer the dominant subsistence strategy and people today rely heavily on commercially acquired food and other goods, even though they still go on regular hunting and foraging trips. Nevertheless, in varying degrees, Australia’s indigenous cultures still reflect ‘traditional’ elements of kinship, language and culture. This is particularly true in what is often called ‘remote Australia’, in the interior and north of the continent and particularly in the vast and sparsely populated Western Desert.

62Culture, the ways of thinking, acting and feeling shared by a group of people, is essentially dynamic, with change of some kind as a constant. Change however is not the opposite of continuity or tradition. Many Western pioneers and government officials believed in the early days that the adoption of elements of European material culture would cause indigenous culture to disappear. These same people would today be surprised to observe the continuing strength of commitment to elements of Aboriginal culture and to realise that this culture is flexible and able to readily accept and integrate certain foreign elements while resisting others. The above-mentioned case of the discovery of a child’s totem is a good example. The man concerned was hunting with a gun, which in the eyes of some ill-informed observers would have been seen as non-traditional and somehow inappropriate. But this man recognised the kangaroo as communicating through spiritual means and as involved in the process of human procreation. This clearly has little to do with any European belief system. Using a gun, driving a four-wheel-drive, even speaking English, should not be taken to mean that these Aboriginal people have ‘lost their culture’.

63Obviously, contact between radically different societies, such as hunter-gatherers and capitalists, leads to more rapid and often painful change than in cases of sustained exchange between people following the same mode of adaptation. This difference is not solely a result of the huge contrast between these different adaptations and systems of production; it is also because of very different symbolic systems and world views which attribute different values and meanings to different things.

64Where Europeans successfully colonised new land, cattle were in most cases the driving factor. The Western Desert of Australia, however, is so arid and difficult for survival that it was not invaded by Europeans; the few early explorers who did manage to survive their ordeal warned loudly against its aridity and lack of water supplies. Many parts of the area did not therefore experience direct, sustained contact with Western missions and authorities until the 1920s at the earliest. Hermannsburg Mission, on the eastern limit of the desert, had been established long before, in 1877, just a year after Ernest Giles, the explorer, became the first European to cross the Western Desert. However, Mt. Margaret Mission, in the western part of the desert, was established by the United Aborigines Mission (UAM) only in 1921, Jigalong in 1946, Balgo Mission in 1939 and Warburton Mission, in the very heart of the Western Desert, in 1934. Cundeelee was founded as a ration depot in 1939 but became a mission in the 1950s. Missionaries were the first to surround and then penetrate the desert in just 25 years, from the 1920s onward (Central Reserves Committee 1965; Stanton 1979; Harris, 1994).

65Soon after, from the late 1940s onwards, Australian authorities made their appearance in the region with the Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) in Maralinga (Victoria Desert) and later with a meteorological and radar station at Giles in the Rawlinson Ranges, Gibson Desert. The WRE would become responsible for making the last ‘first contacts’ with indigenous peoples in the area. From 1952 onwards, the WRE aimed to test atomic explosions and later fired ballistic rockets across the entire Western Desert. These military experiments were the reasons for the grading of tracks throughout the desert and for the meteorological station in the Rawlinsons in 1956. Indeed, the control of the rockets was difficult and their trajectories somewhat unpredictable, but most crashed in the Great Sandy Desert. The presence of Giles meant that government officials, such as patrol officers, would visit and establish themselves in the Western Desert. The existence of graded tracks facilitated the transport of many nomadic families to missions and settlements, such as Haasts Bluff and Papunya in the Northern Territory and Warburton Mission in Western Australia, but not at Giles, since patrol officers were instructed to keep everyone other than WRE staff away from there (see Dousset 2002 and 2011).

Figure 4: Map of the areas of the Weapons Research Establishment’s activities

Figure 4: Map of the areas of the Weapons Research Establishment’s activities

66Simultaneously, certain areas in the Western Desert were declared ‘native’ or ‘natural’ reserves. In the Northern Territory, the Petermann reserve was established in 1920, the Haast Bluff reserve in 1940 and the lake Mackay reserve in 1957. In South Australia, the North-West reserve was created in 1921. In Western Australia, the Central reserve was established in 1918 and expanded in 1934 to include Warburton. Another expansion occurred in 1958 to the north of the existing reserved area. Later, Balgo (Balwina), Kiwirrkurra and the North Central Reserves were added. Reserve no 17614 in the Western Australian part of the Victoria Desert, what is called Spinifex Country, was declared in 1920 even though no Westerner had visited the area by this time. The general understanding was that these reserves should preserve what officials believed to be a vanishing indigenous culture until the means to assimilate the remaining people into Australian society in general were arranged.

67Western Desert people reacted to these intrusions over time by moving, group by group, from their desert heartlands to various missions and ration depots. In 1976, a meeting of the Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra peoples resulted in the creation of the Pitjantjatjara Council Incorporated, whose task was primarily to fight for Aboriginal land rights (see Toyne and Vachon 1984). Because Aboriginal lands lay within three different European domains — two states, Western Australia and South Australia, and the Northern Territory, administered by Canberra — the council was advised to prepare three more or less independent land claims. The claimed area in the Northern Territory was successfully handed back within the Northern Territory Land Rights Act (NT) of 1976, which was the first legal framework recognising Aboriginal people as traditional landowners but limited to the Northern Territory. Claims in South Australia were recognised with the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act (SA) of 1981, which is similar to the Northern Territory Land Rights Act but is limited to the state of South Australia. In the State of Western Australia, on the other hand, gaining control over land took much longer. Only recently has the State agreed to meet with the Ngaanyatjarra council to discuss and consent to the restitution of the last part of the old Central Reserves. In 2000, the southern part was handed back to the Spinifex people (Cane 2002), in 2001 the northern part was returned to the Kiwirkurra people and finally, in 2005, the remaining central areas were handed back to the traditional owners under the name Ngaanyatjarra lands, including Warburton and Giles.

Language, the unifying criterion

68Western Desert people are represented by various local indigenous organisations, even though the Ngaanyatjarra Council has recently become the recognised representative body for a large section of the area in Native Title matters. The Native Title Act of 1992 is a legal framework that recognises indigenous peoples as being the first landowners of the continent. In contrast with the Land Rights Act mentioned above, the Native Title Act is a federal law and has thus continent-wide validity. These regional organisations are often the consequence of and response to local conditions and national or state policies, and they do not always systematically express distinguishable ethnic identities of groups and families. Despite these political organisations, the establishment of distinct communities and, in some cases, conflicting relationships between groups and families, the homogeneity in culture that all the Western Desert recognises is a major unifying factor.

69A dialect is a regional variety of a language and several such varieties are considered dialects of the same language if they are sufficiently similar to each other. Most if not all dialects in the Western Desert are mutually intelligible and most Western Desert people speak at least two dialects. The regional linguistic varieties of the Western Desert constitute a dialect chain. Linguistic aspects of a culture are particularly important in kinship studies since it is through words and their meaning that people express and describe their relationships. We thus need to discuss some aspects of linguistic similarities and differences across the region.

70The Western Desert language does not have any indigenous name but is called the Wati language by linguists. This name was chosen because in many of the dialects, the word wati designates an initiated, adult man. In most dialects only since in Jigalong, for example, among the Mardu, the word is martu and in the Kalgoorlie and the Mount Margaret area, the word is puntu (see Douglas 1977: 3). Note that the Wati language is itself not spoken as such, only dialects are in use. Wati is thus a reconstructed language.

71The Wati language shows some grammatical and morphological similarities with other languages around the Western Desert and linguists group them into sub-groups, groups and families of languages. The general group in which Wati is included is called Nyungic. The latter is close enough to other similar groups to include them in a family of languages which is called Pama-Nyungan, covering about two thirds of the continent. All languages of the Pama-Nyungan family have similar features and can be traced back to a common origin. Languages within this family, and even within the Nyungic group, are not mutually intelligible: speakers of one Pama-Nyungan language do not understand speakers of another Pama-Nyungan language unless they have learned that particular language.

Figure 5: Language family, language groups, languages and dialects (adapted from O’Grady, Voegelin and Voegelin 1966). Warnman seems to be sufficiently different from Western Desert dialects to justify it as a separate language within the general Wati language.

