Aboriginal Anthropology I

The Australian landscape and the surrounding natural features were some of the things that shape Aboriginal mythology which, in turn, had become projections of "the time long past". In Aboriginal society, the women were responsible for extracting, used and cooked bush foods while older women transmitted knowledge about bush lore to younger women and children. The men and women together were both responsible for undertaking subsistence activity to support their family.


From an early age, children were encouraged to learn about bush lore. For boys, there were many opportunities to become familiar with territories other than his own since at circumcision he is taken to tribes other than his own. Girls, however, were primarily restricted to the family camp. Fathers sustained authority over their children, such as in relation to marriage arrangements, but it was generally the mother and the grandmother who had the primary right to discipline their children. Women also had rituals of their own and did not regard men's ceremonies as a privilege from which they were excluded.


Until on the threshold of marriage, young women had little contact with the group into which they were destined to marry some day - that is, the affinal group to which the woman was betrothed or promised. After the age of nine years, or possibly later, the young woman was handed over to her future husband and sleep at his fire side from time to time. In this respect, the young girls generally aged between nine and thirteen were not required to participate in sexual relation with their future husbands until they were beyond puberty.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!

Transition from childhood to adolescence and preparation for marriage were dealt with in some detail by Aboriginal women. Younger Aboriginal women were well aware of what was involved with sex and sexual intercourse. At tone time, certain Aboriginal tribes practised introcision which was done by the old women. This was conducted when women wished to hasten puberty, the ceremony being regarded as essentially desirable since a girl can then take lovers. Ritual details were kept secret from men and often occurred as a counterpart to male sub-incision. During the ritual, young women were told associated myths and acquired additional esoteric knowledge about Aboriginal religion.

Personal ritual for women usually occurred before and after menstruation, which some men feared because contact with a menstruating woman could cause sickness. Women had to remain apart from their family camps for three to five days, where they were painted in red ochre by female kin. Food taboos were observed during times of menstruation and pregnancy. These taboos which restricted the consumption of bush food such as porcupine, snake, turkey and barramundi were similar to those imposed on young men during initiation.

Indications that marriage was positive for women included economic reciprocity whereby the betrothed man handed over gifts to the woman's parents from betrothal onwards. Betrothed women, on the other hand, were not required to make any material sacrifices because their intentions were less obvious. In some cases, young girls who were betrothed and married after puberty had run away from their husbands because their husbands were too old or had frightened them. They were usually sent back by their parents and, from all accounts, sought lovers, one of whom they would eventually marry. Aboriginal marriages in general do not allow freedom of choice in marriage partners. Indeed, out of the disputes, discontent, reconciliations, and affection between those who are married, a relationship would seem to emerge which has in it the elements of permanency and the advantages which have, in part, been deduced, and in part, directly formulated by the people themselves. In fact, from childhood onwards, men and women were expected to marry individuals of a certain subsection or social classification, and that such an arrangement did not necessarily result in the oppression of women. Anthropological studies suggest that Aboriginal people have a desire to marry in accordance with the prescribed rules, although in some cases, elopements did occur. In general, there was a recognized procedure in courtship, which could be initiated by a woman or a man.

Most marriages were in accordance with the preferred model and monogamous unions were the most consistent form of marriage. Polygamous unions, where two women were married to one man, involved older men, although young stock boys occasionally had two wives, due mainly to their role as employees on stations where they receive additional material resources, such as tobacco, clothes, tools and food, giving them a wealth and prestige they would otherwise not have known. Alternative marriages also existed which were connected to kinship rather than to social subsection that normally regulated marriage.

Authority was vested collectively in a family group rather in particular individuals for social arrangements such as marriage. This process also occurred with gifts exchange. How gifts were provided by a man to his future in-laws formalize the union and distinguished it from a casual liaison. Gift exchange also gave the man the right to take his wife away to his own family resident in accordance with the rules of patrilocal resident. The man would also claim any children that were born as his own. Soon after betrothal, the first gift such as hair-belt, pearl-shell, spears, and axes were made. The mother of the girl received her share of these because she exercised equal rights over her child. While gift exchange might seem to exchange an element of compensation for the loss of a family member to the girl's parents, the bond with relatives and country persisted after marriage. Indeed, the process surrounding marriage ensured that the woman's family secured alliances with individuals in other hordes, along with the right to visit them. The principles of matrilineal succession, such as inheritance of knowledge and rights in land which were transmitted through women, were considered to be significant because they predate ethnographic consideration of matrilineal affiliations to land.

Rights and duties of women in marriage

Patrilocal residents produced one of the fundamental alterations in a woman's life when, after marriage, she moved to her husband's country. In doing this, the woman did not lose her claim to her father's country nor did the husband exert arbitrary rights over his wife as a moveable piece of property. The women were free to move about in their husbands' territories, to forage for food and came to know the sacred sites and stones for ceremonies aimed at ensuring the maintenance of a plentiful and reliable food supply. These ceremonies were referred to as increase ceremonies. In their daily life, the men had greater responsibility for ritual activity with the women often being central to the performance of increased ceremonies carried out by the old woman or women who were wives of the head men. On marriage, women's relationships to others were widened to include an important set of reliable affinal kin. As both wife and in-law, a married woman became the keeper of the hearth, gatherer of fire woods, bearer of her own and her husband's burden, and has the right to own property. Upon death, the property, such as billycan, digging stick, fighting stick, axe, knife, of women did not revert to their husbands; it was either destroyed or distributed to the woman's relative.

