Native Tribes of Central Australia

The Authority of Old Men in Australia

. . . . Within the narrow limits of his own group the local head man or Alatunja takes the lead; outside of his group no head man has of necessity any special power. If he has any generally-recognised authority, as some of them undoubtedly have, this is due to the fact that he is either the head of a numerically important group or is himself famous for his skill in hunting or fighting, or for his knowledge of the ancient traditions and customs of the tribe. Old age does not by itself confer distinction, but only when combined with special ability. There is no such thing as a chief of the tribe, nor indeed is there any individual to whom the term chief can be applied.

The authority which is wielded by an Alatunja is of a somewhat vague nature. He has no definite power over the persons of the individuals who are members of his group. He it is who calls together the elder men, who always consult concerning any important business, such as the holding of sacred ceremonies or the punishment of individuals who have broken tribal custom, and his opinion carries an amount of weight which depends upon his reputation. He is not of necessity recognised as the most important member of the council whose judgment must be followed, though, if he be old and distinguished, then he will have great influence. Perhaps the best way of expressing the matter is to say that the Alatunja has, ex-officio, a position which, if he be a man of personal ability, but only in that case, enables him to wield considerable power not only over the members of his own group, but over those of neighbouring groups whose head men are inferior in personal ability to himself.

The Alatunja is not chosen for the position because of his ability, the post is one which, within certain limits, is hereditary, passing from father to son, always provided that the man is of proper designation—that is, for example, in a kangaroo group the Alatunja must of necessity be a kangaroo man. To take the Alice Springs group as an example, the holder of the office must be a witchetty grub man, and he must also be old enough to be considered capable of taking the lead in certain ceremonies, and must of necessity be a fully initiated man. The present Alatunja inherited the post from his father, who had previously inherited it from his father. The present holder has no son who is yet old enough to be an Alatunja, so that if he were to die within the course of the next two or three years his brother would hold the position, which would, howeyer, on the death of this brother, revert to the present holder’s son. It of course occasionally happens that the Alatunja has no son to succeed him, in which case he will before dying nominate the individual whom he desires to succeed him, who will always be either a brother or a brother’s son. The Alatunjaship always descends in the male line, and we are not aware of anything which can be regarded as the precise equivalent of this position in other Australian tribes, a fact which is to be associated with the strong development of the local groups in this part of the continent.

The most important function of the Alatunja is to take charge of what we may call file sacred store-house, which has usually the form of a cleft in some rocky range, or a special hole in the ground, in which, concealed from view, are kept the sacred objects of the group. Near to this store-house, which is called an Ertnatulunga, no woman, child, or uninitiated man dares venture on pain of death.

At intervals of time, and when determined upon by the Alatunja, the members of the group perform a special ceremony, called Intichiuma, which will be described later on in detail, and the object of which is to increase the supply of the animal or plant bearing the name of the particular group which performs the ceremony. Each group has an Intichiuma of its own, which can only be taken part in by initiated men bearing the group name. In the performance of this ceremony the Alatunja takes the leading part; he it is who decides when it is to be performed, and during the celebration the proceedings are carried out under his direction, though he has, while conducting them, to follow out strictly the customs of his ancestors.

