Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Traditional tribal structures in New England

I have become a little confused about the traditional Aboriginal social and language structures in New England. This post simply records my original understanding because this is still the base that I am using. I have yet to update it properly.

We start with the family group, often a group of related families that moved and lived together. The size varied depending upon the ecological richness of the area in question. Richer areas allowed greater population concentrations.

Moving up, the next level was the clan or horde, essentially family groups linked together who recognised a connection. This was important in marriage rules. Kinship rules could be complex. My impression is that the clan or horde was central here.

Again, and this is only an impression, ecological richness was important. In poorer areas, clan territory might be quite extensive. In ecologically richer areas, smaller and more self contained.

Moving further up, we have language groups.

When I first started research, I thought of the map of Aboriginal languages as a sheet of graph paper. Each square represented a clan or horde. Each square could understand the language around them.

Language shifted across the graph paper because of the impact of distance, leading to growing variations related to distance.

At no stage did I see Aboriginal structures as constant. My hypothesis was that migration to the Australian continent had come in waves, each wave speaking somewhat different languages. As settlement spread, so languages diffused.

Let me try to illustrate by example.

Assume that group A arrived. They all spoke the same language. New country allowed them to increase population and occupy greater territory. As they did, variations began to occur in the language.

Group B arrived with a somewhat different language. They may have come to the same or a different area.

If the same, then they placed pressure on the existing inhabitants, encouraging them to move to new areas. If different, then the same process happened with group a.

This process was repeated over tens of thousands of years. At some point, the intake of new people stopped. From then, we are only dealing with the dynamics of demographic change and people movement. This led to further geographic shifts.

While generally constant in the short term, boundaries (language, horde, family) constantly shifted over longer periods. Occupation patterns in 1788 represented a point in a very long history.

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