views updated May 29 2018


ETHNONYMS: Arrernte, Arunta


Identification. Aranda refers first of all to a language group. There have been at least eleven dialects in this group, each spoken by a different cultural bloc living in the desert areas of central Australia. The most northerly of these groups, the Anmatjera, Kaititj, Iliaura (or Alyawarra), Jaroinga, and Andakerebina, are not usually known as Aranda, even though they are Aranda speakers. Aranda is a postcontact denomination, now commonly accepted. It normally refers only to the following groups, some of which have died out by now or lost their distinct identities: Western Aranda, Northern Aranda, Eastern Aranda, Central Aranda, Upper Southern Aranda (or Pertame), and Lower Southern Aranda (or Alenyentharrpe).

Location. Arandic groups have been distributed throughout the area of the Northern Territory, Queensland, and South Australia between 132° and 139° S and 20° and 27° E. They have mainly occupied the relatively well-watered Mountainous areas of this desert region, although several groups, particularly around the northern, eastern, and southern fringes of the Aranda-speaking area, have very extensive sandhill regions within their territories.

Demography. The total population of Aranda speakers in precontact times probably did not exceed 3,000. The population fell very sharply after the coming of Whites, mainly through the introduction of new diseases. At the present time the total population figure is comparable to that of the precontact era and is rising, although the spatial and cultural distribution of that figure has shifted dramatically. Major settlements at or near Hermannsburg, Alice Springs, and Santa Teresa account for the bulk of the Aranda population.

Linguistic Affiliation. Australian Aboriginal languages, of which there are some 250, form a distinct family. Of the Arandic dialects, the most commonly heard today are Western Aranda (Hermannsburg / Alice Springs district) and Eastern Aranda (Alice Springs / Santa Teresa district). The total number of Aranda speakers probably does not exceed 3,000, one-half of whom would be speakers of Western Aranda. Most people are competent in more than one dialect and many are fluent in second and third languages, including various forms of English. Loan words, largely from Western Desert and Warlpiri neighbors, are commonly used and integrated into Aranda. Arandic languages now have a number of literary forms for use in publishing and bilingual education.

History and Cultural Relations

Aborigines have lived in central Australia for at least 20,000 years, although few details of their history are known. The Aranda were nomadic hunters and gatherers when Whites first came to Central Australia in the 1860s, but from the 1870s onward they steadily moved into a more sedentary (though still mobile) way of life on missions, pastoral stations, and government settlements. Relations between Aranda groups and between Aranda groups and their neighbors (mostly Western Desert people) have varied from friendship, alliance, and intermarriage, on the one hand, to enmity and hostility on the other. Relations with European interests have also varied greatly over the years, ranging from guerrilla warfare and cattle stealing to enforced or voluntary settlement and work on missions and cattle stations. European attitudes and practices towards Aranda people have also varied greatlyfrom tolerance to bigotry, from laissez-faire to paternalism, and from protectionism to murder. Since World War II, when development in central Australia greatly increased, the Aranda have lived through the official government policy of assimilation. They are now experiencing the effects of the relatively new policy of self-determination, which has caused their lives to be increasingly affected by Aboriginal bureaucracies.


Although the Aranda used to be nomadic hunters and gatherers, they had very clear notions of homelands. Within these territories there were well-trodden circuits that people would use during the yearly round. Camps were normally made at named places, well watered, and usually very closely associated with mythological beings. The size of these camps changed dramatically from time to time as members left in order to visit relatives or new people joined. Sometimes a camp might consist of no more than a single extended family, while at other times it might be occupied by some 200 people gathered together for lengthy ceremonies. People spent much of their time in the open air, although temporary shelters and windbreaks were commonly built to protect them from sun, wind, and rain. Since contact with Whites, these same shelters and windbreaks have been used on missions and pastoral stations, although many of the materials used to build them have been new (e.g., tarpaulin and corrugated iron). In recent decades there has been an increasing use of houses built of more durable materials (like cement and brick) and the provision of electricity and reticulated water. These houses and facilities may be found in large settlement areas like Alice Springs, Hermannsburg, and Santa Teresa, or at outstations, which are relatively new settlements occupied by small extended-family groups at places of personal and mythological significance.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Aranda were originally hunters and gatherers. Large game animals included red kangaroos, euros (wallaroos), and emus; smaller game animals included various marsupials, reptiles, and birds. Many insects, fruits, and vegetables were gathered, including grass seeds that were ground into a flour to make bread. Dingoes were sometimes domesticated and would occasionally act as hunting dogs. As White settlement increasingly restricted traditional hunting and gathering grounds, the Aranda became increasingly reliant on Western foodstuffs, particularly white flour, sugar, and tea. Today, some hunting and a little gathering take place, but people mainly rely on the meat, jam, bread, etc. that can be bought from supermarkets and local stores. Government funding of social security payments and community development projects is now of considerable economic importance.

