Monday, June 14, 2010


As is the case with so many features of precontact life there is contemporary debate about whether the conceptual and structural aspects of Aboriginal cultural life evident to Europeans in the 19th century were continuations from the past or relatively new adaptations to the colonial world. For example, Peter Hiscock believes that the complex Aboriginal kinship systems evident to Europeans at the end of the 19th century were the result of dramatic population loss from smallpox in 1789 rather than a continuation of precontact structures, while others, such as Ian Keen and Josephine Flood, disagree (Molloy 2008).


While many aspects of Aboriginal life changed dramatically with the arrival of Europeans and the devastation of communities through disease and genocide, the evidence both from Australia and from band societies more generally is that although specific details of each kin structure may have changed, the centrality of kinship did not. The foundation of Aboriginal culture and society in the period before European contact had to have been kinship. All laws, residential patterns, taboos, and other aspects of communal life were dictated by kinship principles. Individual relationships, from food sharing requirements and other etiquette rules to potential marriage partners, were also dictated largely by kinship, in association with residency, which itself was largely directed by kinship. In the contemporary world this code remains very important, even for the majority of Aboriginal Australians who live in urban areas.

Rather than blood ties, the most important aspect of Aboriginal kinship systems is classification. In U.S.-American kinship there is a degree of classification, such as all children of your parents’ siblings are classified as cousins. This pattern is quite different from other kinship systems, in which the children of your mother’s siblings are called something different from the children of your father’s siblings; some systems are even more complex in that mother’s and father’s older siblings’ children are called something different from their younger siblings’ children. Aboriginal classification included not only cousins but everyone in the band or even tribe. For example, a father, his brothers, and his male lineal cousins are all called father; a mother, her sisters, and her female lineal cousins are all called mother. This does not mean that Aboriginal people did not know who their actual mother and father were, but that rights and responsibilities extended far beyond the nuclear family.

Classificatory kinship systems create very large webs of ties between individuals that cut across not only time but space. If two strangers of the same tribe meet, they immediately figure out how they are connected, as cousins, mother and child, father and child, grandparent and child, or whatever, so they are able to use the appropriate kinship term to refer to each other and to obey all the other taboos associated with kinship. One of the most interesting aspects of these kinship rules for many outsiders is the pattern of avoidance relationships many Aboriginal people are required to follow. The most common of these is the in-law avoidance relationship, in which men and women are not permitted to be alone in the room with their spouse’s parents, are not permitted to speak to them directly, and must never engage in joking or other lighthearted activity with them. While not all Aboriginal groups had these kinds of avoidance relationships between categories of relatives, many did and still do to this day.

Although Aboriginal Australians had one of the simplest tool kits of all the colonized peoples in the world, they may also have had some of the most complex structures to manage their webs of kinship. In many tribes each individual was a member of a family, lineage, clan, tribe, subsection, section, and moiety. Individuals had to manage different kinds of relationships with each person based on these categories, including joking and avoidance requirements, exogamy and endogamy rules, and obligations of social and economic reciprocity.