Folk-Lore/Volume 17/The Native Tribes of South-East Australia



In a communication by Mr. Andrew Lang which appeared in Folk-Lore, vol. xvi., p. 222, he criticises not only Mr. Hartland's notice of my work, The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, but also a certain part of that work itself.

After quoting Mr. Hartland's statement at some length as to the belief in a tribal All-Father, he says that, "he closely follows the generalization of Mr. Howitt in his Native Tribes of South-East Australia, pages 500-506. But Mr. Howitt's statement here does not agree with his copious account of the social organization of these South-Eastern tribes."

He then proceeds to give a lengthy account of these tribes from his point of view, not mine, and so far as I understand his position, it is as follows:

(a) The majority of them are in the more primitive form of social organization having (1) female descent without "matrimonial classes" (i.e. my "sub-classes") or (2) female reckoning with four, not as in the North and Centre, eight matrimonial classes.

(b) The tribes of the second class combine female descent with the All-Father belief, which was also held by the Kurnai and other South-Eastern tribes with male reckoning and with totems and classes obliterated, or faintly surviving.

(c) "On the other hand, it is among Northern and Central tribes with male descent and 'organization based on locality' that Messrs. Spencer and Gillen find the All-Father belief weakest or absent."

Having elaborated the above statements he then says, "We are here on the ground of facts carefully recorded, though strangely overlooked, by Mr. Howitt in the passages summarised by Mr. Hartland."

The facts stated in (a) and (b) are to be found in my work, although not in the pages 500 to 506.

The statement (c) is to be found in the works of Professor Spencer and Mr. Gillen.

What I do say in those pages summarises the evidence upon which I have based the theory of a belief in a "Tribal All-Father."

The following may be noted as occurring in the pages given by Mr. Lang:

(a) The part of Australia in which I find that belief is "the whole of Victoria and of New South Wales up to the eastern boundaries of the tribes of the Darling River. If the Queensland coast tribes are included, then the western bounds might be indicated by a line drawn from the mouth of the Murray River to Cardwell, including the Great Dividing Range with some of the fall inland in New South Wales" (p. 500).

(b) This excludes all the "Central and Northern Tribes" of Messrs. Spencer and Gillen, which cannot properly be included.

It seems, therefore, that Mr. Lang is in error when he says that I have "strangely overlooked" certain facts (which he has enumerated), although I have "carefully recorded them in the passages summarised by Mr. Hartland" for I have carefully considered my own facts, among which for some reason Mr. Lang includes those of Messrs. Spencer and Gillen.

When I read his remarks I was unable to understand what he intended, unless it were to strengthen the application of a theory of early religion to Australia. If I am wrong in this, I am open to correction by Mr. Lang, if he will kindly state, in as few words as possible, what he desires to prove, or which of my statements he desires to disprove.

I may remark that Mr, Lang appears to have overlooked or disregarded the fact that I have endeavoured to show how the process of social development has become more marked in proceeding from the Lake Eyre tribe to those at the coast. Messrs. Spencer and Gillen show how this change has come about in the Central and Northern tribes, which have split up the two classes into four and then into eight sub-classes, with descent counted in the male line.

In reviewing all the evidence bearing upon this advance in tribal society he seems not to realise that some tribes have retained certain primitive features or have made greater advances than others. It is only by taking into consideration all the steps in advance made by the tribes, that a true and correct picture of their social development can be obtained.

Moreover I have laid stress upon the evidence of social development which has accompanied the change from a status of group-marriage with female descent, as in the Lake Eyre and kindred tribes, to one of individual marriage with male descent as the ultimate result in the South and East.

The fact that the All-Father belief is held by tribes which have not got beyond the two-class organization, or who have developed four sub-classes, while others hold it who have got so far as to be organized upon locality, means no more than, that some tribes have progressed in social development more rapidly than others.

Mr. Lang does not believe in the existence of "group marriage," and he says in the communication I am now discussing that it is "a sport" confined to tribes of the Kirrara-Matheri phratry names, and in his opinion a later and special modification of individual marriage.