Figure 5: Language family, language groups, languages and dialects (adapted from O’Grady, Voegelin and Voegelin 1966). Warnman seems to be sufficiently different from Western Desert dialects to justify it as a separate language within the general Wati language.

72The Wati or Western Desert language contains some 40 and more dialects, including Ngaatjatjarra, Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjarra, Manytjilytjarra, Kukatja, Luritja, Pintupi, Yulparitja and Kiyatjarra. The differences between these dialects are sometimes very minor, as is the case between Pitjantjatjara and Ngaatjatjarra. Others, however, have a significant number of divergent words and expressions, like Pitjantjatjara and the various dialects spoken by the Martu in the Jigalong area, although these various dialects are mutually intelligible. To illustrate such differences, the table below reproduces a word as pronounced in several areas (Douglas 1977:3).

  • 5 An ‘idiosyncrasy’ is not simply a difference, but is a characteristic that defines something.

73Another example: Pitjantjatjara-speaking people say pitjantja for ‘went’, such as in ‘he went away’, while Yankunytjatjara-speaking people say yankuntja. Note that the words I have used to show the differences between dialects are also those used to label the dialects themselves. For example, Ngaanyatjarra, the name of the dialectal group in the Warburton area, is composed of ngaanya, meaning ‘this’, and the suffix -tjarra, meaning ‘with’. The name of the Ngaanyatjarra dialectal group can therefore be translated as ‘the people who say ngaanya for this’. The same is valid for Ngaatjatjarra or Nyangatjatjarra. Dialectal names hence express idiosyncrasies5 between groups from certain viewpoints but may be irrelevant from others. The Ngaatjatjarra and the Ngaanyatjarra are neighbours and distinguish themselves through the use of ngaatja and ngaanya respectively. However, the Pitjantjatjara and the Ngaatjatjarra are also neighbours, and the idiosyncrasies of the two of them are not able to distinguish these groups since both use ngaatja for ‘this’ and pitjantja for ‘went’.

















74We will see that it is necessary to consider dialectal distinctions in the study of kinship. Some words used to express kin relationships differ from one region to another while other words are identical but do not have the same meaning and do not denote the same persons. Regional variations in the use of kinship terms are an interesting and important aspect of this type of study because they express regional and local differences and similarities in modes of recognising relatedness. I devote a larger chapter to this subject later in the book.

  • xi The concept of the tribe has been much debated in anthropology, and there are probably as many defi (...)

75Indigenous peoples of the Western Desert say that language was put onto country by the Tjukurrpa beings and that dialects are therefore linked to specific areas and not necessarily to people themselves (see Hamilton 1982 and Rumsey 1989). Because these dialects are localised, there has been some discussion among anthropologists on whether they also constitute tribesxi.

76Definitions of the notion of ‘tribe’ abound in anthropological literature. Generally speaking, a tribe is seen as a group of persons who are politically independent, unless they are controlled by a nation-state, occupy a delimited tract of land (the tribal territory), share a common language or dialect, recognise a common bond or relationship and a common name, usually marry among themselves (endogamy) and perform ceremonies that are different from those of other tribes (see for example Elkin 1967 [1954]; Howitt 1996 [1904]: 41; Tindale 1974: 33; Berndt 1959; Godelier 1973: 188; Sahlins 1961: 325 and Fried 1975). As Berndt (1959) shows, almost none of these criteria apply to Western Desert dialectal groups. While dialects are associated with regions and places, people move from one dialectal area to another. Moreover, because people know how to speak different dialects and sometimes even different languages, they use the speech (wangka) associated with the area in which they are located.

77It would be a mistake to speak of tribal territory, as I have already pointed out. Residential groups, consisting of one or more nuclear families, young men’s camps and widows’ and widowers’ camps, living and foraging in a certain area and performing ceremonies as defined by the Tjukurrpa on this land, usually satisfy a certain number of criteria giving them privileged access to these particular sites. Nowhere, however, is this access exclusive and non-negotiable. These families or groups can be considered to be the principal landholding or landowning units, but they are not endogamous and rarely speak only one dialect; nor would they systematically attempt to exclude others from coming into their area.

