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Australian Aborigines: Domestic Life, Kinship, and Marriage



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    Australian Aborigines: Domestic Life, Kinship, and Marriage


                Aborigines or indigenous Australians were the first inhabitants of Australia. The distinct differences between settlers and aborigines have led to many misunderstandings in their customs especially in the early years of settlement. Since aborigines were widely dispersed, did not have a homogenous entity and had only spoken language this led some to wrongly believe that their culture was non literate. (Reser, 1981). This misunderstanding has to be overcome to comprehend the patterns of aboriginal society which had highly integrated domestic life, kinship and traditions of marriage to sustain their indigenous culture adding to social compatibility. The inter linkages between domestic life, kinship and marriage in the Australian aborigine are thus seen to be well developed and effectively sustained society.

    Domestic Life

                The domestic life in early  years was affected by the nomadic nature of aborigines. Thus the continuous movement at different locations which was in a cyclical pattern, meant that there was constant exposure to varied circumstances of home and hearth. Adaptability to the physical external environment was inevitable to domestic life. While not much evidence is available as to how this affected the pattern of domesticity, there are reasons to believe that this was well adjusted.

                The nomadic movement formed two patterns, one was establishment of semi permanent camps in fertile areas close to water thereby such locations gained in mythological significance. The men generally forayed for hunting into the bush while the women attended to the needs of home from these locations.  The return of the forayer in the evening gave some stability to domestic life. On the other hand in the arid desert areas, the movement was constant from one water point to another. (Australian Aborigine, 2007). This did not contribute to settled domesticity.

                At home the male and female roles were relatively well defined in aborigine communities. While the male hunted large games and were required to acquire knowledge of rituals, guard sacred objects and treasures, women were deployed to acquire food and mind the children. In general the girls had greater responsibility than elder boys in the group. (Australian Aborigine, 2007).


                Kinship and marriage are close bonds in the Australian aborigine. This is achieved through economic as well as ritualistic interaction. Kinship includes a number of obligations and induces formal behavior in relationships. As the communities were semi nomadic this did affect the pattern of kinship. There were greater contacts between people and communities thereby enhancing the scope for fraternal relationships. The two forms of nomadism as indicated also had an impact on kinship. The camping pattern of nomadism built relatively larger kinship patterns as more number of people could subsist at one location due to abundance of water and fertility of the soil. On the other hand in the desert outback, the families were much smaller, thereby restricting kinship networks to a great degree. This in turn resulted in closer affinity between families as well as within the families.

                Kinship had a definitive role in social pattern of aborigines. Every person with whom social contact was maintained was defined by a kin relation and inter personal behavior in turn was determined by this relationship, with respect being shown to the older generation kin and expectations of the same from one below. While the formal nature of kinship was well defined closeness determined intensity of feeling between the people. Breaking bonds of kinship was not fully appreciated by the aborigines.

                Given the nomadic nature of existence and dependence on each other for survival, in the early aborigines bonds of kinship had to be close and cherished. Gifts were used subtly to maintain and reinforce these attachments. (Australian Aborigine, 2007). Over the years however as occupations have changed and societies become less dependent on coagulation of people, the bonds of kinship have reduced. There is further fragmentation today. As the pattern of earning has changed and the principal way of earning is by working away from home a separation between generations has taken place increasing the generation gap thus affecting kinship. (MacKnight. 2004, 11).

                The contact of the Australian aborigines with western culture led to conflict. This conflict when seen in the larger cultural context would indicate that there was substantial support to continuation of ceremonies in kinship as well as marriage, the rites of passage, rituals and ceremonies were determined in these relationship by these conflicts. (Pattel-Gray, Nd). This is said to have bred greater bonds of intrinsic kinship leading to indigenization of families and marriages.


                The nomadic nature of aboriginal tribes had led to greater contact with outsiders thereby preventing inbreeding through marriage within the same community. On the other hand the need for social regulations had led to evolution of strict rules of marriage. Thus men could not marry outside a specific group of communities. There are reasons to believe that such a custom is still prevalent in some of the indigenous people in Central Australia. Another peculiar custom was to organize what has been known as corroborees where not just goods are traded but the occasion for communion is used for arranging marriages. This custom is said to have coagulated the communities’ further and prevented inbreeding.

                Kinship also determined sexual relationship which in turn affected married life. Thus a spouse was well defined so was a person whom one cannot marry. Sexual and marital relationship between brothers and sisters were avoided. This is confirmed by the trend indicated by Fox. (2001, 114). The patrilineal tribes of Arnhem Land Australia for instance refer to sisters as, “rubbish” as they cannot reproduce from the group. (Fox, 2001, 114).

                Repayment on receiving a wife in marriage was common. This could be done during marriage or at a convenient time later. This reciprocity could take different forms such as exchange of sisters. (Australian Aborigine 2, 2007). Infant betrothal was not uncommon but had to be ratified later by providing a continuous stream of gifts to parents of girls. A couple had to live publicly for a marriage to be recognized and became binding once a child was born. (Australian Aborigine 2, 2007). Polygamy was quite common and accepted amongst the community and was sustained by economic reasons as it increased working hands in the house as well. In Tiwi community for instance women are even betrothed before birth. (Robinson, 1997). Over the years however they have become monogamous. Termination of marriage was through divorce through a symbolic gesture or transferring ones wife to another suitably inclined person. (Australian Aborigine 2, 2007).


    1.      Australian Aborigine. (2007) Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Edition. Accessed at on 13 May 2007.

    2.      Australian Aborigine 2. (2007).Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Edition. Accessed at on 13 May 2007

    3.      Fox, Robin. (2001). Kinship and marriage: an anthropological perspective. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

    4.      MacKnight, David. (2004). Going The Whiteman’s Way: Kinship and Marriage Among Australian Aborigines. Aldershot : Ashgate, 2004.

    5.      Pattel-Gray, Anne. (Nd (No Date). Australian Aboriginal Communication as Resistance. Accessed at on 13 May 2007

    6.      Reser, Joseph. (1981). Australian Aboriginal Man’s Inhumanity to Man: A Case of Cultural Distortion. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 83, No. 2 (Jun., 1981), pp. 387-393.

    7.      Robinson, Gary. (1997). Families, Generations, and Self: Conflict, Loyalty, and Recognition in an Australian Aboriginal Society. Ethos. September 1997, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 303-332.


    Australian Aborigines: Domestic Life, Kinship, and Marriage. (2016, Aug 07). Retrieved from

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