He has gone into this question at large in his late work, The Secret of the Totem, At a future time I shall have something to say as to the whole of his argument and his conclusions as stated therein, but it will suffice for the present to adduce certain evidence which I think should convince any one who approaches the subject with an open mind and an absence of bias, that pirrauru-marriage is not a "later and special modification of individual marriage."

I commence with the Dieri and Urabunna as representing those tribes which have group-marriage, in the pirrauru and piraungaru practice. Other instances will follow, taken from tribes which fairly represent the whole of South-East Australia and also those described by Messrs. Spencer and Gillen in Central and North Australia.


Marital terms include
F. Husband, husband's brothers, sister's husband.
Pirrauru. M. Wife, wife's sisters, brother's wife.

(F. means "female speaking," M. means "male speaking.)

All the terms given in this series of relationships are group terms, which include both own and tribal relations. In this tribe every woman ultimately becomes a pirrauru wife, having probably been a tippa-malku wife in the first instance. I have shown in my Native Tribes[1] that betrothal is not the only way in which a man may obtain a wife, she not being his pirrauru already.

The relationship of tippa-malku will be considered later on.


Marital terms include
F. Husband, husband's brothers, sister's husband.
M. Wife, wife's sisters, brother's wife.
Piraungaru. F. A certain number amongst the Nupa men who in addition to the special Nupa man to which she has been allotted have access to her.
M. A certain number amongst the nupa women to whom in addition to the nupa woman or women who have been specially allotted to him he has access.
These piraungaru women are allotted to men on special occasions and after that the men have access to them. They are women who are nupa to the men.

If the Dieri terms, noa, tippa-malku, and pirrauru, are inserted instead of those in Urabunna, the above description would be fairly applicable to the Dieri.

Messrs. Spencer and Gillen describe a series of tribes of which the Arunta is the type, extending from the Urabunna almost to the Gulf of Carpentaria. An inspection of the lists of terms of relationships given by those authors shows that the marital terms have the same meaning though in different words. I shall therefore only quote the first and last of the series.


Marital term include
M. Wife, wife's sisters, brother's wife.
Unawa. F. Husband, husband's brothers, sister's husband.
In the Arunta there are four classes in the southern part of the tribe and eight in the north, and descent is counted in the male line.


Marital terms include

Karina, Kai Kai.

M. Wife, wife's sisters, brother's wife.

F. Husband, husband's brothers, sister's husband.

In the Binbinga tribe there are eight classes, and descent is counted in the male line.

I am indebted to Professor Spencer for the information relating to these three tribes.

I now turn to the tribes of South-East Australia.


Marital term includes


F. Husband, husband's brothers, sister's husband.

M. Wife, wife's sisters, brother's wife.

This is one of the Mukwara-Kilpara tribes of the Murray River with two classes, descent in the female line and individual marriage. I am indebted to Mr. A. L. P. Cameron for the above particulars.

Northern Kamilaroi.

Marital term



F. Husband, husband's brothers, sister's husband.

M. Wife.

The term for "wife's sister" is ungina and is paralleled by the term inamarinkun, which occurs in the Chepara tribe for the same relation. These are also evidently analogous to the Yimari relationship of the Dieri. The term for M. Brother's wife was not ascertained.

This branch of the great Kamilaroi nation is located on the Gwydir River. It has two classes, four sub-classes, descent in the female line, and individual marriage.

I am indebted to Mr. Cyrus E. Doyle for this information.

i8o Native Tribes of South-East Australia. KUINMURBURA. Marital terms include Nupa. F. Husband, husband's brothers, sister's husband. Gingal. M. Wife, wife's sisters, brother's wife. This tribe is located near Broad Sound, Queensland. It has two classes, four sub-classes, descent in the female line, and individual marriage. I am indebted to Mr. W. H. Flowers for this informa- tion. WOTJOBALUK. Marital terms itichtde Nanitch. F. Husband, husband's brothers, sister's husband. Matjun. M. Wife, wife's sisters, brother's wife. This tribe is located in North-West Victoria. It has two classes, descent in the female line, and individual marriage. WURUNJERI. Marital terms include Bimbang. M. Wife, wife's sisters, brother's wife. Nangurung. F. Husband, husband's brothers, sister's husband. This is one of the tribes of South Central Victoria which have two classes, with male descent and individual marriage. KURNAI. Marital terms include Maian. M. Wife, wife's sisters, brother's wife. Bra. F. Husband, husband's brothers, sister's husband. This tribe occupied Gippsland. It had no classes or sub-classes and the totems did not affect marriage.