Much of the discussion at "inter-tribal meetings" before the initiation of a boy concerned remembering but not naming deceased relatives, and reconciling grievances, such as those resulting from extra-marital affairs. There were also attempts to settle certain scores, such as when a woman was attacked with a fighting stick by her sister because she had not prevented an elopement. In this respect, authority, when yielded, was in the hands of those closely connected with the individual involved. There was also a sharp distinction between illicit affairs and promiscuity with the latter being dealt with by "contempt". No moral judgments were made on the formation of new liaison and, once disputes were settled publicly, the new marriage was accepted.

With regard to the affection between husband and wife and other kin's people, temporarily disruption, such as adultery, were usually tolerated and/or resolved by the means described above or by some form of material compensation to the aggrieved man or woman. On the whole, there certainly seems to be present a bond of affection that manifested itself when either husband or wife was in danger or ill. In some cases, men would sit for hours by their sick wives, fetching water, providing shade and physical comfort. With regard to adult authority over children, the common interest of women and men in children consolidated the marital relationship. While children of both sexes inherited their father's country and dream totems, education and discipline during childhood were largely in the hand of the mother. It is perhaps worth noting that the mother received a share of the gifts distributed at the circumcision and sub-incision of her son, and presents are handed over to her by her son-in-law during his marriage to her daughter. Some of these be later passes on to her own relatives.

In Aboriginal society, there were many positive aspects to marriage for women. They acquired more intimate relationships with the individual in other hordes together with the right to visit them; the experience of grief and anxiety during the circumcision and sub-incision of sons showed a woman to be someone of consequence. Marriage was unambiguously based on the necessity of satisfying sexual, economic and social needs that were influenced by the cultural environment. Women were not oppressed by marriage, which brought with it a certain status, companionship, protection and settled existence that were sanctioned by all members of the community.  

The functions of women in the larger social groups

Women's part in wider social groupings can only be understood if their role in the economic, kinship and political organisation were taken into account. The pervasive force of totemism with all it ethical and religious implications provided some of the sanctions that underpinned marriage, berthing ceremonies, puberty, death and the authority of both men and women. In particular, totemism tied women and men into larger social groupings in both sacred and profane activity. In this respect, both the men and women made the article they needed for their own purposes. The women made fighting and digging sticks, necklaces and swag while the men made their own spears for hunting, fishing and fighting, spear-throwers, boomerangs, shields, necklaces and armbands. The women and men also undertook joint activities such as spinning human hair into threads or belts, tassels and headband. Young boys, as part of initiation, were taught to manufacture articles such as axes while after puberty, young girls were taught by women to make digging and fighting sticks.

Economic transactions fulfilled kinship obligation and ensured an exchange of resources from one region to another. This involved a chain of women and men as partners with the variety of consanguineal, affinal and classificatory relatives. These exchanges occurred over distances of up to 400 miles with some of the resources traded being shelled, wild honey, flower, boomerang, shovel-nosed spears, red ochre, necklaces, and dresses. Under the system, the partner would eventually receive the equivalent of what he or she had given previously with conflict being resolved by the public airing of grievances and by the withdrawal of various resources. Women and their role as members of a horde united women with their country and it was both an economic and spiritual affiliation. Indeed, when the women dies, her bones will find the resting place there. Also, it was the men who performed corroborees associated with the cult-totem and these intensified the sentiment for the horde.

The women seemed to be just as desirous as the men, when the opportunity offered, of visiting their horde country, the increase site, and resting place of the totemic ancestors. The women seemed just as deeply convinced of the economic superiority of their territory over all others, including event hose of their husbands. This sentiment probably springs from long residents during childhood, knowledge of economic resources, sacred sites, myths, totemic affiliations and kinship ties with other individuals who also belong to the country. A strong bond existed among women, in part because they shared so many of their pursuits such as foraging and hunting together. In such circumstances, focus and positive interests created the conditions for a sense of shared identity among women, although there was also a great deal of co-operation with their husbands and other male kin, especially in economic and social matters.

The spiritual heritage of Aboriginal women

Women had the right to receive benefits from totemic ceremonies as these were first instituted by the totemic ancestors for Aboriginal men and women. In this respect, totems were regarded as not merely objects appropriated by Aboriginal groups but an expression of kinship with the environment. They were fundamental to how the mythic beings created the earth and all it contained in plant and animal forms. Myth that accounted for the inauguration of certain customs all describe totem ancestors who stood in a kinship relation to each other and had subsection names. Having performed their tasks, the totemic ancestors change into birds, animals, reptiles and rocks.

The time long past when the world was created, in compass a variety of totemic beliefs. These included "conception totems", "sub-section totems", "moiety totems", "dream totems", and "cult totems" all of which provided connections between people and their environment including various plants and animal species, and to the Dreaming. The conception totem was identified as a manifestation of the affinity between people and nature; it had "developed out of, and is determined by, the native belief about Narungani and spirit children".

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