The Australian Race: its origin, languages, customs, place of landing in Australia, the routes by which it spread itself over that continent

Language is a critical part of our culture. One of my ancestors Edward M Curr wrote this book about the languages of Aboriginal people, one of the oldest living cultures on earth. Edward Curr wrote other books like Saddle Horses of Australia and Recollections of Squatting in Victoria but none as important as this in reconstructing language and heritage of this amazing civilisation.

We publish this volume here with much appreciation to the library of the University of California, Santa Cruz.


Excerpt from The Australian Race by Edward M Curr

The Australian Race: its origin, languages, customs, place of landing in Australia, the routes by which it spread itself over that continent.  

Book Seven

Prefatory Remarks 

MANY tribes have traditions concerning their origin. Two instances of this have come to my knowledge in connection with the branch of our aboriginal race which I have classed as the Darling tribes. Both of them are interesting and supported by the evidence of language and manners. The :first to which I shall refer has been preserved by the tribes which dwell on the banks of the Lower Darling, and was placed on record by C. G. N. Lockhart, Esq., as he informs me, when Commissioner of Crown Lands, in his Annual Report to the Government of New South Wales, in 1852 or 1853. It is to the effect that in the far past a Blackfellow, whose name I have not learnt, arrived on the banks of the Darling, which was then uninhabited. He had with him two wives, named Keelpam and Mookwam.

These two Eves of the Darling Adam, as Mr. Lockhart calls him, bore their lord children, and in due time the sons of Mookwara took as wives the daughters of Keelpara, and their children inherited Keelpara as their class-name ; and the sons of Keelpara married the daughters of Mookwam, and their children bore Mookwama is their class-name. Subsequently these two classes were divided, the Keelparas into Emus and Ducks, and the Mookwaras into Kangaroos and Opossums or some other animal; and thenceforth a male of the Emu class could not marry indiscriminately any girl descended originally from Mookwara, but only such as belonged to the proper sub-class, and so on. And in this way, tradition says, these original class-names and their subdivisions have gone on regulating marriage amongst the descendants of the Darling Adam for who shall say how many ages up to the present time. •

What led the Darling Adam to expatriate himself with his two wives can only be conjectured, but the manners of the race render it probable that he had either committed some crime which the usages of his tribe punished with death, or what is more probable, that he had stolen one or both of the partners of his flight, who could only be kept possession of by the step he actually took.

The second tradition to which I have referred belongs to the Narrinyeri tribes, which dwell at and near the month of the Murray, and is related in a work entitled The Folklore, Manners, Customs d Languages of the South Australian Aborigines, edited by the late Revd. George Taplin. At page 38, he says that a party, the members of which were the progenitors of the Narrinyeri, ‘originally came from the Darling’, having followed down that river and the Murray to the sea. The other matters mentioned in this tradition do not concern us at present, but will be referred to further on. Of the correctness of these traditions I feel no doubt, for I find in the country which I have mapped as belonging to the Keelpara and Mookwara descended peoples just such a state of things as I should expect to result from such causes. As it would take a considerable period for the descendants of one man and two women to increase in numbers so as to people the country in which the Darling language now prevails, and as eventually coming in contact with the outside population the position of the two bodies would long, if not for ever, remain hostile, I should expect to find-

1st. That these long-isolated tribes would bear a common name, or rather that they would have a common equivalent for the term Blaekfellow, for I have already pointed out in Chapter 2 that it is by means of this and one or two other words that associated tribes mark their connection.

2nd. That these tribes, in lien of a series of languages differing every fifty or one hundred miles, as always happens when the spread of the race has taken place in the normal way, would speak a language almost unbroken by dialect; because, being restricted on their marches by tribes speaking languages different from theirs, and therefore hostile, to a comparatively small area, a little world of their own, communication within it would be well kept up.

3rd. That this almost common language would differ very considerably from those around it, but retain, nevertheless, some words by which the long-isolated tribes might be traced to the section of the race from which their ancestors had sprung.

4th. That some of the customs peculiar to that section would have been preserved and others lost. And,

5th. That as war would, for a considerable period, be unknown amongst the descendants of Keelpara and Mookwarra, some falling off in the construction of weapons would take place. Now, taking these expected peculiarities, we find

1st That the Darling Blacks proper, that is omitting the Narrinyeri branch, and their descendants have a common term for Blackfellow peculiar to themselves.

2nd. That speech varies so little amongst the several tribes that some of my correspondents are under the impression that there is but one language on the Darling.

