Australian Aboriginal kinship

Australian Aboriginal kinship

Australian Aboriginal kinship is the system of law governing social interaction, particularly marriage, in traditional Australian Aboriginal culture. It is an integral part of the culture of every Aboriginal group across Australia.


The subsection or 'skin name' system

The subsection or 'skin name' system is a division of society into a number of groups, each of which is given a name that can be used to refer to individual members of that group. There are systems with two such groupings (these are known as 'moieties' in kinship studies), systems with four (sections), six and eight (subsection systems). Some language groups extend this by having distinct male and female forms, giving a total of sixteen skin names, such as the Pintupi (listed below) and Warlpiri. While membership in skin groups is ideally based on blood relations, Australian Aboriginal kin systems are classificatory, meaning that even people who are not actual blood relations are assigned to a skin system. They are also universal, meaning that every member of the society is assigned a position in the system.

Skin systems are found in Aboriginal societies across much of Central, Western and Northern Australia. On the basis of detailed analysis and comparison of the various skin systems and their terminologies, it has been suggested that the skin system was an innovation from the Daly River region of the Northern Territory, which then spread rapidly southwards to other groups.[1]

Systems with two groupings (moieties)


The Yolngu people of north-eastern Arnhem Land divide society (and much of the natural world) into two moieties: Dhuwa and Yirritja. Each of these is represented by people of a number of different groups, each with their own lands, languages and philosophies:

Skin name Clan groups
Yirritja Gumatj, Gupapuyngu, Wangurri, Ritharrngu, Mangalili,
Munyuku, Madarrpa, Warramiri, Dhalwangu, Liyalanmirri.
Dhuwa Rirratjingu, Galpu, Djambarrpuyngu, Golumala, Marrakulu,
Marrangu, Djapu, Datiwuy, Ngaymil, Djarrwark.

by the Yolŋu through their hereditary estates – so many things are either Yirritja or Dhuwa – fish, stone, river, sea etc., belongs to one or the other moiety. Things that are not either Dhuwa or Yirritja are called wakinŋu. Yolŋu also have a kinship system with eight subsections (four Dhuwa and four Yirritja which is what creates moiety).

Systems with four skin groups (section systems)


The Martuthunira language group from the Pilbara region of Western Australia have a four section skin system.[2] (The spelling l.y indicates that these are two distinct phonemes, and not a consonant cluster).

Skin name (female) Marries (male) Children
Karimarra Panaka Pal.yarri
Panaka Karimarra Purungu
Pal.yarri Purungu Karimarra
Purungu Pal.yarri Panaka

Similar systems are found across most language groups in the Pilbara, though with some variation in the forms of the names. For example, speakers of Ngarla use Milangka where Martuthunira use Pal.yarri.


The Alyawarre language group from Central Australia also have a four section skin system, but use different terms from the Martuthunira.[3]

Skin name (female) Marries (male) Children
Kngwarriya Upurla Kimarra
Upurla Kngwarriya Pitjarra
Pitjarra Kimarra Upurla
Kimarra Pitjarra Kngwarriya

Systems with eight skin groups (subsection systems)


The Lardil of Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria have eight skin groups, shown here with some of their totems:

Male skin group Totems May marry only
female skin group
Children will be
Ngarrijbalangi Rainbird, shooting star,
Burrarangi Bangariny
Bangariny Brown shark, turtle Yakimarr Ngarrijbalangi
Buranyi Crane, salt water,
sleeping turtle
Kangal Balyarriny
Balyarriny Black tiger shark,
sea turtle
Kamarrangi Buranyi
Burrarangi Lightning, rough sea,
black dingo
Ngarrijbalangi Kamarrangi
Yakimarr Seagull, barramundi,
grey shark
Bangariny Kangal
Kangal Barramundi,
grey shark
Buranyi Yakimarr
Kamarrangi Rock, pelican, brolga,
red dingo
Balyarriny Burrarangi

Each Lardil person belongs to one of these groups. Their paternal grandfather's skin group determines their own; so a Balyarriny man or woman will have a Balyarriny grandfather. A Ngarrijbalangi man may marry only a Burrarangi woman, a Bangariny a Yakimarr, a Buranyi a Kangal and a Balyarriny a Kamarrangi, and vice versa for each.

Once a person's skin group is known, their relationship to any other Lardil can be determined. A Ngarrijbalangi is a 'father' to a Bangariny, a 'father-in-law' to a Yakimarr and a 'son' to another Bangariny, either in a social sense or purely through linearship.

The mechanics of the Lardil skin system means that generations of males cycle back and forth between two skins. Ngarrijbalangi is father to Bangariny and Bangariny is father to Ngarrijbalangi and similarly for the three other sets of skins. Generations of women, however, cycle through four skins before arriving back at the starting point. This means that a woman has the same skin name as her (matrilineal) great-great-grandmother.


The Pintupi of the Western Desert also have eight skin groups, made more complex by distinct forms for male and female skin names; male forms begin with "Tj", the female forms with "N". The Warlpiri system is almost the same:

Gender Skin name First marriage
Children will be
Male Tjapaltjarri Nakamarra Tjungurrayi, Nungurrayi
Female Napaltjarri Tjakamarra Tjupurrula, Napurrula
Male Tjapangati Nampitjinpa Tjapanangka, Napanangka
Female Napangati Tjampitjinpa Tjangala, Nangala
Male Tjakamarra Napaltjarri Tjupurrula, Napurrula
Female Nakamarra Tjapaltjarri Tjungurrayi, Nungurrayi
Male Tjampitjinpa Napangati Tjangala, Nangala
Female Nampitjinpa Tjapangati Tjapanangka, Napanangka
Male Tjapanangka Napurrula Tjapangati, Napangati
Female Napanangka Tjupurrula Tjakamarra, Nakamarra
Male Tjungurrayi Nangala Tjapaltjarri, Napaltjarri
Female Nungurrayi Tjangala Tjampitjinpa, Nampitjinpa
Male Tjupurrula Napanangka Tjakamarra, Nakamarra
Female Napurrula Tjapanangka Tjapangati, Napangati
Male Tjangala Nungurrayi Tjampitjinpa, Nampitjinpa
Female Nangala Tjungarayi Tjapaltjarri, Napaltjarri

Each person therefore has a patrimoiety and a matrimoiety, a father's and a mother's skin group.

Extension of the system to non-relatives

Outsiders who have significant interaction with such groups may be given a 'skin name', commonly based on the people they have interacted with and the types of interaction.

Some common kinship terms used in Aboriginal English

The variety of English used by many Australian Aboriginal people employs kinship terms in ways that are based on their equivalents in Australian Aboriginal languages.

  • Aunty and uncle are terms of address for older people, to whom the speaker may not be related.
  • Brother and sister -- as well as siblings this term is used to refer to children of ones mother's sister and of father's brother (Cousin), just as in many indigenous languages.
  • Cousin-brother and cousin-sister are often used to refer to children of ones mother's sister and father's brother.
  • Cousin refers to children of ones father's sister and mother's brother, but may be extended to any relative of one's own generation, such as one who might share the same great grandparent as their own great grandparent, which is a second-cousin in Aboriginal terms.
  • In south-east Queensland, daughter is used to refer to any woman of one's great-grandparents' generation. This is due to the cyclical nature of traditional kinship systems and mirrors usage in many Australian languages.
  • Father and mother include any relative of one's parents' generation, such as uncles, aunts, their own cousins and in-laws.
  • Grandfather and grandmother can refer to anyone of one's grandparents' generation. Grandfather can also refer to any respected elderly man, to whom the speaker may not be related.
  • Poison refers to a relation one is obligated to avoid. See Mother-in-law language.
  • The term second, or little bit in northern Australia, is used with a distant relative who is described using a close kinship term. For example, one's second father or little bit father is a man of one's father's generation not closely related to the speaker. Usually having a "second mother", is having a women of your own mother's generation who seems to act like a mother and would most likely care for you if anything were to happen to your own parents. It is contrasted with close, near or true.
  • A skin or skin group are sections which are determined by the skin of a person's parents, and determine who a person is eligible to marry.
  • Son can refer to any male of the next generation, such as nephews just as "daughter" can refer to any female of the next generation including nieces.

See also


  1. ^ McConvell, Patrick (1996). "Backtracking to Babel: the chronology of Pama–Nyungan expansion in Australia". Archaeology in Oceania 31: 125–144. 
  2. ^ Sharp, Janet; Nicholas Thieberger (1992). Bilybara: Aboriginal languages of the Pilbara region. Port Hedland, Western Australia: Wangka Maya, The Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre. ISBN 0646107119. 
  3. ^ Wafer, Jim (1982). A Simple Introduction to Central Australian Kinship Systems. Institute for Aboriginal Development, Alice Springs, Northern Territory. 

Further reading

  • Binnion, Joan (1979) The Lardil People of Mornington Island (Student Handbook), Aboriginal Community College, Port Adelaide.
  • Hansen, Kenneth C. and Lesley E. Hansen, 1979, Pintupi/Luritja kinship, Alice Springs, NT, Institute for Aboriginal Development.

External links

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