78Every Western Desert group performs ceremonies that may in some respects differ from the ceremonies of neighbouring groups. However, these ceremonies are inscribed in a pan-regional and even pan-Western Desert complex of religious and ceremonial structures and to interpret these local differences as ‘tribal’ markers would be an unsustainable overstatement. It would also neglect the profound ritual solidarity and interdependence between desert groups, one recognised by anthropologists long ago (for example Elkin 1967: 214; Testart 1987: 180-1).

79Western Desert people perform a type of ritual that anthropologists call ‘increase ceremonies’. These rituals are necessary to ensure the procreation and existence of natural species of fauna and flora. They ensure that Tjukurrpa and Mularrpa are still coherent and in communication with each other. Every site in which these rituals are performed is associated with one specific natural species, but not every region contains a site for every natural species necessitating increase ceremonies. Hence, every residential group depends on the ‘good performance’ of similar rituals in other regions. If one region, let us call it A, contains an increase site for kangaroo increase ceremonies and region B has a site for bush tomatoes, the group living in region A performs the kangaroo ritual to ‘bring up’ lots of kangaroos for the wider region, including region B. And the group living in region B will do the same for tomatoes from its site. This is another example of wider unities and interdependencies across the entire Western Desert.

80There is another reason why dialectal groups cannot be considered ‘tribes’: people do not consider themselves significantly different from members of neighbouring dialectal groups. They stress unity and describe the Western Desert as being populated by ‘one people’. There are local differences and it would be a mistake to overstress the harmonious coexistence of all constituent families and groups. Yet regional affiliations and distinctions do not diminish the feelings of relatedness explicitly expressed by Western Desert people.

Western Desert dialects

Figure 6 : Map of the approximative location of dialectal groups in the Western Desert ; the table below summarises dialectal appellations

Figure 6 : Map of the approximative location of dialectal groups in the Western Desert ; the table below summarises dialectal appellations

81Below I list these various dialectal groups. Figure 6 only shows the approximate locations of these dialects. Also note that the names vary according to the speaker and the recorder. The table below reproduces these dialectal names, including some spellings and alternative names found in the literature on the Western Desert. These alternative names are not necessarily correct and may not even be recognised by the people themselves. However, since they are found in the literature, they have been appended here as additional information in case the reader is searching for publications related to these groups.

Dialectal names used




Antakarinja, Antakerinya, Unterregerrie




Kokatha, Kokata, Kukatha, Kukata, Cocotha, Kookata, Marduwonga, Kukataja




Kukatja, Kokatja, Nambulatji, Gogadja, Gugudja




Kuwarra, Koara, Goara, Kuwara Guwara, Konindja




Luritja, Kukatja – Loritja, Kukadja, Kukacha, Gugadja, Gugada, Loritja, Loritcha, Aluridja




Manytjilytjara, Manjiljara, Mandjiltjara




Mardu, comprising several dialects:

Potidjara, Potitjara, Putitjara, Budidjara , Partutu

Keiadjara, Keiatara, Kiyajara

Kartudjara, Katudjara, Kardudjara, Gadudjara, Kartujarra


A.25 A.51


Wanudjara, Nakako, Nakaku, Nangako, Nangakopitja




Nana, Pini, Piniiri, Piniridjara, Biniridjara, Madutjara, Birni, Buranudjara, Nangaritjara




Ngaanyatjarra, Nganadjara, Nona, Nganawanga




Ngaatjatjarra, Ngadadjara, Ngada, Warara




(Spinifex People), Ngalea, Ngalia, Ngaliawongga, Wirangu, Wirrongu, Wirrung, Wirangga, Tidni

Ngalea Wirangu



Ngarlawangka, Ngalawongga, Ninanu, Ngaunmardi, Yinhawangka, Inawongga, Inawannga

Ngarlawangka Yinhawangka



Nyanganyatjara, Murumidja, Nangadadjara

Murunitja, Murnidja, Mara, Nangatadjara, Kogara

Nangatadjara, Nanggatha, Nangandjara, Wangata


A.08 A.17


Pintupi, Pintubi, Bindubi, Pindu, Pindubu, Kalgonei, Loritja, Luridja, Luritja




Pitjantjatjara, Pitjandjara, Pitjandjadjara, Bidjandjara, Wongapitjira, Wongapitja Pitjintjitjira, Pitkindjara




Tjalkanti, Dialgandi, Tjalkadjara, Talkumara, Tjalkakari, Wordako, Tjalkani, (Erlistoun tribe)




Wangkathaa, Wanggatha, comprising various dialects:

Ngurlu, Nata, Ngulutjara, Nguludjara, Kurutjara,


Walyan,Waljen, Waula, Wangkai, Koara

Maduwongga, Jindi, Yindi, Maduwonga, Wangkatja


A.10 A.12 A.11 A.06


Wawula (Wawula), comprising various dialects:

Wardal, Tjitijamba, Waula, Wajariy, Tjitijamba

Wirdinja, Wirdinya, Woordinya, Jabura


A.29 A.49


Yankunytjatjara, Jangkundjara, Jangkundjadjara, Jangundjara, (Everard Range Tribe), Alinjera




Yulparitja, Yulbaridya, Julbaritja, Njangadjara



EAA: the name according to Horton (1994) in his Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia published by the AIATSIS.
AIATSIS: language/dialect code as used by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra.

82In the sound system of the Western Desert language, stress on the differences of some sounds is not identical to that of English. For example, the distinction between ‘d’ and ‘t’ or between ‘g’ and ‘k’ is not relevant even though they may distinguish eastern dialects, which have ‘softer’ sounds using ‘d’ and ‘g’, from western dialects, which use ‘harder’ sounds such as ‘t’ and ‘k’. For example, the dialectal name ‘Ngaatjatjarra’ can be pronounced ‘Ngaadjadjara’ and would still be recognised as being the same word. The distinction of the two words ‘town’ and ‘down’ or ‘bag’ and ‘back’ is significant in English but is not so in the Western Desert and is therefore difficult to hear for indigenous peoples of this area.

83On the other hand, Western Desert dialects use sounds that are not distinguished in English, and are therefore difficult to hear and pronounce for a native English speaker. Below is a table summarising some of the particularities of the Western Desert language. You may, however, want to consult An Introduction to Western Desert Language by Douglas (1977) or the Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara to English Dictionary by Goddard (1992) for more information on spelling.

84To transcribe the sounds of languages, linguists use a phonetic alphabet. Only those sounds that are non-existent in English or difficult to pronounce have been reproduced here. The first column represents how these sounds are usually written by linguists and anthropologists. Retroflex sounds are difficult to pronounce for English speakers. The retroflex ‘l’, for example, written ‘rl’, is an ‘l’ with the tongue tip turned backwards and touching the palate. One should be especially careful with the following sounds.


Sound type


rt (or t)

retroflex plosive

no equivalent in English.

rn (or n)

retroflex nasal

no equivalent in English.

rl (or l)

retroflex lateral

no equivalent in English.

r (or r)

retroflex flap

no equivalent in English.


alveolar trill

rolled ‘r’ as the Scottish ‘r’


nasal palatal

similar to ‘ny’ in canyon


palatal affricate plosive

similar to ‘j’ in jam


velar nasal

similar to ‘ng’ in sing

85In this work I will consistently use the first version of the first column above throughout. Hence, the retroflex plosive on the first line is written ‘rt’. If you encounter ‘rt’ in a word, you should understand that it represents a single sound: a retroflex ‘t’.


Pronounced as in

and not as in










Summary and conclusion of Part One

86In this chapter, I have discussed some issues relevant to Aboriginal Australia in general and to the Western Desert region in particular. Since many examples and discussions in this book are drawn from Western Desert materials, it was necessary to set the stage for what will follow. It was also necessary to briefly discuss the complex notion of culture itself, which was originally a Western concept constructed around two contexts. Firstly, it has evolved from an agricultural to an educational and religious meaning, finally signifying the ways of thought and action of a people, the web of symbols in which people are enmeshed. Secondly, culture is distinguished from nature, but this is not always a clear distinction since many features and relationships cannot be placed unambiguously into one or the other register. I also stressed that these two contexts of the understanding of ‘culture’ had important consequences for how Aboriginal societies were interpreted within the colonial framework.