3rd. That the languages of the Darling tribes differ so much from all others (though they possess their full share of the common Australian characteristics) that I had some difficulty in tracing them to their source. On the other hand, the absence of terms peculiar to the Eastern and Western Divisions, and the following agreements with the languages of the Central Division, show them to have sprung from that section of the Australian race: –

4th. As regards the preservation of some customs and the loss of others by the Darling tribes, Mr. Gason has recorded that the Dieyeri to the north dig pits in connection with their rain-making ceremonies, and Mr. Lockhart, in a, letter to me, mentions the same practice amongst the Darling Blacks ; and, on the other hand, circumcision and the terrible rite, which prevail to the north, and of which I shall speak presently, are not found on the Darling. Again, in connection with weapons, we discover that few of the Darling tribes use the wommera. to this day, those which do, having no doubt taken the practice from neighbouring tribes differently descended from themselves. •

We next come to tradition of the Narrinyeri, that their ancestors descended the Darling and located themselves at and near the month of the Murray. The first fact I shall adduce in support of this tradition is, that the horrible mutilations of the person common in the tribes near the Narrinyeri-that is in the country around Adelaide, on the Gulf of St. Vincent, Spencer’s Golf, &c.-are not practiced by them, and that in this they agree with the Darling tribes, as well as with the whole of those which I have traced to Keelpara. and Mookwara. Turning to language, we find that the Narrinyeri have a few words found on the Darling, and even as far: north as Cooper’s Creek, which do not exist amongst the tribes which inhabit the country next to theirs but practice the

mutilations just referred to. •

They are as follows: –

Hence we see that the tradition of the Narrinyeri is supported by the absence of certain mutilations and the presence of certain words prevalent on the Darling and to the north of the country occupied by the Darling tribes, but nonexistent amongst the tribes adjacent to the Narrinyeri on the north side of the embouchure (=the mouth of a river or valley.)of the Murray. These facts, it seems to me, can only be explained by the acceptance of the tradition that the Narrinyeri are descended from the Darling tribes.

Touching the Nartinyeri there are two circumstances which lead me to think that at the period at which their ancestors left the Darling and descended the Murray was but a few generations after the arrival of Keelpara., Mookwara., and their husband on that river. The first is, that had the exodus occurred at a later period, we should probably find in the Na.rrinyeri vocabulary a. word or two which had come into existence on the Darling, and which of course would be unknown on Cooper’s Creek; this, however, as far as I can judge, is not the case. The second is that language shows that the descendants of the Narrinyeri, gradually they increased, ascended the Murray, and kept on occupying the land on its banks, until at length they met the Darling tribes at or near Menindie.

Of this the languages leave no doubt. But had population on the Darling been nnmero11S at the time of the Narrinyeri exodus, the point of meeting would have been lower down that river or on the Murray. Another thing which we learn from the comparison of languages is the territory which the descendants of Keelpara and Mookwara eventually to occupy. This will be seen by reference to the map in Vol. IV., and may be roughly described as extending from Lacepede Bay to the mouth of the Murray, thence upwards along the banks of that river to its junction with the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan ; also from the junction of the Murray and Darling to the junction of the Culgoa and Darling; from that point north to about lat. 29°; thence west to the 141st degree of longitude; and thence south to the Murray. Taking the two traditions mentioned, facts derived from language, which admit of no doubt, and the peculiarities of the tribes in the east, west, and centre of the continent, minutely detailed in a former chapter, the principal circumstances connected with the settlement of what I have called the Darling tribes may be epitomized in this way: The husband of Keelp&ra and Mookwara reached the Darling, having travelled from Cooper’s Creek, then but sparsely peopled, or possibly from some water still further north. After a few generations, a party of their descendants left the Darling, went down the Murray to its mouth, and established themselves there. These were the Narrinyeri, who, as they increased in numbers, spread to Lacepede Bay, and also up the Murray until they in contact near Menindie with the tribes from which their ancestors had separated several generations before, and with a tribe of the Eastern Division a little higher up the .Murray than its junction with the Darling.

But the reader will say, if the ancestors of the Darling tribes from the north, and not from the east, how 1s it that we find wanting amongst their descendant’s circumcision and that other mutilation so general in the north?

In considering this question, we must remember that the Darling Adam marched a long distance through a country more than semi-desert and found himself entirely cut off from the rest of his race. Being thll8 isolated with his two wives, in country in which abundance of food must have been easily procurable, there would be no reason to induce him to follow customs, the objects of which were to economize food by keeping down population, and to prevent the young men from intriguing with the girls whom the old men habitually monopolize as wives. Besides these, mutilations are not inflicted by a father on his son, and they often result in death, a loss to which a small party would not be likely to expose itself; hence the first man who dwelt on the Darling would have no object to serve by inflicting the terrible rite or circumcision ; his children would never have heard of them, and the practices would naturally be lost. Had the party consisted of several men with their wives, no doubt it would have been different.

 From this account of the Darling tribes, a few facts of interest which bear on the race at large come into view. It exemplifies what I have before stated, that population was sometimes spread by means of small parties, which marched long distances into the wilderness, where they remained isolated for a considerable time, and that out of such beginnings especially grew associations of tribes and great differences of language. Not less interesting is it to find that it was in consequence of the flight of the Darling Adam, and of his descendants spreading themselves to the month of the Cnlgoa on one hand, and to the month of the Murray on the other, that those horrible mutilations of the person which prevail from the north coast, as far nearly as Adelaide, were prevented from being carried further south.

In thus viewing the Darling tribes as a whole, I am reminded of the incident already related, which led me some – twelve years back to take up the study of Australian ethnology, as well as of the fact that, however much sameness there may be in the manners of our tribes, one never contemplates any large section of the race, or compares the languages of extensive areas, without being rewarded by the discovery of some fact which throws a light on the general history of the aboriginal. of this continent, or in some cases claims a page in the history of the human family at large.