Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Kinship Systems


In Aboriginal Australia kinship, one of the most complex systems in the world, is the basis of all social interaction. The kinship system of a particular tribe or language unit controls the network of interpersonal relationships in that tribe guiding its members in their interactions with other tribal members. Kinship pervaded every aspect of social organisation and structure.

There are 10 points that are regarded as important about the Aboriginal kinship system.

  1. Kinship is an integral part of the total social organisation. The tribal members are sorted into categories with names used in each tribe. Relatives-in-law are often placed in the same categories as consanguineal relatives, though qualifying names can be given to them. Ideally, husbands and wives are related to each other as kin, though it can be in a classificatory sense rather than real kinship.
  2. Classificatory kinship is used throughout Aboriginal Australia. For example, if a man addresses another man with a particular kin term he will use the same kin term for his full brother. A kin term applied to a woman will also apply to all her full sisters. This system is a formal structure, in the implementation of it in actual cases differences are recognised and in practice the equivalence is rarely exact or complete, at least as it refers to adults. Attitudes varied according to the closeness of the ties. A person's father was never confused with a nominal one, or of an own brother being confused with a classificatory one such as a father's brother's son or a mother's sister's son. In some cases there may appear to be almost complete identification, as between a man and a person he calls his 'own' son, but he can explain the relationship by saying, for instance, that the boy's father is his own close brother, and that he has helped to rear the boy as his own. The social aspect is all important. Opposite sex siblings are equivalent for other purposes. In some systems a man uses much the same terms for his sister's children as she does. They may reciprocate, using terms that associate him socially with her. Correspondingly, both siblings may use identical terms for his children. An example comes from north-eastern Arnhem Land. In this system a man calls his own children gadu and they call him baba (baba is also a term for father in Cantonese and Mandarin, the different Chinese dialects placing different emphasis on the first and last parts of the word. Did Zheng He's fleet visit Arnhem Land on his voyage to southeast Asia?), and his sister mugal-baba; a woman calls her own children wagu, and her brother uses the same term for her children.
  3. Some relationships are thought of as being more binding than others. This is the case with same sex siblings, where conflict is ideally at a minimum - though brothers may compete for the same women and this situation is exacerbated in many areas by the levirate (The passing of a widow to her dead husband's younger brother). In some parts of Australia sibling rivalry is much more apparent than in others. It is generally modified or kept under control by common religious interests which are of dominant concern. Sisters are often close friends and this was often reinforced when they were also co-wives. Competition for husbands or sweethearts is less noticeable between sisters, at least partly, because they can and may share the same husband. A man can have multiple wives if he wishes, and his circumstances permit it. In all such families there can be only 1 man. As a result there is likely to more competition among men. Children of same sex siblings are classified together, while opposite sex siblings may be distinguished by different terms. The local group organisation is underlain be the structural principle equivalence of same sex siblings. Thus for this purpose, a man's father's father, father's father's brothers, father, brother's brothers, brothers, father's brothers' sons, sons, and brothers' sons are classified together. The same applies to his mother, his mother, mother's brother, mother's brother's son, etc.
  4. The statuses of mother's brother and father's sister is an extension of the sibling relationship. This status involved special obligations and responsibilities in nearly all Aboriginal societies that could be combined with avoidance taboos. Such persons often have an important role in the initiation rituals of their brother's son or daughter, or sister's son or daughter. There is often great attachment in the relationship between a man and his father's sister. But there are often taboos of some kind between the man and the wives or husbands of these kin. This is usually because of their role in providing for their actual or classificatory nephews, or husbands for their nieces. This is the case whether or not cross-cousin marriage is preferred. The kin positions of the mother's brother and the father's sister are pivotal and crucial.
  5. The relationship between people from different generation levels is not simply an extension of the parent-child bond. It signifies a difference in status and authority, if not in age, in terms of superordination-subordination. That is, it suggests horizontal stratification on the basis of status and kinship positioning. People related to each other as grandparent and grandchild are often drawn closely together for certain purposes, as those of succeeding generations are for others, and this is often reflected in the terminology used. This is usually a symmetrical relationship, in contrast to the possibility of asymmetrical relations for those under (4). It usually signifies mutual aid and respect, in the case of the grandparent, a teaching-learning relationship. But it can also mean that in some cases a person may marry into the generation of a grandparent or grandchild. Generation levels in this sense are not reckoned in terms of chronological age. They are formal divisions based on relative status. For example, when a man marries for the first time in his 30s, has several children, and whether or not he marries in between, takes another wife later at the age of about 50 or 60. If he married his first wife when she reached puberty she may still be bearing children. There may be a gap of 20 years or more between surviving children of one mother and father and it may be even wider between the children of one father and different mothers. In other societies around the world this is not an uncommon situation. In this case polygyny and the classificatory system complicate it. To at least some extent there would be 'equals' within a person's own generation level - brothers and sisters, cross-cousins, age-mates, etc. Some with authority over him, directly or indirectly, would be included in the generation level above him - father, mother, father's sister, father's sister's husband, mother's brother, mother's brother's wife, possibly mother-in-law, father-in-law, etc. Deference, and in some cases avoidance, are relevant here. In some systems a degree of constraint is present in some relationships, even within his own generation level, as in the case of a wife's brother, or a sister's husband. Constraint or partial avoidance can be the rule between between a man and all the women he calls sisters. Relations usually revolve around superordination-subordination in the generation below. A person's own children, brother's children (classified as his own), sister's children, etc. In some areas avoidance relationships are present, usually between a man or woman and the men they call daughter's husband. Formally, a man might be a generation level above his wife's mother. For example, if he marries his father's sister's daughter's daughter's daughter. That is, kin positioning and generation level represent only one aspect of status relations.
  6. Reciprocity in marriage is part of the wider principle. Betrothal arrangements underline the fact that marriage is not simply a relationship between 2 people or nuclear families. In all tribes, in one way or another, there are structural implications. Those receiving a wife must make a repayment, at the time or at a future date, and the repayment doesn't have to be in kind. Men exchanging sisters or women exchanging brothers, as in bilateral cross-cousin marriages, is the simplest arrangement of this repayment. This can mean that a mother's brother's wife is actually a father's sister. Maternal and paternal cross-cousins are often terminologically equivalent. The same principle applies when the marriage is between 2 moieties, different clans or local descent groups. It is at least potentially implicit in the section and subsection system. There may be a delay in this reciprocity. Marriage reciprocity also involves the exchange of gifts as well as of men and women. There are also rights and privileges, obligations and responsibilities associated with the exchange. Where elopement is not institutionalised it represents a threat to this system. It upsets the balance of relationships between the persons or units involved and in that particular cycle of marriage arrangements.
  7. The basic kinship is the nuclear family, as well as being the basic social unit. With its core of husband and wife or wives it is also the usual medium of achieving sexual satisfaction. The structure of the majority of Aboriginal kin systems allowed for the opportunity for both men and women to find extra-marital sexual partners on a transient-mundane or transient-ritual or even romantic basis. This was achieved with the potential replacement of spouses, as well as allowing for parent surrogates. Extra-marital relations conventionally fit into this broad framework. In some places, as with the Dieri, the provision of secondary wives and as in western Arnhem Land the provision of secondary husbands.
  8. Kinship is always involved in interpersonal relationships. Usually kinship doesn't indicate relationship between groups or classes, simply between persons within those social groups. In north-eastern Arnhem Land the relationship between mada is an exception. Kinships are usually oriented genealogically with respect to any given person. Almost every person in that particular society can be expected to have a slightly different perspective within it.
  9. There are a number of factors that distinctive patterning is dependent on:

    a. The number of kinship groups distinctly recognised and terminologically separated out. In some cases, as among the southern Aluridja, the few terms used do little more than indicate sex, generation level and marriage relationships. The people of  north-eastern Arnhem Land had 25 main terms.

    b. The preferred marriage type and the series of reciprocal exchanges associated with it.

    c. The question of socially acceptable alternative marriages that could entail the rearrangement of personal genealogies and kin alignments, with the associated reshuffling of terms.

    d. The question of irregular marriages that are thought to be wrong but not crucially wrong and those that are consistently condemned, and in the old tradition subject to severe sanctions, such as unions considered to be incestuous.

    e. Factors influencing the range of marriage choice and the terminology used, such as local descent group, moiety, subsection, section  and exogamy.

    f. The method of distribution of responsibilities, rights and duties among various types of kin.

    g. The form of totemism present in the area.

    h. The fact that kinship systems were often modified to accommodate introduction of section or subsection system.

    i. Questions of descent.

  10. Descent is central to reckoning the kinship system, relationships to and through one parent in terms of unilineal descent is emphasised. Overall kinship is bilateral. Recognition of descent in terms of other social categories can also be bilateral. Usually one is selected over the other, or one is made subordinate to the other.

    Aboriginal Australia

Sources & Further reading

Berndt, R. M & C. H. , 1964, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd.



Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 30/09/2011

Journey Back Through Time
Experience Australia
Aboriginal Australia
National Parks
Photo Galleries
Site Map
                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading