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An Exploration of Group Theory and Yolngu Kinship Structures

Murngin is a name given to a loosely affiliated group of Australian aborigines in the Northern Territory of Australia. They were so named by W. Lloyd Warner in 1930, an American anthropologist who was one of the first to study the complicated kinship structures of native Australians. This term is contested in the anthropological community, as it has negative connotations when translated, and actually refers to several different tribes. For the purposes of this paper, I will use the term Yolngu, which refers to the same grouping of tribes but is marginally less offensive.

Several other suggestions have been made, including ‘Wulamba’, but by the time this re-naming was taking place, the use of the term ‘Murngin’ was so widespread that it is continually used today, especially in regards to “The Murngin Problem”, which is how anthropologists have referred to their kinship structures and its resistance to classification (Liu, Murngin 20-21). Mathematics has been applied in various ways to the kinship system of the Yolngu in order to solve this problem:

The mathematical analysis of the [Yolngu] System proves that the joint operation of anthropology and mathematics leads to the solution of a hitherto insolvable problem. Only by a combination of the two disciplines may solutions to such problems be reached. (Liu, Murngin 6) The Yolngu have traditionally been hunters and gatherers, leading a semi-nomadic lifestyle. This is true of many Australian aborigines, particularly in the Northern Territory, although this way of life has been sharply curtailed by the settlement of white colonialists throughout Australia.

In his work on Yolngu kinship structures, Pin-Hsiung Liu has pointed out that: In contrast to the simplicity of their way of life, the kinship structure constructed by the [Yolngu] is so amazingly complicated that it has been honored as one of the greatest feats of social engineering human society has ever produced. (Murngin 21) While this paper will make clear just how intricate the Yolngu kinship structure is, I do not wish to assume that the lifestyle of the Yolngu is any more or less simple than that of modern American urbanites.

Liu’s statement, while praising Yolngu accomplishments, is also overly enthusiastic in its amazement that such a simplistic society could come up with such a complex kinship structure. Furthermore, although we may consider the Yolngu simple in that they do not own many possessions which many consider vital (such as SUVs or Discmans) their entire social structure is highly complex. I would caution against any such patronizing tendencies in the analysis of the Yolngu and try to resist them myself, although I may not always succeed.

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