The Native Tribes of Central Australia,

Date: 1899

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ByBALDWINn/aSPENCERn/an/an/an/a AND F.J.GILLENn/an/an/an/a


We may now turn to the consideration of the Arunta tribe in which descent is counted in the male line, and we may regard the Arunta as typical of the large group of tribes inhabiting the center of the continent from Lake Eyre in the south to near Port Darwin in the north, in which descent is thus counted. The tribes with the classificatory systems of which we have knowledge are the Arunta, Ilpirra, Iliaura, Kaitish, Walpari, Warramunga, Waagai, and Bingongina, which occupy a range of country extending from the latitude of Macumba River in the south to about that of Powell’s Creek in the north, that is over an area measuring from north to south some seven hundred and seventy miles.

In regard to the organization of the Arunta tribe, with which we shall now deal in detail, it may at the outset be mentioned that the existence of four sub-classes in the southern part of the tribe, and of eight in the northern, appears at first sight to indicate that in the latter the organization is more complex. In reality, though without having distinct names applied to them, each one of the four sub-classes met with in the south is actually divided into two. The four are Panunga and Bulthara, Purula and Kumara; the first two forming one moiety of the tribe, and the latter two forming another. In camp, for example, the Panunga and Bulthara always camp together separated from the Purula and Kumara by some natural feature such as a creek. The Panunga and Bulthara speak of themselves as Nakrakia, and of the Purula and Kumara as Mulyanuka—the terms being reciprocal. Further details with regard to this, and evidence of this division into two moieties, are given in connection with the discussion of the Churinga and totems, and in the account of the Engwura.

The marriage system is, in broad outline, omitting at present certain details which will be referred to shortly, as follows: A Bulthara man marries a Kumara woman and their children are Panunga; a Purula man marries a Panunga woman and their children are Kumara; a Panunga man marries a Purula woman and their children are Bulthara; a Kumara man marries a Bulthara woman and their children are Purula.

This may be graphically expressed following Mr. Howitt’s plan (as already done by Dr. Sterling) in the following way:

In these diagrams the double arrow indicates the marriage connections and the single ones point to the name of the class of the children.

As a matter of fact these diagrams as they stand, though perfectly correct in stating, for example, that a Panunga man marries a Purula woman, are incomplete in that they do not show the important point that to a Panunga man the Purula women are divided into two groups the members of one of whom stand to him in the relationship of Unawa whom he may marry, while the members of the other stand in the relationship of Unkulla whom he may not marry. This fact is one of very considerable importance. Each of the four sub-classes is thus divided into two, the members of which stand respectively in the relationship of Ipmunna to each other. We can represent this graphically as follows, taking, for the sake of simplicity, only two sub-classes, the divisions of one being represented by the letters A and B, and of the other by the letters C and D.

A stands in the relationship of Unawa to C, Ipmunna to B, and Unkulla to D. In other words a woman who is Unkulla to me is Ipmunna to my wife. All women of group C (myself belonging to A), my wife calls sisters—Ungaraitcha if they be elder sisters, and Itia if they be younger sisters; and all of them stand in the relationship of Unawa to myself; but the other Purula woman whom my wife calls Ipmunna are Unkulla to me and I may not marry them.

It is somewhat perplexing after learning that Panunga man must marry a Purula woman to meet with the statement, when inquiring into particular cases, that a given Panunga man must not marry a particular Purula woman, but in the northern part of the tribe matters are simplified by the existence of distinct names for the two groups; the relationship term of Ipmunna still exists, but if I am, for example, a Panunga man, then all my Ipmunna men and women are designated by the term Uknaria, and in the following tables the eight divisions are laid down, and it will be noticed that the old name is used for one-half and a new name adopted for the other.

The double arrows indicate the marriage connections.

This division into eight has been adopted (or rather the names for the four new divisions have been), in recent times by the Arunta tribe from the Ilpirra tribe which adjoins the former on the north, and the use of them is, at the present time, spreading southwards. At the Engwura ceremony which we witnessed men of the Ilpirra tribe were present, as well as a large number of others from the southern part of the Arunta amongst whom the four new names are not yet in use.

We have found the following table of considerable service to ourselves in working as, by its means, the various relationships fall into regular arrangement and can be readily indicated.

This table was drawn up in the first instance in order to show the marriage relationships and the divisions into which the children pass. Thus, reading across the page, men of the sub-classes shown in column 1 must marry women of the sub-classes shown in column 2. For example, a Panunga man marries a Purula woman, an Uknaria man an Ungalla woman, and so on. Column 3 in the same way indicates their children, those of a Panunga man and a Purula woman being Appungerta, those of an Uknaria man and a Ungalla woman being Bulthara, etc. In the same way if a man of one of the sub-classes in column 2 marries a woman in one of those in column 1, then their children are as represented in column 4. That is, a Purula man marries a Panunga woman and their children are Kumara, and so on. . . .

In the Arunta tribe, unlike the Urabunna, there is, as soon as marriage has taken place, a restriction, except on certain special occasions which are subsequently described, of a particular woman to a particular man, or rather, a man has an exclusive right to one special woman though he may of his own free will lend her to other men.

Despite this fact, there is no term applied to a woman who is thus the peculiar property of one man, the woman is simply spoken of as Unawa to the man in just the same way in which all the other women are who belong to the group from which the man’s wife must come. The terms of relationship are not individual terms, but, just as in the Urabunna and other tribes in some of which we have a form of group marriage existing as an actual institution at the present day, the terms are group terms. To take an example—a Panunga man will have some special woman allotted to him as an individual wife, but the only term which he applies to her is Unawa, and that term he also applies to all the women of her group, each of whom might lawfully have been allotted to him. She is one out of a group of potential wives. When, again, a man lends his wife, he only does so to a member of his own group, that is to a man to whom, without having been allotted to him, the woman stands in the relationship of Unawa just as she does to the man to whom she has been allotted. In the southern part of the tribe, where only the four divisions exist, a Panunga man will not lend his Unawa to a man who belongs to the half of the Panunga to which he himself does not belong, that is he will not lend her to an Ipmunna man but only to men who are Okilia or Itia to him; and in the same way he will only have lent to him a Purula woman to whom he is Unawa and not one to whom he is Unkulla. In the northern division the original Panunga is divided up into Panunga and Ungalla, and here a Panunga man only lends his wife to a Panunga, an Ungalla to an Ungalla, and so on. In this northern part it must be remembered that the Panunga men are the exact equivalents to another Panunga man of the Okilia and Itia, that is the tribal brothers of the southern part, while the Ungalla correspond to the Ipmunna.

The same group terms are applied in all other cases. Thus a man calls his own children Allira, and applies the same term to all his blood and tribal brothers’ children, while all his sisters’ children are Umba. If, again, I am a Panunga man, then my wife is Purula, and her actual father is a Kumara man. Not only do I call this particular man Ikuntera or father-in-law, but, where the eight divisions are in force, I apply the same name to all Kumara men. They are one and all the fathers of women whom it is lawful for me to marry.

That this group relationship is actually recognized is made clear by a variety of facts. If, for example, one of my Ikuntera dies, it is my duty to cut my shoulders with a stone knife as a mark of sorrow. If I neglect to do this, then any one of the men who are Ikuntera to me has the right to take away my wife and give her to some other man to whom she is Unawa. I have not only, supposing it to be the actual father of my wife who has died, neglected to do my duty to him, but I have offended the group collectively, and any member of that group may punish me. Again, if I am out hunting and have caught game, and while carrying this home to my camp I chance to meet a man standing to me in the relationship of Ikuntera, I should at once have to drop the food, which, from the fact of its having been seen by any one member of that group, has become tabu to me.

In just the same way amongst the women we see clear instances of customs founded on the existence of group relationship. When a child dies not only does the actual Mia, or mother, cut herself, but all the sisters of the latter, who also are Mia to the dead child, cut themselves. All women call their own children Umba, and apply precisely the same term to the children of their sisters, blood and tribal. . . .


