Claude Lévi-Strauss called Australian Aborigines the “intellectual aristocrats” of the primitive world, having in mind their complex symbolic life and social organization. Australian Aboriginal systems of kinship and marriage are famously recondite. Generations of anthropology teachers have dragged students through these systems, as earlier generations of Latin teachers dragged their pupils through “amo, amas, amat.” Working out all the details can indeed be tricky. The natives themselves have been known to sketch diagrams, and argue about the correct answers.
Here are two general principles that help understand what’s going on. Both principles are found widely, but not universally, in Australia. Outside Australia, the first principle is widespread (but not familiar to most Westerners), the second is rare (but found a few other places, like western Amazonia).
1) Most Aborigines, when they label their kin, and divide them into marriageable and non-marriageable, follow a version of so-called Dravidian rules. (As the name suggests, these are common in southern India, but this isn’t strong evidence for an Australia-India historical connection, because Dravidian rules are found all over the place.) According to the rules, Father’s Brother = Father (i.e. Father’s Brother is called by the same term as Father), but Mother’s Brother gets a different term. Mother’s Sister = Mother (i.e. Mother’s Sister is called by the same term as Mother), but Father’s Sister gets a different term. With perfect consistency, these equations are carried over to their children. Father’s Brother’s Child = Father’s Child = Sibling, and Mother’s Sister’s Child = Mother’s Child = Sibling. (There may be further distinctions, like breaking down Sibling into Brother and Sister, but I ignore these here.) On the other hand, Mother’s Brother’s Child and Father’s Sister’s Child are not equated with siblings. Very commonly, these principles are used to determine who can marry whom. Parallel cousins (those classified as Sibling) are covered by the incest taboo, and off limits for marriage. Cross cousins (those not classified as Sibling) aren’t covered by the taboo, and may be preferred spouses.
2) Aborigines do something unusual with Dravidian rules in the children’s generation. Fathers and mothers generally classify their children differently. There are usually one or more terms covering Man’s Child and one or more different terms covering Woman’s Child. We could call these kin types “fatherling” (the children to whom one is father) and “motherling” (the children to whom was is mother.) These terms are commonly extended to other kin. Ask a man who his fatherlings are and he will name his own children, then his brothers’ children (after all, they call him father). Ask a woman who her motherlings are and she will label her own children, then her sisters’ children (after all, they call her mother). But … this is the tricky bit … Ask a man who his motherlings are, and he will name his sister’s children (the children to whom he is Mother’s Brother). Ask a woman who her fatherlings are, and she will name her brother’s children (the children to whom she is Father’s Sister).
This means that the classification of kin in the children’s generation is a mirror image of classification in the parents’ generation. And at some point some clever Aborigine noticed that under this system all relatives fall into just four super-classes – anthropologists call them sections – and everyone can agree on where to draw the boundaries between them. (This is not the case in more standard Dravidian systems, which, like most Western systems, don’t distinguish Man’s Child from Woman’s Child.) So you can go ahead and assign names to these sections, give them totemic animals, and so on. For any individual there will be
a) his or her own section (which also includes Sibling, and some grandkin: Father’s Father, Mother’s Mother, Fatherling’s Fatherling, and Motherling’s Motherling),
b) a section for his/her Father (and Father’s Sister, and Fatherling), a
c) a section for his/her Mother (and Mother’s Brother, and Motherling), and
d) a section for his/her potential Spouse (and Sibling-in-law, and some grandkin: Father’s Mother, Mother’s Father, Fatherling’s Motherling, and Motherling’s Fatherling)
There’s a lot of variation on basic themes across Australia (e.g. systems with eight subsections). We’re pretty sure the labels came first, and the division into so-called sections came later. Not everybody does sections, and some groups have adopted the section system even thought they don’t have the corresponding terms.
If you just skimmed through the part above (that’s OK, it’s not on the exam) here’s an analogy. We (at least most readers of this blog) aren’t used to sorting out kin the way Aborigines do, but we’re used to the idea of voting for candidates supported by different political parties. And we’re also used to the idea that different voting rules have different consequences: a first-past-the-post rule favors a two party system; proportional representation favors many parties. To anyone not used to voting at all, this might seem very confusing, but it’s the stuff of politics in democratic societies. By the same token, odd quirks in the way people categorize kin can have important consequences. Human beings, even in technologically simple societies, are not just adapting to their natural environment, but also navigating a universe of social rules – what Aborigines call “the Law” (English gloss).