As amongst all savage tribes the Australian native is bound hand and foot by custom. What his fathers did before him that he must do. If during the performance of a ceremony his ancestors painted a white line across the forehead, that line he must paint. Any infringement of custom, within certain limitations, is visited with sure and often severe punishment. At the same time, rigidly conservative as the native is, it is yet possible for changes to be introduced. We have already pointed out that there are certain men who are especially respected for their ability, and after watching large numbers of the tribe, at a time when they were assembled together for months to perform certain of their most sacred ceremonies, we have come to the conclusion that at a time such as this, when the older and more powerful men from various groups are met together, and when day by day and night by night around their camp fires they discuss matters of tribal interest, it is quite possible for changes of custom to be introduced. At the present moment, for example, an important change in tribal organisation is gradually spreading through the tribe from north to south. Every now and then a man arises of superior ability to his fellows. When large numbers of the tribe are gathered together—at least it was so on the special occasion to which we allude—one or two of the older men are at once seen to wield a special influence over the others. Everything, as we have before said, does not depend upon age. At this gathering, for example, some of the oldest men were of no account; but, on the other hand, others not so old as they were, but more learned in ancient lore or more skilled in matters of magic, were looked up to by the others, and they it was who settled everything. It must, however, be understood that we have no definite proof to bring forward of the actual introduction by this means of any fundamental change of custom. The only thing that we can say is that, after carefully watching the natives during the performance of their ceremonies and endeavouring as best we could to enter into their feelings, to think as they did, and to become for the time being one of themselves, we came to the conclusion that if one or two of the most powerful men settled upon the advisability of introducing some change, even an important one, it would be quite possible for this to be agreed upon and carried out. That changes have been introduced, in fact, are still being introduced, is a matter of certainty; the difficulty to be explained is, how in face of the rigid conservatism of the native, which may be said to be one of his leading features, such changes can possibly even be mooted. The only possible chance is by means of the old men, and, in the case of the Arunta people, amongst whom the local feeling is very strong, they have opportunities of a special nature. Without belonging to the same group, men who inhabit localities close to one another are more closely associated than men living at a distance from one another, and, as a matter of fact, this local bond is strongly marked—indeed so marked was it during the performance of their sacred ceremonies that we constantly found it necessary to use the term "local relationship." Groups which are contiguous locally are constantly meeting to perform ceremonies; and among the Alatunjas who thus come together and direct proceedings there is perfectly sure, every now and again, to be one who stands pre-eminent by reason of superior ability, and to him, especially on an occasion such as this, great respect is always paid. It would be by no means impossible for him to propose to the other older men the introduction of a change, which, after discussing it, the Alatunjas of the local groups gathered together might come to the conclusion was a good one, and, if they did so, then it would be adopted in that district. After a time a still larger meeting of the tribe, with head men from a still wider area—a meeting such as the Engwura [which is described in Part II, p. 255]—might be held. At this the change locally introduced would, without fail, be discussed. The man who first started it would certainly have the support of his local friends, provided they had in the first instance agreed upon the advisability of its introduction, and not only this, but the chances are that he would have the support of the head men of other local groups of the same designation as his own. Everything would, in fact, depend upon the status of the original proposer of the change; but, granted the existence of a man with sufficient ability to think out the details of any change, then, owing partly to the strong de velopment of the local feeling, and partly to the feeling of kinship between groups of the same designation, wherever their local habitation may be, it seems quite possible that the markedly conservative tendency of the natives in regard to customs handed down to them from their ancestors may every now and then be overcome, and some change, even a radical one, be introduced. The traditions of the tribe indicate, it may be noticed, their recognition of the fact that customs have varied from time to time. They have, for example, traditions dealing with supposed ancestors, some of whom introduced, and others of whom changed, the method of initiation. Tradition also indicates ancestors belonging to particular local groups who changed an older into the present marriage system, and these traditions all deal with special powerful individuals by whom the changes were introduced. It has been stated by writers such as Mr. Curr "that the power which enforces custom in our tribes is for the most part an impersonal one." Undoubtedly public opinion and the feeling that any violation of tribal custom will bring down upon the guilty person the ridicule and opprobrium of his fellows is a strong, indeed a very strong, influence; but at the same time there is in the tribes with which we are personally acquainted something beyond this. Should any man break through the strict marriage laws, it is not only an "impersonal power" which he has to deal with. The head men of the group or groups concerned consult together with the elder men, and, if the offender, after long consultation, be adjudged guilty and the determination be arrived at that he is to be put to death—a by no means purely hypothetical case—then the same elder men make arrangements to carry the sentence out, and a party, which is called an "ininja," is organised for the purpose. The offending native is perfectly well aware that he will be dealt with by something much more real than an "impersonal power.". . . .—n/a SPENCER AND GILLEN, , 10–15.

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Chicago: Native Tribes of Central Australia in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. Thomas, William I. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909), 789–792. Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2023,

MLA: . Native Tribes of Central Australia, in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, edited by Thomas, William I., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1909, pp. 789–792. Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Native Tribes of Central Australia. cited in 1909, Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. , University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.789–792. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2023, from