Industrial Arts. In their hunting and gathering days the Aranda, like all Aborigines, had a fairly simple tool kit, consisting mainly of spears, spear throwers, carrying trays, grinding stones, and digging sticks. There were no specialist professions, and any man or woman could make equipment to hunt and gather. Many men and women have now acquired European-style professional skills.

Trade. In one sense, trade was, and still is, endemic to Aranda social life, since family members and groups are bound to each other through various kinds of gift and service exchange. In precontact times, long-distance trade extending far outside the Aranda-speaking area was carried out for Certain specialty goods, like ochers and pituri (native tobacco). Today the Aranda produce arts and crafts for the local and national tourist and art markets.

Division of Labor. Adult men are the main hunters of large game, while women and children, sometimes with men, hunt smaller game and gather fruits and vegetables. Women are the primary care givers to children up to adolescence, but men tend to take a good deal of interest in the training of adolescent boys. In the contemporary environment women tend to take care of most domestic work, while men often seek work on pastoral stations and the like. Many educated Aranda now live and work in bureaucratic organizations and some are beginning to question the ideology of the sexual division of labor.

Land Tenure. As individuals, Aranda people have rights in land through all four grandparents and may acquire rights by other means as well. There is a strong belief that one belongs to or owns the country of one's paternal grandfather and that one has a very strong connection to the country of one's maternal grandfather. Ultimately, land is managed and owned by rights to ritual property and this property is distributed through a complexly negotiable political framework. In precontact times, bands would wander over the territories of a local alliance network and be more or less economically self-sufficient. Today, these territorial alliance networks still exist, but the extent to which Aranda people can dispose of their own countries is made problematic by White settlement. The bulk of Aranda territory is occupied by White pastoralists, although a small amount is owned and managed (as recognized in Australian law) by Aranda people.


Kin Groups and Descent. In hunting and gathering times the Aranda were organized into nomadic bands of bilateral kindred. The size and composition of these bands fluctuated greatly over time. Today, small settlements are organized along similar lines and mobility is very high. Larger settlements tend to be organized as neighborhoods, again reflecting the importance of extended family structures. In certain respects, descent is cognatic; in others it is ambilineal, but with a patrilineal bias. People regard themselves as part of a single, territorially based, cognatic group, descended from one or more common ancestors, but for certain purposes they also recognize separate lines of inheritance through males and females, often affording a kind of priority to agnation.

Kinship Terminology. The Aranda have given their own name to a kinship type in which marriage is enjoined with a classificatory mother's mother's brother's daughter's daughter. At the time of contact some Aranda groups employed a subsection system (with eight marriage classes), while most employed a section or Kariera system (with only four classes). Today the subsection is used by the majority of Aranda groups. Moieties are recognized but not named.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages were originally arranged between families on a promise system, although this system has been increasingly eroded up to the present time. Today, people are just as likely to marry "sweethearts" as they are to marry into the "correct" families. The prescribed marriage category for a man is mother's mother's brother's daughter's daughter, but other categories have always been allowed. There has probably been a general increase in "wrong" marriages since Contact with Whites. In precontact times, bride-service was normal, with a man often remaining with his parents-in-law for some time before his promised wife matured to marriageable age. Polygyny was permissible, but it was not the norm; today it is extremely rare. Divorce and broken marriage promises have probably always been current. Marriage between dialect groups or between Aranda and non-Arandic Aborigines is common, and there is also a certain amount of marriage Between Aborigines and Whites, usually between Aboriginal women and White men.

Domestic Unit. A hearth group might consist of an elder man, his wife, and their unmarried children, together with a number of other relatives, such as parents, unmarried Siblings, and sons-in-law working bride-service. But because of the flexibility of hearth groups, both in terms of size and composition, it is difficult to say that even this unit would be typical.

Inheritance. The main heritable property, until recently, was land, together with the myths, ritual acts, and paraphernalia that still effectively act as title deeds to land. Rights in land and ritual property are open to intense politicking within the framework of ambilineal descent, although descent is not the only criterion used to qualify a person's claims. Historically, one's place of conception (or, less frequently, place of birth) has been important.

Socialization. Infants and children are heavily indulged by their parents until adolescence, when they tend to be disciplined for the first time. In childhood development the emphasis is on the fostering of independence and autonomy; hence deprivation and physical punishment are often frowned upon. A great many Aranda children now attend schools. Some of these schools cater to their peculiar needs and are bilingual.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The major sources of social difierentiation are sex and age. Outside of this there is very little specialization, although some individuals might be recognized as being more skillful than others in certain respects, such as traditional healing, and thus would be accorded more prestige. There is a strong egalitarian ethic, with an emphasis on Individual autonomy relative to sex and age. Some kindred groups can become more powerful or expand at the expense of others over time. Racial and ethnic differences can sometimes be very important in the organization of social life in the wider context.

Political Organization. Insofar as the Aranda have been and are politically autonomous, they are governed by elder men and to a lesser or less public extent by elder women. This authority tends to be land-based. Territories are first of all agnatically defined, although one can inherit rights in them through women. An elder's jurisdiction relates to ritual property belonging to the places in which he has acquired rights and to younger relatives who might handle that property. Male initiation was and still is an important disciplinary procedure in which elder men over many years exercise power and influence over younger men. Initiation is also the Channel by which juniors may themselves become respected elders. Political organization as a whole is coextensive with the Organization of kinship and marriage, with territorial groupings or dialect groups (or "tribes") being more or less synonymous with local alliance areas. This system now meshes with local and federal government systems in the Australian state.

Social Control. Learning to behave correctly is largely a matter of kinship obligations and these are learned throughout a person's lifetime. In early childhood one learns an ethic of generosity and compassion for one's fellows, which leads to a generalized sense of family identity. As a person grows older, he or she learns that certain relationships should be marked by respect or shame and that he or she has different responsibilities. Many infringements of law, usually to do with ritual property or marriage and access to women, are solved by mobility and asylum, but there are also different types of violent punishment (which have historically included the death penalty, the spearing of limbs, and rape).

Conflict. Conflict usually arises over sexual relations and access to ritual property, land, and locally generated wealth. It may manifest itself in sorcery accusations and violent feuding or "payback" killings. In many areas, particularly where populations are relatively dense, conflict has increased, partly because of the indiscriminate placing together of different Tribal peoples and partly because of access to alcohol.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Cosmology is marked by a division Between sky and earth, with the latter being the focus of close attention. There are a great many myths (or "dreamings") which tell of totemic ancestors who originally created the universe and everything within it. Some of these myths are secret and known only by a restricted group of men or women. There are also many noncreationist, nonesoteric stories suitable for children and public narration. Nowadays, much of this mythology operates in conjunction with Christian beliefs, stories, and hymns. The borrowing and trading of Religious knowledge across ethnic boundaries has always been common in central Australia. The totemic ancestors are regarded as being embodied in the ground and their spiritual essences pervade the land. The environment is also populated by various types of bad spirit beings and ghosts.

Religious Practitioners. There are no religious specialists as such, although the most senior men in local groups are often singled out as being religious "bosses." There have been many different types of ritual practice, though only some are vigorously carried out today. All adult men and women traditionally had the right to act out or sing or to supervise the acting and singing of certain "dreamings" in ritual. A few men are now Christian priests.

Ceremonies. Men and women used to have their own Ritual spheres and to a certain extent still do. One historically important ceremony, which has become less significant Recently, is the "increase ritual"a rite guaranteeing the fertility of a local area associated with particular totemic beings. Initiation ceremonies included circumcision and subincision (slitting the ventral surface) for boys and introcision (ritual defloration) for girls. Male initiation still takes place and remains very important. A third male initiation ceremony, which would last for several months, was the inkgura festival, held as a gathering of the clans whenever the local area could sustain a large group for a long time.

Arts. Largely, though not exclusively, restricted to ritual contexts, the arts include body decoration, ground paintings, incised sacred boards, singing and chanting, dramatic acting, and storytelling. Favored mediums for artistic expression include feathers and down; red, yellow, black, and white paints; clap sticks; and small drone pipes. In the 1930s many Western Aranda very successfully took up watercolors and that tradition remains strong. Today many Aranda are connoisseurs of country and western music, as well as adventure movies. Quite a few play guitar and some are learning to make their own videos.

Medicine. Traditional healers, who may be male or female, rely almost exclusively on shamanic arts, although there are a great many local medicines that are known and generally used. Today, the traditional system of healing operates in tandem with the provision of Western medicines and healing techniques. Most women now give birth in hospitals.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, death was followed by burial and this still occurs, usually with Christian ceremony. At death one aspect of the spirit can be completely annihilated, although it may first wander about as a ghost. Others say that this spirit ascends to the sky, sometimes to be with God, but sometimes to be banished to an evil place. Another part of one's spirit, which originally came from a totemic ancestor, goes back into the ground to become the land. This spirit may be reincarnated in another human being, but this is not regarded as personal survival or immortality.

See alsoDieri, Mardudjara, Ngatatjara, Pintupi, Warlpiri


Spencer, Baldwin, and Frank Gillen (1927). The Arunta: a Study of a Stone Age People. London: Macmillan.

Strehlow, Carl (1907-1920). Die Aranda-und LoritjaStämme in Zentral-Australien. 5 vols. 7 pts. Frankfurt am Main: Joseph Baer.

Strehlow, T. G. H. (1947). Aranda Traditions. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Strehlow, T. G. H. (1971). Songs of Central Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.