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Indigenous Australian research

Research on indigenous Australian children between 1928 and 1964

Donald Thomson conducted research with three different groups who at the time (1928 to 1964) had had limited contact with outsiders. One of his books, Bindibu Country, is described in a larger context by White, Isobel [View source]

Isobel, White, "introduction," in Thomson, Donald, "Children of the Dreamtime: Traditional Family Life in Aboriginal Australia," Viking O'Neil, Penguin Books Australia, 1989.

Children slept on the bare ground cuddled in their mother's arms. The baby 'was never heard to cry, the mother never left it….. The bond between mother and child is closer among these people than among European, because children are not weaned until they are four or five years old, unless another child is born in the meantime.' Even when this happened, the Aboriginal mothers he observed let the older child suck at her other breast while she fed the new baby. He drew the conclusion from this that ‘usually a few seconds gives the child reassurance that she has not lost her place in her mother's affection, ‘ and she will run away to play with other children, or go off with her father or another adult [View source]

Thomson, Donald F., "Bindibu Country," Nelson, Melbourne, 1975, p.95-96, from Dreamtime, pg3

There is no element of competition in their play. There is no concept of ‘mine'. If a plaything is made by an adult for one child, that child shares it with all the others, seemingly with no anger.

A favourite game is ‘mothers and fathers' in which children build their own shelters and older children take the part of the parents, with a baby being ‘borrowed'. Kinship rules are obeyed in this game.

Another activity is telling stories.


Aboriginal languages lack words which clearly distinguish work from play, and much time is spent by children helping or imitating adults in everyday tasks. Both, but more frequently girls, help care for younger siblings. Girls go with their mothers and grandmothers on the daily search for roots, fruits, small animals. Boys practice hunting. Very early children learn to recognize tracks of animals. There is little apparent discipline, yet children are well-behaved even at religious ceremonies that may last throughout the whole night.

Puberty: Donald noted that among the Aborigines of the Cape York Peninsula, a brother and sister are required to avoid each other from the ages of eight or nine. This means not handing food directly to each other, or turning away if they meet on a path. This also applies to the brother-in-law.

Naming: Many kin are consulted on the name of a child. The name may derive from a phenomenon connected with the child's birth or it may be given by an older person.

The people of north-eastern Arnhem Land believe that the malli, the spirits of unborn babies, swim in the sacred wells in the clan territory of their fathers until they enter the bodies of their mothers at conception. When a woman tells her husband that she is going to have a baby he will recall the capture or spearing of a fish or other quarry, and he know that it was this fish that brought the spirit of his unborn childn when it was seeking its mother. The malli returns at death to the same well from which it emerged, becomes small again and swims about until it is born once more. [View source]


An Aboriginal baby is born a light honey colour. In a short time the skin darkens. To expedite this process the mother sprays the baby's body with her breastmilk and rubs its body with charcoal from specially significant trees. This process is said to ‘molkuma', ‘to make black'.

In most regions of Australia several inches of the umbilical cord are left attached to whither and fall off. The whithered cord is then carried by the mother or other relatives and may be the subject of later ceremonial. It must on no account be burned or harm will befall the child. [View source]


Among the Wik Monkan tribe of Cape York, the mother remains in seclusion after birth for a period of 2 to 4 weeks. She is attended to by female relatives. The child is known as ‘tabu child' until after the ceremonial presentation to its father. He describes one ceremony: [View source]

pg. 36.

A young child is carried by both parents.

Initiation code:

1. Do not be greedy. Eat a little and give to others.

2. Do not steal other people's food.

3. Do not steal other people's belongings.

4. Do not tell lies; speak the truth

5. Do not talk back to old people.

6. Do not swear

7. Do not grumble (not in all groups)

8. Do not laugh at strangers

9. Do not laugh at women.

10. Do not stare at women

11. Do not ‘ask' a woman anything if you happen to meet when hunting.

12. Have a ‘strong heart', ngoi dal. [View source]

p. 59)


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play child development
bonding Australia

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