Australian Aboriginal kinship

Australian Aboriginal kinship is the system of law governing social interaction, particularly marriage, in traditional Aboriginal culture. It is an integral part of the culture of every Aboriginal group across Australia.

The main element is the division of clans within the same language group into skin groups, or moieties. In its simplest form, clans are divided into two skin groups. There may be four divisions (see Martu), while more complex systems can be divided into eight (see Pintupi and below).

The system dictates who may marry whom - it is always taboo to marry into your own skin group - creating strong incest avoidance laws and strong bonds across clans through exogamous relations. While it can be determined at birth who will marry whom, love marriages were not uncommon, so long as they were within the skin system.

This system is invaluable, especially during drought or lack of resources, having cousins and skin sisters and brothers in other clans. It also creates obligations to care for those people in their time of need. Even in traditional ball games, teams were divided along these lines.

Each skin group has certain totems associated with it. Some Aboriginal groups, such as the Yolngu, include plants, animals and all aspects of the environment, as part of their respective skin groups.

A person of the same skin group, of the same generation, is called "brother" or "sister". There are names for maternal aunts and uncles and different names for paternal aunts and uncles. Additionally, there are strong avoidance relationships that need to be observed based on this system.

Some common kinship terms

The skin group classification is cyclical in nature, changing with each generation. Non-Aboriginal people are often confounded to hear Aborigines refer to their great-grandmother as their daughter, or their great-grandaughter as their mother. They are actually referring to the fact that those relatives are in the same skin group, as well as acknowledging the cyclical nature of the system.

For traditionally oriented Aborigines, this system is a major foundation of their existence and way of viewing the world. As such, if a non-Aboriginal person is around their culture for any extended period, they must be adopted. This is not strictly adoption in the Western sense, but the assignment of a skin name so that that individual has a skin group and may interact with people in the "proper way"; knowing whom to avoid, whom to call sister, etc.

Many Aboriginal groups, particularly in the southeast of Australia, have lost this knowledge due to their forced removal to missions and children's homes, where many language groups mixed with each other, and Aboriginal language and cultural practice was forbidden.

Below are a few examples of different kinship systems from across Australia:

Systems with two skin groups


The Pitjantjatjara of northern South Australia have two moiety groups:

ngana nt arka (lit. we-bone) 'our side'
tjanamilytjan (lit. they flesh) 'their side'

However, they do not use skin names.


For the Yol?u of north-east Arnhem Land, life is divided into two skin groups: Dhuwa and Yirritja. Each of these is represented by people of a number of different groups, each with their own lands, languages and philosophies:

Skin name Clan groups
Yirritja Gumatj, Gupapuyngu, Wangurri, Ritharrngu, Mangalili,Munyuku, Madarrpa, Warramiri, Dhalwangu, Liyalanmirri.
Dhuwa Rirratjingu, Galpu, Djambarrpuyngu, Golumala, Marrakulu,Marrangu, Djapu, Datiwuy, Ngaymil, Djarrwark.

A Yirritja person must always marry a Dhuwa person and vice versa. If a man or woman is Dhuwa, their mother will be Yirritja and their father will be Dhuwa. In cases where marriage does not adhere to the skin system, if a Yirritja man marries a Yirritja woman, for instance, the children take the skin that is opposite to their mother rather than the same skin as their father. The children of such a marriage will be Dhuwa.

Kinship relations are also mapped onto the lands owned by the Yolngu through their hereditary estates - so everything is either Yirritja or Dhuwa - every fish, stone, river, etc, belongs to one or the other moiety.

Systems with eight skin groups


The Lardiil of Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria have eight skin groups, shown here with some of their totems:

Male skin group Totems Can only marryfemale skin group Children will be
Ngarrijbalangi Rainbird, shooting star,egret Burrarangi Bangariny
Bangariny Brown shark, turtle Yakimarr Ngarrijbalangi
Buranyi Crane, salt water, sleeping turtle Kangal
Balyarriny Black tiger shark,sea turtle Kamarrangi
Burrarangi Lightning, rough sea,black dingo Ngarrijbalangi
Yakimarr Seagull, barramundi,grey shark Bangariny
Kangal Barramundi,grey shark Buranyi
Kamarrangi Rock, pelican, brolga,red dingo Balyarriny

Each Lardiil person belongs to one of these groups. Their paternal grandfather's skin group determines their own; so a Balyarriny man or woman will have a Balyarriny grandfather. A Ngarrijbalangi person can only marry a Burrarangi, a Bangariny a Yakimarr, a Buranyi a Kangal and a Balyarriny a Kamarrangi, and vice versa for each.

Once a person's skin group is known, their relationship to any other Lardiil can be determined. A Ngarrijbalangi is a 'father' to a Bangariny, a 'father-in-law' to a Yakimarr and a 'son' to another Bangariny, either in a social sense or purely through linearship.

The mechanics of the Lardiil skin system means that generations of males cycle back and forth between two skins. Ngarrijbalangi is father to Bangariny and Bangariny is father to Ngarrijbalangi and similarly for the three other sets of skins. Generations of women, however, cycle through four skins before arriving back at the starting point. This means that a woman has the same skin name as her great-great-grandmother.


The Pintupi of the Western Desert also have eight skin groups, made more complex by distinct prefixes for male and female skin names; "Tj" for males, "N" for females. The Warlpiri system is almost the same:

Gender Skin name First marriage
Children will be
Male Tjapaltjarri Nakamarra Tjungurrayi, Nungurrayi
Female Napaltjarri Tjakamarra Tjupurrula, Napurrula
Male Tjapangati Nampitjinpa Tjapanangka, Napanangka
Female Napangati Tjampitjinpa Tjangala, Nangala
Male Tjakamarra Napaltjarri Tjupurrula, Napurrula
Female Nakamarra Tjapaltjarri Tjungurrayi, Nungurrayi
Male Tjampitjinpa Napangati Tjangala, Nangala
Female Nampitjinpa Tjapangati Tjapanangka, Napanangka
Male Tjapanangka Napurrula Tjapangati, Napangati
Female Napanangka Tjupurrula Tjakamarra, Nakamarra
Male Tjungurrayi Nangala Tjapaltjarri, Napaltjarri
Female Nungurrayi Tjangala Tjampitjinpa, Nampitjinpa
Male Tjupurrula Napanangka Tjakamarra, Nakamarra
Female Napurrula Tjapanangka Tjapangati, Napangati
Male Tjangala Nungurrayi Tjampitjinpa, Nampitjinpa
Female Nangala Tjungarayyi Tjapaltjarri, Napaltjarri

Each person therefore has a patrimoiety and a matrimoiety, a father's and a mother's skin group.

See also


Index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

This article is based on "Australian Aboriginal kinship" from the free encyclopedia Wikipedia ( It is licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation Licencse. In the Wikipedia you can find a list of the authors by visiting the following address: