Aborigines are Australia's original inhabitants and until the late 1700's -1800's the aborigine had little contact with Western civilization. Local dialects and the territorial nature of bands provided the different social groups their distinctive identity. The Mardudjara (Mardu) aborigines are part of the Western Desert cultural block in Australia (Tonkinson, 1978). The Mardu culture, societal system, etc. has never been recorded in its pristine state as anthropologic researchers did not study the group until well after alien influences had occurred. Nonetheless, the nomadic lifestyle of the Mardu was dictated by the harsh climate in which they live and they are an extremely interesting group. Nomadic groups like the Mardu often have a perception of gender or a cultural gender schema that fits in functionally with their lifestyle and is based on a division of labor and status that allows the group to maintain an identify, clearly defined roles, and survive in the harsh environment in which they live.
Description of the Case Study
The following case study is taken from (Tonkinson, 1978). The Mardu represent a band of aborigines that originally inhabited the western desert area of Australia, but who now occupy the fringes of the desert. "Mardu," means "man" (or "person") and is used as a collective label because there is no such customary term. Different groups that make up the Mardu are based on dialect-name groupings such as the Budijarra, Gardujarra, Giyajarra, Gurajarra, and Manyjilyjarra. The Mardu live in one of the harshest environments in the world where rainfall, the central environmental resource, is very sparse and highly unpredictable. Permanent bodies of water are rare and the daily and seasonal temperatures can be quite variable. The terrain is also harsh including sand ridges, stony and sandy plains that are covered in spinifex grass, hilly areas with narrow gorges, acacia scrub thickets, and creek beds with eucalyptus trees. There is a large variation of animal life such as kangaroos, emus, snakes, lizards, birds, and insects which with grass seeds, tubers, berries, fruits, and nectars are the staples of the aboriginal diet. The Mardu are often on the move in search for water sources and food.
The most visible group for the Mardu is the band. Typically the Mardu live in small bands (15-25) most of the time, except for one or two times a year when larger gatherings would briefly form for religious or social reasons. Bands are composed of several family groups that camp together. The geographic areas that the bands tend to remain in can be identified or mapped by the main dialect of those bands. Within every dialect-named area there are a number of bands and also at least one "estate." Estates can be thought of as valued heartlands that contain the major sacred locations, important water sources, and comprised the locus of the estate group. Traditionally the Mardu lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers whose movements basically remained within a circumscribed territory defined by the availability of water, food, tradition, and religious beliefs. Due to this the Mardu traditionally had to be flexible and mobile. The maintain few possessions outside of tools for hunting and gathering food, wear little or no clothes, and their perception of home deals with their band and kin groups.
The Mardu kinship structure is bilateral insofar as male and female lineages are given roughly equal stress, but the patriline is more important in the establishment of residence preferences and there is a preference for children to be born in or near the father's estate. Estate groups and bands are inclined to have a core of people that are related patrilineally. The Mardu do not subscribe to or name lineages or have clans based on lineage. Kinship terminology is complicated to outsiders with the society divided into four categories. There are 17 different terms of address used by each sex and a complex set of dual-reference terms. There is also a generational emphasis; for instance, everyone in one's grandparent and grandchild generations are combined under two nearly identical terms that differ only for the sex of the person being addressed. These stipulations provide the Mardu with patterned sets of behaviors ranging from avoidance to joking relationships that are associated and considered appropriate for each kin term.
Religion, like kinship practices are important and pervasive in aboriginal societies. Religious beliefs are founded on the idea of an original creative era, "the Dreaming," when the world came into being. During this period life's rules were establishment by ancestral beings who were part animal, part human, and part spirit. Life is guided by spiritual authority, but there are no prayers or formal worship. Men control the potent inner secrets and are in charge of the ritual performances that guarantee the continuance of the Mardu society under the watchfulness of the omnipotent spiritual beings. Their sustained release of life force into the world is dependent on the observance of "the Law" and rituals. Everyone has links into the realm of the Dreaming via totemism as there is a range of benevolent and malevolent spirits. All Mardu participate in aspects of their religion but different rituals involve different roles or grades. Ceremonies surrounding death are not highly elaborated, the goal being to return the spirit to where it came. The Mardu do not believe in reincarnation.
Conceptualization of Gender
The conceptualization of gender includes male/female, boy/girl, manhood/womanhood and all the roles with which these titles encompass. Now interestingly, most cultures acknowledge the eventual male-female paring will lead to the birth of more children. However, according to Tonkinson (1978) the Mardu did not link human sexual relations to the birth of children until after European contact. Instead, child-spirits picked the mother and then entered her body a number of ways, often as an animal eaten or some other way. However, despite this, the Mardu schema/conceptualization of gender does have functional aspects that relate to the lifestyle of the people.
It is interesting to trace how the perceived differences in roles for the different genders progress. At birth no special rights are associated with the gender of the baby. Infants are given plenty of attention (some might say too much attention and too little discipline) and can be nursed by multiple mothers. Nursing may continue until the children are three or four. As children they grow up they play together until about the age of six. Most of these are games that model adult functions including playing at sexual intercourse, and even adultery, for which they may be corrected by older adults and reminded of their eventual roles as adults). At this point there is little gender differentiation. At about age 7 or 8 boys join their peers and older unmarried males at the bachelor camp and girls sleep in camps with older female relatives. Sexual dichotomy of play changes as boys play at hunting (actually hunting small game and gathering and girls begin to contribute to gathering and other female chores. At age 11-12 females will soon be given to their husbands-males will go through long initiation rights and not marry for 10-15 years after adolescence. Once the females begin to reach sexual maturity they can be promised to males for marriage purposes, typically one who is often much older than them.
For males the elaborate male initiation rite starts with a ritual for nose piercing, then a very elaborate circumcision ritual that mimics death and rebirth and has the male eating his own foreskin, followed later by a subincision ritual that leads to the male having to squat to urinate like a female, followed later by religious training and initiation, and then by being introduced to other bands. The time span for these all rituals to take place is several years from nose piercing to religious indoctrination. The circumcision ritual is particularly elaborate with the members of the male's band, other bands, male and female mourners, relatives who perform the operation, etc. all involved
Once fully ready to take on the role of husband and father males often take more than one wife. The division of labor between men and women is quite clear and gender roles are well-defined. Women do very little hunting (they may kill small game like lizards), do most of the food gathering, are responsible for early child rearing, and bring in about 60% of the food intake, whereas men do the hunting, are responsible for the maintenance of the community well being through religious activities, and provide protection. Women do a lot of the food prep, but men actually cook larger game before bringing it in as this helps with preparation and preservation. There are instances of adultery and elopement, most often by women, but these are rare and taken seriously by the band. Kinship rules regulate marriages, not religious rules so that close relatives do not wed (marriage is allowed between cross cousins). Men are considered superior in the marriage and may physically "correct" a wife not fulfilling her duties.
According to the Mardu an ideal person will share without…