87I then used ethnographic material to elaborate on the basic characteristics employed to define hunter-gatherer societies in general and thus Aboriginal societies in particular. Major features of these societies include hunting and foraging, the absence of food storage and plant domestication, a markedly egalitarian world view but with men’s interests typically favoured above those of women, a gender-based division of labour, a nomadic adaptation, low population densities, and kinship as vital to the regulation of everyday social relationships. It should, however, be clear by now that most of these characteristics are not absolutes, so in many cases they need to be modified in particular circumstances.

88One such case was discussed in the following section, concerning the Ngaatjatjarra dialectal group. Forms of nomadism were explained as adaptations to environmental and ecological conditions, and this led to a discussion of concepts of ownership and responsibility in relation to land. It was stressed that, given the accumulative way of defining responsibility over land, it was not reasonable to use expressions such as ‘ownership’ since this word typically entails the possibility that people could exclude others from gaining access to resources. Instead, the ethos of inclusiveness has been stressed as a dominant feature of Western Desert world views. In discussing the various criteria used to justify responsibility over land, special stress was placed on ‘conception totemism’, an institution in which the triangular relationship between a person, mythical ancestors and sites in the landscape is made explicit.

89Having defined the Western Desert as a ‘cultural bloc’, discussion then turned to pre- and post-contact history in the region and stressed how recent confrontation with the invading Europeans has been. Language was then shown to be one of the most unifying features in the cultural bloc. Despite great linguistic similarities, desert people underline significant local particularities and differences at the same time as they affirm the unity of the Western Desert as ‘one family’; yet the two elements are not contradictory.


Further Reading

Culture of the Western Desert

BARDON, Geoff 1991. Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert. South Yarra (VIC): McPhee Gribble.

GLASS, Amee D. 1993. Into another World. A Glimpse of the Culture of the Ngaanyatjarra People of Central Australia. Alice Springs: IAD & United Aborigines Mission Language Department, [1978].

MOYLE, Richard M. 1979. Songs of the Pintupi. Musical life in a central Australian society. Canberra: AIAS. MYERS, Fred R. 1986. Pintupi country, Pintupi self. Sentiment, Place and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines. Washington & London, Canberra: Smithsonian Institution Press, AIAS.

POIRIER, Sylvie 2005. A world of relationships: Itineraries, dreams, and events in the Australian Western Desert. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

TONKINSON, Robert 1974. The Jigalong Mob: Aboriginal Victors of the Desert Crusade. Meulo Park, California: Cummings Publishing Company.

TONKINSON, Robert 1991. The Mardu Aborigines: Living the Dream in Australia’s Desert (second and revised edition). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology, [1978]. [From 2003, published by Cengage Learning, Palo Alto]

Language and Dictionaries

DIXON, Robert M.W. 1980. The Languages of Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

DOUGLAS, Wilfrid H. 1977. I ustrated Topical Dictionary of the Western Desert Language. Warburton Ranges Dialect, Western Australia. Canberra: AIAS, [1959].

GODDARD, Clifford 1992. Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara to English Dictionary. Alice Springs: Institute for Aboriginal Development, [1987].

GODDARD, Clifford 1995. A Learner’s Guide to Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara. Alice Springs: IAD, [1993, 1981].

HANSEN, Kenneth C. & Lesley E. HANSEN 1992. Pintupi/Luritja Dictionary (3rd Edition). Alice Springs: IAD (Institute for Aboriginal Development), [1974].

History and politics of the Western Desert and beyond

JAPANANGKA, Dick L. & Pam NATHAN 1983. Settle Down Country. Malmsbury & Alice Springs: Kibble Books & Central Australian Aboriginal Congress.

REYNOLDS, Henry 1982. The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia. Ringwood (Vic): Penguin [1981].

TOYNE, Phillip & Daniel VACHON 1984. Growing up the Country: The Pitjantjatjara Struggle for their Land. Ringwood-Victoria: McPhee Gribble, Penguin Books.

On the notion of culture

DOUGLAS, Mary 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Po ution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul [2002].

GEERTZ, Clifford 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

ORTNER, Sherry B. (ed.) 1999. The Fate of ‘Culture’. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

SAHLINS, Marhsall 1976. Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


1 ‘Etymology’ is the science that deals with the history of the spelling and meaning of words.

2 ‘Ethnocentric’ refers to a very human view or world-view that is heavily biased by the personal history and background of those who share it and becomes the basis for moral judgments made by one group’s members about peoples, cultures and behaviours different from their own.

3 Generally speaking, a symbol is something that stands for something else, especially an idea or a value. For example, in European culture black is a symbol for death, while in Aboriginal Australia it is usually white that does this. Common examples are to consider the lion to be a symbol for courage, the cross that for Christianity and so on. The existence and understanding of symbols requires complex thinking that goes beyond instinct.

4 By the term ‘etic’ one understands the point of view or explanation of a feature as proposed by somebody who is outside the culture in question, whereas the ‘emic’ point of view is that seen from the inside, that is, by a member of the society itself.

5 An ‘idiosyncrasy’ is not simply a difference, but is a characteristic that defines something.

Notes de fin

i The name of the Western Desert kinship system as given by Elkin (1931). Aluridja really is an Aranda (Arrernte) word stemming from luritja, which means ‘foreigners’. The word Aluridja is not used by Western Desert people themselves.

ii A group of ‘tribes’, linguistic groups or societies that share a common cultural background.

iii A mode of human adaptation typically identified by nomadism, the absence of agriculture and domesticated animals, low demographic densities and an egalitarian political system. Australia is the only continent that was entirely occupied by hunter-gatherer societies. On other continents, hunter-gatherers coexist alongside horticulturalists (societies that predominantly grow crops) and pastoralists (societies that extensively live from herding), with whom they often entertained commercial relations.

iv The process of learning cultural symbols and ways of thinking and behaving.

v A complex version of direct exchange (see direct exchange) where at least three groups need to exchange women or men for marriage. This system is found in Crow-Omaha terminologies.

vi A fundamental rule, not identical in every society, but every society possesses one. This rules prohibits sexual relationships and marriage between particular persons. In Euro-American as well as in Aboriginal Australian societies, marriage between a son and his mother is prohibited because considered incestuous.

vii The obligation to marry or practice of marrying outside ones family, group or tribe. Exogamy can be genealogical (marrying outside ones family or group) or geographical (marrying outside ones residential area, land of affiliation etc.). Exogamy is the opposite of endogamy and is a result of the incest prohibition.

viii This is the indigenous word for the Dreamtime or Dreaming in Western Desert dialects. This concept includes the mythical journeys of the Dreamtime beings, the laws and rules that were created by these beings as well as the sacred sites linked to these myths. Often translated in English as ‘the Law’, Tjukurrpa also includes every action or belief that is somehow related or justified by the Dreamtime and thus has a sacred and often secret character (also see Murlarrpa).

ix In Western Desert languages, Mularrpa is the ‘here and now’ and is contrasted to the Tjukurrpa (Dreamtime). Actual people life in the Mularrpa, but are linked to concepts and realities that were created during the Dreamtime (also see Tjukurrpa).

x A father (or husband) and mother (or wife) and their children.

xi The concept of the tribe has been much debated in anthropology, and there are probably as many definitions as there are anthropologists. Generally speaking, a tribe is understood as a group of people who occupy a specified stretch of land, who predominantly marry amongst themselves, who speak a particular language or dialect, who recognise themselves as a political unit, and who express a feeling of shared belonging and ways of doing and of thinking.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 3: Types of nomadism (the small circles represent watering places or campsites)
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Titre Figure 4: Map of the areas of the Weapons Research Establishment’s activities
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Titre Figure 5: Language family, language groups, languages and dialects (adapted from O’Grady, Voegelin and Voegelin 1966). Warnman seems to be sufficiently different from Western Desert dialects to justify it as a separate language within the general Wati language.
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Titre Figure 6 : Map of the approximative location of dialectal groups in the Western Desert ; the table below summarises dialectal appellations
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