For many thousands of years, Indigenous Australians have been linked by complex family-like networks stretching across the continent – from the rainforests and coastal environments, to the arid interior and tropical north. These sparse and widely scattered populations were also highly diverse, comprising roughly 250 separate language groups. But despite the challenges of distance and cultural-linguistic difference, Australia’s hunter-gatherer communities were organised on an epic scale in a vast mesh of interconnected kinship systems.
From the 1860s scholars began to recognise that Indigenous Australians had unique ways of talking about social relationships. Moreover, the enormous scale and complexity of Australian social organisation presented a challenge to the nineteenth-century view that indigenous people were mere ‘primitives’. Since that important turning point, committed scholars — both settlers and indigenous people — have documented the unique kin terminologies, as they appear in Australia’s many indigenous languages. This process of careful documentation continues today. Although many languages have been tragically lost as a consequence of colonisation, traditional social organisation has proved remarkably resilient, resisting or adapting to new circumstances.
Funded by the Australian Research Council, the AustKin project is gathering Aboriginal kinship terms together in one place in order to gain a clearer contintent-wide view of social organisation in Australia. In the first phase of the project, team-members assembled an unparalleled database of words for family members—’mother’, ‘mother’s brother’, ‘father’s sister’ son’, ‘mother’s brother’s daughter’ etc—across hundreds of languages. For the second phase, a separate database is being developed to record social categories — commonly known as ‘skins’ — that divide the Indigenous social universe into two, four or eight groupings. Skins provide a shortcut for calculating the appropriate relationship between two individuals who meet for the first time and who need to know what pre-assigned ‘family’ role to occupy.
Using empirical methods from linguistics and anthropology, terms from both databases have been systematically analysed and compared. As a result of this careful work, we now have new models of past migrations, land connections and cultural change, providing fresh insight into how Aboriginal people have organised social interaction and created enduring societies.