Every individual of the tribes with which we are dealing is born into some totem—that is, he or she belongs to a group of persons each one of whom bears the name of, and is especially associated with, some natural object. The latter is usually an animal or plant; but in addition to those of living things, there are also such totem names as wind, sun, water, or cloud—in fact there is scarcely an object, animate or inanimate, to be found in the country occupied by the natives which does not give its name to some totemic group of individuals. . . .

Passing northwards from the Urabunna into the Arunta tribe, we are brought into contact with a very different organization, but with one which, in regard to the class names, is typical of tribes which occupy an area extending north and south for some 800 miles, and east and west for perhaps between 200 and 300. We find also essentially the same system in tribes inhabiting other parts of Australia, such as the Turribul, living on the Maryborough river in Queensland. Without entering here into details, which will be fully explained subsequently, we may say that, so far as the class is concerned, descent is counted in the male line. The totem names are, however, at first sight decidedly perplexing. Just as in the Urabunna tribe, every individual has his or her totem name. In the first place, however, no one totem is confined to the members of a particular class or sub-class; in the second place the child’s totem will sometimes be found to be the same as that of the father, sometimes the same as that of the mother, and not infrequently it will be different from that of either parent; and in the third place there is no definite relationship between the totem of the father and mother, such as exists in the Urabunna and many other Australian tribes—in fact perhaps in the majority of the latter. You may, for example, examine at first a family in which the father is a witchetty grub and the mother a wild cat, and you may find, supposing there be two children, that they are both witchetty grubs. In the next family examined perhaps both parents will be witchetty grubs, and of two children one may belong to the same totem, and the other may be an emu; another family will show the father to be, say, an emu, the mother a plumtree, and of their children one may be a witchetty grub, another a lizard, and so on, the totem names being apparently mixed up in the greatest confusion possible.

We give below the actual totem names of five families, selected at random, who are now living in the northern section of the Arunta tribe, and these may be taken as accurately representative of the totem names found in various families throughout the tribe. After making very numerous and as careful inquiries as possible, always directly from the natives concerned, we can say that every family shows the same features as these particular examples do with regard to the totems, the names of the latter varying, of course, from family to family and in different parts of the country, certain totems predominating in some, and others in other parts. You may, for example, find yourself in one district of more or less limited area and find one totem largely represented; travelling out of that district, you may meet but rarely with that particular totem until you come into another and perhaps distant part, where—it may be forty or fifty miles away—it again becomes the principal one. The reason for, or rather the explanation of, this curious local distribution, as given by the natives, will be seen presently.

Family 1. Father, little hawk. Wife No. 1, rat; daughter, witchetty grub. Wife No. 2, kangaroo; no children. Wife No. 3, lizard; two daughters, one emu, the other water.

Family 2. Father, eagle-hawk. Wife No. 1, Hakea flower; no children. Wife No. 2, Hakea flower; four sons, who are respectively witchetty grub, emu, eagle-hawk, elonka; two daughters, both witchetty grubs.

Family 3. Father, witchetty grub. Wife No. 1, lizard; two sons, one lizard, the other witchetty grub. Wife No. 2, lizard.

Family 4. Father, emu. Wife, munyeru; two sons, one kangaroo, the other, wild cat; one daughter, lizard.

Family 5. Father, witchetty grub. Wife, witchetty grub; two sons, one, kangaroo, the other, witchetty grub; one daughter, witchetty grub.

Taking these as typical examples of what is found throughout the whole tribe, we can see that while, as already stated, marriages are strictly regulated by class rules, the question of totem has nothing to do with the matter either so far as making it obligatory for a man of one totem to marry a woman of another particular one, or so far as the totem of the children is concerned. The totem name of the child does not of necessity follow either that of the father or that of the mother, but it may correspond to one or both of them. . . .

It was while watching and questioning closely the natives, during the performance of the Engwura ceremony—a description of which will be found in a later chapter—that we were able to find out the way in which the totem names of the individuals originate and to gain an insight into the true nature of their totemic system. . . .

The whole past history of the tribe may be said to be bound up with these totemic ceremonies, each of which is concerned with the doings of certain mythical ancestors who are supposed to have lived in the dim past, to which the natives give the name of the "Alcheringa."

In the Alcheringa lived ancestors who, in the native mind, are so intimately associated with the animals or plants, the name of which they bear, that an Alcheringa man of, say, the kangaroo totem may sometimes be spoken of either as a man-kangaroo or as a kangaroo-man. The identity of the human individual is often sunk in that of the animal or plant from which he is supposed to have originated. It is useless to try and get further back than the Alcheringa; the history of the tribe as known to the natives commences then.

Going back to this far-away time, we find ourselves in the midst of semi-human creatures endowed with powers not possessed by their living descendants and inhabiting the same country which is now inhabited by the tribe, but which was then devoid of many of its most marked features, the origin of which, such as the gaps and gorges in the Macdonnell Ranges, is attributed to these mythical Alcheringa ancestors.

These Alcheringa men and women are represented in tradition as collected together in companies, each of which consisted of a certain number of individuals belonging to one particular totem. Thus, for example, the ceremonies of the Engwura dealt with four separate groups of Achilpa or wild cat men.

Whilst every now and then we come across traditions, according to which, as in the case of the Achilpa, the totem is common to all classes, we always find that in each totem one moiety of the tribe predominates, and that, according to tradition, many of the groups of ancestral individuals consisted originally of men or women or of both men and women who all belonged to one moiety. Thus in the case of certain Okira or kangaroo groups we find only Kumara and Purula; in certain Udnirringita or witchetty grub groups we find only Bulthara and Panunga; in certain Achilpa or wild cat a predominance of Kumara and Purula, with a smaller number of Bulthara and Panunga.

At the present day no totem is confined to either moiety of the tribe, but in each local center we always find a great predominance of one moiety, as for example at Alice Springs, the most important center of the witchetty grubs, where, amongst forty individuals, thirty-five belong to the Bulthara and Panunga, and five only to the other moiety of the tribe.

These traditions in regard to the way in which the Alcheringa ancestors were distributed into companies, the members of which bore the same totem name and belonged, as a general rule, to the same moiety of the tribe, are of considerable importance when we come to consider the conditions which now obtain with regard to totems. It is not without importance to notice that the traditions of the tribe point back to a time when, for the most part, the members of any particular totem were confined to one moiety of the tribe, in face of the fact that at the present day it seems to be a characteristic feature of many tribes—such as the Urabunna, which are in a less highly developed state than the Arunta, Ilpirra and certain other tribes of Central Australia—that the totems are strictly confined to one or other of the two moieties of the tribe, and that they regulate marriage. At the same time it may again be pointed out that the totems in no way regulate marriage in the tribes mentioned, and, further still, we can find no evidence in any of the traditions, numerous and detailed as they are, of a time when marriage in these tribes was ever regulated by the totems.

If now we turn to the traditions and examine those relating to certain totems which may be taken as illustrative of the whole series, we find that they are concerned almost entirely with the way in which what we may call the Alcheringa members of the various totems came to be located in Various spots scattered over the country now occupied by the tribe the members of which are regarded as their descendants, or, to speak more precisely, as their reincarnations. . . .

Each of these Alcheringa ancestors is represented as carrying about with him, or her, one or more of the sacred stones, which are called by the Arunta natives Churinga, and each of these Churinga is intimately associated with the idea of the spirit part of some individual. Either where they originated and stayed, as in the case of certain of the witchetty grub people, or else where, during their wanderings, they camped for a time, there were formed what the natives call Oknanikilla, each one of which is in reality a local totem center. At each of these spots, and they are all well known to the old men, who pass the knowledge on from generation to generation, a certain number of the Alcheringa ancestors went into the ground, each one carrying his Churinga with him. His body died, but some natural feature, such as a rock or tree, arose to mark the spot, while his spirit part remained in the Churinga. At the same time many of the Churinga which they carried with them, and each one of which had associated with it a spirit individual, were placed in the ground, some natural object again marking the spot. The result is that, as we follow their wanderings, we find that the whole country is dotted over with Oknanikilla, or local totem centers, at each of which are deposited a number of Churinga, with spirit individuals associated with them. Each Oknanikilla is, of course, connected with one totem. In one part we have a definite locality, with its group of wild cat spirit individuals; in another, a group of emu; in another, a group of frog, and so on through the various totems; and it is this idea of spirit individuals associated with Churinga and resident in certain definite spots that lies at the root of the present totemic system of the Arunta tribe.

As we have said, the exact spot at which a Churinga was deposited was always marked by some natural object, such as a tree or rock, and in this the spirit is supposed to especially take up its abode, and it is called the spirit’s Nanja.

We may take the following as a typical example of how each man and woman gains a totem name. Close to Alice Springs is a large and important witchetty grub totem center or Oknanikilla. Here there were deposited in the Alcheringa a large number of Churinga carried by witchetty grub men and women. A large number of prominent rocks and boulders and certain ancient gum-trees along the sides of a picturesque gap in the ranges, are the Nanja trees and rocks of these spirits, which, so long as they remain in spirit form, they usually frequent. If a woman conceives a child after having been near to this gap, it is one of these spirit individuals which has entered her body, and therefore, quite irrespective of what the mother’s or father’s totem may chance to be, that child, when born, must of necessity be of the witchetty grub totem; it is, in fact, nothing else but the reincarnation of one of the witchetty grub people of the Alcheringa. Suppose, for example, to take a particular and actual instance, an emu woman from another locality comes to Alice Springs, and whilst there becomes aware that she has conceived a child, and then returns to her own locality before the child is born, that child, though it may be born in an emu locality, is an Udnirringita or witchetty grub. It must be, the natives say, because it entered the mother at Alice Springs, where there are only witchetty grub spirit individuals. Had it entered her body within the limits of her own emu locality, it would as inevitably have been an emu. To take another example, quite recently the lubra or wife of a witchetty grub man, she belonging to the same totem, conceived a child while on a visit to a neighboring Quatcha or water locality, which lies away to the east of Alice Springs, that child’s totem is water; or, again, an Alice Springs woman, when asked by us as to why her child was a witchetty grub (in this instance belonging to the same totem as both of its parents), told us that one day she was taking a drink of water near to the gap in the Ranges where the spirits dwell when suddenly she heard a child’s voice crying out, "Mia, mia!"—the native term for relationship which includes that of mother. Not being anxious to have a child she ran away as fast as she could, but to no purpose; she was fat and well favored, and such women the spirit children prefer; one of them had gone inside her, and of course it was born a witchetty grub. . . .

Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely; but these, which may be taken as typical ones, will serve to show that, though at first sight puzzling, yet in reality the totem name follows a very definite system, if once we grant the premises firmly believed in by the Arunta native. . . . .

What has gone before will serve to show what we mean by speaking of the totems as being local in their distribution. The whole district occupied by the Arunta, and the same holds true of the Ilpirra and Kaitish tribes, can be mapped out into a large number of areas of various sizes, some of which are actually only a few square yards in extent, while others occupy many square miles, and each of which centers in one or more spots, for which the native name is Oknanikilla—a term which may be best rendered by the phrase "local totem center." Each of these represents a spot where Alcheringa ancestors either originated or where they camped during their wanderings, and where some of them went down into the ground with their Churinga, or where they deposited Churinga. In any case the Churinga remained there, each one associated with a spirit individual, and from these have sprung, and still continue to spring, actual men and women who of necessity bear the totem name of the Churinga from which they come.


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Chicago: The Native Tribes of Central Australia, in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024,

MLA: . The Native Tribes of Central Australia,, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , The Native Tribes of Central Australia,. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from