Descent in the male line with individual marriage.


Marital terms include
Ngandjan-duri. M. Wife, wife's sisters, brother's wife.
Tarrama. F. Husband, husband's brothers, sister's husband.

This is a coast tribe without classes or sub-classes, but with totems which regulate marriage. Descent is in the male line with individual marriage.


Marital terms include
Nubunping-un. M. Wife, brother's wife.
Nubunping. F. Husband, husband's brothers, sister's husband.

The wife's sister is the inamarinkun of her brother-in-law. The second term for wife's sister was not obtained, but I think that it would probably be nubunpingun.

I am indebted to Mr. James Gibson for this information.

It is to be noted that three of these tribes have only one marital term, which is reciprocal like our word spouse. Cases like this occur here and there. I do not know of any rule as to its occurrence or absence.

The next step is to explain how these relationships work out in regard to marriage in each of the tribes quoted. To do this clearly it will be necessary to make use of a diagram, and to avoid repetition it will suffice to use one for each of the extreme cases, the Dieri and the Kurnai.

Diagram I. Dieri.

This represents two brothers, own or tribal, of the Matteri class, 1 M and 2 M, and two sisters, own or tribal of the Kararu class, 3 K and 4 K. The attached numbers are added for convenience of reference, 1 and 2 are in the relation of noa to 3 and 4 and vice versa. 2 and 3 come into the relation of tippa-malku husband and wife by betrothal. The man 1 being the brother of 2 becomes therefore the yimari of 3; 4 being the sister of 3 becomes the yimari of 2. The English

Page 182 diagram 1, inset illustration. Folk-Lore, vol. 17.png

equivalents of yimari are "brother-in-law" and "sister-in-law." To complete the example 3 and i and 2 and 4 become pirrauru husband and wife. The term tippa-malku will be considered later on. The term pirrauru is placed between 2 and 3 to show that were they not tippa-malku they might, being noa-mara, become so.

Diagram II. Kurnai.

As there are no classes in this tribe the sex only of the individual is indicated.

1 and 2 are brothers own or tribal; 3 and 4 are sisters own or tribal; 1 and 2 belong to a certain locality, say x; 3 and 4 to another certain locality, say y. The people of these two localities intermarry, being also exogamous. Their system of relationships, as I have explained in

Page 182 diagram 2, inset illustration. Folk-Lore, vol. 17.png

Native Tribes, p. 170, produces a much larger fraternal group than that of the Dieri, including "own or tribal" brothers and sisters. The extreme instance of a tribal brother is the brogan or comrade of a man, namely one who was initiated at the same time at the Jeraeil.

Now, in this tribe there is individual marriage as between 2 and 3 only, but the marital terms extend to the brothers own and tribal of 2 on the one side and to the sisters of 3 on the other. So that there is also the relationship of bra and maian between 2 and 5 and of maian and bra between 3 and 6. These relationships when compared with the analogous relation in the Dieri or Urabunna tribes are very significant. In all the tribes in question they are group relationships, but, while in the Dieri tribes they are actual facts, as regards pirrauru-marriage, they are in the Kurnai tribe mere survivals in the terminology of relationships. The same remarks apply to all the other tribes commencing with the Arunta and comparing their terms with those of the Dieri and Urabunna.

The mantle of the late Mr. J. F. M'Lennan appears to have fallen upon Mr. Lang, but with some change of position. He does not use the old argument that the terms applied, for instance by the Dieri and Kurnai, to define relationships, are merely addresses to avoid mentioning the personal name, but says:

"Whatever the original sense of the names, they all now denote seniority and customary legal status in the tribes, with the reciprocal duties, rights, and avoidances. The friends of group and communal marriage keep unconsciously forgetting, at this point of their argument, that our (that is Mr. Lang's) ideas of sister, brother, father, mother and so on have nothing to do (as they tell us at certain other points of their argument) with the native terms, which include, but do not denote their relationships as understood by us, etc." (Secret of the Totem, p. 43).

The fact is that in dealing with the native view of relationship, and speaking both for Messrs. Spencer and Gillen and myself, we simply use English terms, as it would be hopeless to explain their significance otherwise. How would Mr. Lang like it if we used the terms noa or nupa without indicating what English term they include. I have no doubt that he might ask at once, "Why is not the meaning of this term given?"

If Mr. Lang will look at the Dieri and Urabunna terms he may see their present meaning and that they are applied by those tribes to individuals who are living under the pirrauru or piraiungaru marriage. If he will then examine the terms in use by the tribes I have quoted, he will see the same terms, in different languages, which do not denote the conditions of individual marriage but of pirrauru marriage.

I again assert that the aboriginal terms include relationships as understood by us, and at the same time include persons who under the universal conditions of the Australian tribes are considered, for instance, to be "fathers" or "sons," etc., as the case may be. An example of this will make my position clear. In the Kurnai tribe the term mungajn, that is "father," includes not only the husband of the individual wife and the father of her children, but also his brothers own and tribal. For instance Tulaba, whom I have mentioned in Native Tribes, was the son as we should see it of Bembinkel and his individual wife. Thus Bembinkel was his mungan. But the brother of Bembinkel named Bruthen-mungi was also his muingan. It was only when especial inquiry was made that Tulaba said, "Bembinkel is my mungan, but Bruthen-munji is my breppa munngan." The former was his father, the actual husband of his mother, but the latter was his "other father," and the nominal husband of his mother.

Had he been a Dieri, the actual tippa-malku husband of his mother would be his ngaperi, but her pirrauru husband would be his ngaperi-waka or "little father."

In the Dieri case we have the actual group-marriage with appropriate terms, while with the Kurnai there are only the vestigiary relationships, indicating the former conditions of marriage.

Mr. Lang's position really bears out what I have said, that most white men, like himself, brought up in our views of individual marriage and descent, seem quite unable to place themselves mentally in the position of these aborigines who use the classificatory system of relationships.

This is one of the unfortunate circumstances which attend the studies of those who, to use Mr. Lang's own words, are "ethnologists of the study," and who are not willing, like some others, to take the opinion of men who have first-hand knowledge of the natives.

Mr. Lang's explanations of the origin and meaning of the Australian terms of relationship are merely guesses, without the support of any direct evidence, and do not, I think, require any further notice here.

Diagram I. shows the relationships between certain Matteri men and certain Kararu women, who are necessarily in the noa or nupa relations to each other.

Marriage between them as pirrauru or piraungaru is group-marriage and is defined by the terms of relationship. Such being the case these must have originated when group-marriage existed. How long ago that was no one can tell and I do not care to "guess."

But this much may, I think, be safely assumed, that when all the tribes who now have individual marriage only, used those terms which imply group-marriage, it must have been a living fact, which required a terminology which has survived, while that which it defined has died out.

Such are some of the reasons which have justified me in saying that, starting for instance with the Dieri, a series of progressive tribes may be indicated, ending for instance with the Kurnai, the Yuin or the Chepara.

This series then shows an advance from group-marriage with female descent, a social organization in two classes and an incipient form of individual marriage (tippa-malku), by various stages of progress, to a tribe (e.g. the Kurnai) in which group-marriage has been abandoned and individual marriage has been established, with descent in the male line and an organization based upon locality.

The All-Father belief is not found in such primitive tribes as the Dieri, but in other tribes which have advanced to individual marriage while yet retaining traces of primitive structure such as the two-class organization.

Messrs. Spencer and Gillen in their independent investigations into the customs and organization of the Central and Northern tribes draw the same inferences. In their last work they say (Northern Tribes of Central Australia, p. 73) "there is no evidence of any kind to show that the practice in the Dieri and Urabunna tribes is an abnormal development. The organization of these tribes, amongst whom the two exogamous intermarrying groups still persist—groups which in other tribes of the Central Area have been split into four or eight—indicate their retention of ancient customs which have become modified in tribes such as the Arunta and Warramunga, though amongst them we find traces of customs pointing back to conditions such as still persist among the Urabunna."

As a contrast to the Dieri there cannot be a stronger example of the changes in organization together with retention of the old terms and traces of the old customs than that of the Kurnai. Not only is there an absence of a social organization in classes, sub-classes, and totems, or any of them, with descent in the female line, but there has been developed a recognised individual marriage, accompanied by a reversion to the group right, in the form of the jus primæ noctis. In this reversion it is the fraternal group, own and tribal, which exercises that right, but thereafter it has no further claim over the woman, who has become the actual individual maian of the man with whom she eloped.

This practice indicates a former condition of group-marriage by the Kurnai, under which pirrauru husbands would be provided by the group of brothers, own and tribal.

As I have pointed out (Native Tribes, p. 219), this practice confirms the explanation by Lord Avebury that the jus primæ noctis is an "expiation for individual marriage."

Mr. Lang may now perhaps be able, on considering the facts which I have adduced, to see that group-marriage is not a "sport," but an ancient practice which still survives in certain tribes. Moreover that my generalisation, which he considers to be incorrect, is true, being based upon evidence and not mere guesswork.

He has apparently not observed that tippa-malku is not a group relation but a reciprocal term between two individuals who have been betrothed to each other, and is thus in complete contrast to and an innovation on the group terms of relationship of the Australian tribes. If individual marriage were the original condition of the ancestors of the native tribes, individual relationship terms or collective terms such as "uncle," "nephew," etc., should have survived the "sport" of group-marriage.

That which tippa-malku defines is an encroachment upon the pirrauru group right. If Mr. Lang had said that tippa-malku is a "sport" upon group-marriage he would have been more correct, for, as I have before said, the former is the germ from which individual marriage in Australian tribes has grown up.

At the end of his communication he again says that I have "overlooked" my own "collection of social facts."

The statements which he then makes may be thus condensed:

(1) Anyone who wishes to verify the above remark has only to look up "All-Father" in my Index and then compare my "account of the social condition of the tribes with an All-Father."

(2) The belief is common to many both of the more or less socially advanced tribes of the South East.

(3) And is reported as absent among almost all the socially advanced Northern and Central tribes with local organization.

I quite agree with Mr. Lang in inviting inspection of the reference in my Index to "All-Father," namely to pp. 488-508, where the facts noted in paragraph 2 will be found at p. 500, with a western boundary assigned to the belief which excludes all the "Central and Northern tribes."

Therefore the statement 3 does not at all come within my "collection of social facts," for those tribes have been dealt with by Messrs. Spencer and Gillen, who nowhere speak of there being a belief in a Tribal All-Father.

Such being the case I must ask Mr. Lang to be so good as to say who reported what he quotes in 3 as being part of my collection of facts, and where the passage, which is his authority for his statement, is to be found.

As to the belief in the Tribal All-Father, which is held by the tribes mentioned by me in my Native Tribes of South-East Australia, p. 500, and is not held by any others, I see no reason to alter anything I have said.

I believe that it has originated through the development, in the more socially advanced tribes, of a belief such as that of the Kaitish, in a supernatural anthropomorphic being like Atnatu.

I may summarise what I have said by pointing out that the classificatory terms of relationship show that the ancestors of the tribes of the Eastern half of this continent were at one time in the status of group-marriage. To this I may add that the examples which I have seen of the terms in use in the Western half point to the same conclusion as I have indicated for those of the Eastern.

This result is far-reaching, for if the primitive aborigines of Australia had group-marriage, what is to be said of the former condition of other savage tribes, which also have classificatory systems which may include the same or analogous terms to those I have shown to have so momentous a significance?

I should have taken notice of Mr. Lang's communication to Folk-Lore before this, had not my time been fully occupied by exacting public duties.

A. W. Howitt.

  1. Short for Native Tribes of South-East Australia, pp. 177-186.