Comparison of the mardu in the western desert and the yolngu of ramaingining in arnhem land



The Mardu and the Yolngu are two different Aboriginal people of Australia. The Mardu live in the Western Desert of Australia while the Yolngu live in Arafura Swamp in Anhem in Northern Australia, a very different environment that is characterized by abundance of water and wetlands in contrast with the dry and arid desert. However, although the two bands live in two different environments, they both have many shared characteristics; one of their most important shared values is the deep and considerable respect that they pay towards the law, as it is understood in their culture.

Both the Mardu and the Yolngu Aborigines are organized through acephalous bands, therefore in order to make decisions the band rely on consensus. The bands are small in size but live in wide areas, rely on hunter gathering to provide their necessities and pursue a nomadic life style. Another important aspect of the bands is the absence of private property, consequently anything that is strategic for the survival of the group is treated as common while only such things as decoration are treated as private property, moreover no class division exist the only one that exist is based on age. Due to the hot weather, the Aborigines do not wear any clothing and for men the sensitive parts of their body are not covered as it is believed that a person who hides his penis is not to be trusted. All these aspects of the Aboriginal's bands are being maintained and preserved through the respect of the law that dictates what is required from each member of the band as well as distinguishing what is the good from what is bad, as it is stated by Robert Tokinson "the law defines the good life."[1] In my paper, I will describe this characteristic of the two bands by defining the law according to the Aboriginal beliefs and stating how the rule or law is observed in such aspects as religion, conflict resolution, family and kinship relations and funerals.

The Aboriginal Law

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In order to understand the magnitude that both the Mardu and the the Yolngu attach to law it is very important to define the law of Aborigines in order not to confuse it with the legal law that is followed in the world. Law for the Aborigines represent what they are supposed to follow, it is established during the dream time or what is called by Aborigines "manguny."[2] The failure to abide by the law will result in punishment through natural catastrophes such as storms, earthquake, and wild fire. Therefore in the book Indigenous Australians and the Law the law is defined as:

The law not only embraces ritual, economic, residential and kinship rules and conventions but also what we would call natural laws and technological rules. The care of sacred objects by the men of one patrimoiety, the sexual division of labour, the avoidance of mothers-in-law, the mating of bandicoots, the rising of the sun, and the use of fire-ploughs are all forms of behaviour that is lawful and proper - they are all djugaruru.[3]

The dream time represent for the Aborigines the start of their world and the time when their ancestors, who were half human half animal, created the universe. Both the Mardu and the Yolngu believe in dream time, this commonality indicates that they were both connected through ancestors. Although there are no written records of the Aboriginal literature, many elements of their culture are preserved through rituals such as dances and songs which tend to be short and repetitive to ease their remembrances. It is through these rituals that the law is preserved and passed to the next generation. The importance of the dream time lies on the fact that it groups the past, present and the future as it is pointed by Robert Tokinson "...The dreaming is a fundamental and complex conception, not only embracing the creative past and the ordering of the world, but having great relevance to present and future Aboriginal existence."[4] This underscores the timelessness of the law that Aborigines respect in addition to the absence of change in its rules. An explanation that can be drawn from this characteristic is to express gratitude towards their ancestors and a means to live with the present and to anticipate the future.

Manifestation of the Aboriginal Law


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Although the Aborigines lack written literature and advanced technology they own a rich ritual legacy from their ancestors, these rituals represent the elements of their religion and cosmology which in contrast to such religions as Christianity and Islam does not preach morality or conversion. According to their law, the sacred elements of the Aborigines are only being shared by men while excluding women. It is through religion that Aborigines understand the elements of birth. The land is a primordial element of the Aboriginal religion, in which the Mardu and the Yolngu attribute the different landscapes, such as plains and mountains, to be the workings of their ancestors who created them during the dream time. Thus, as a way of paying tribute to their ancestors the land is preserved by making it a communal property that cannot be owned privately as the survival of the band lies on it. In addition to that, any abuse of land is prevented by making sure that no waste occurs, other things said differently, as the Aborigines are animist the land is not treated as an object without a soul but rather as inhabited by spirits that should be respected.

- Family Organization

The importance of law can also be seen through kinship and family relations. In both bands, males once they attain the stage of adulthood which is marked by circumcision, they are single lout from the rest of the band in a camp. The circumcision serves to mark the initiation to the adulthood that is why it is understood within the Aborigines as rebirth, it is usually performed when the child reaches the age of 14, and its performance tends to be harsh involving many scars to mark the change. Only Aborigines who are circumcised and show that they are mature can get the sacred knowledge from their elders. Regarding marriage, young men are encouraged to marry a woman outside the band in order to avoid the taboo of incest; the main reason why the two bands discourage incest is due to the lack of childcare in their societies as well as the preference for having children that will be able to take care of themselves. A certain amount of memory is crucial to avoid incest hence the use of such rituals as songs and dances. Polygamy is allowed under the law in both Mardu and the Yolongu and it is the brother that inherits the wives as it occurred when the elder brother, Ridjimiraril, died and his younger brother, Yeeralparil, bequeathed his three wives. The Aboriginal law does not allow elopement as it threatens the unity of the family and brings chaos to the band. For instance, in the movie Yeeralparil was being told off whenever he is found peeking at the third wife of his elder brother and even the moral of the movie is to be careful what somebody wishes.

-Conflict Resolution

One of the most important rules of Aboriginal law is minimizing conflicts between the different bands and avoiding war. Due to the small size of both Mardu and the Yolngu it is not practical for them to initiate war. However, when disputes occur they are usually solved through rituals that involve only the persons that inflicted damage to the other band. For instance, in the movie when Ridjimiraril killed a stranger, thinking that he was the person who kidnapped his second wife Nowalingu, was subjected to the law. When the murder occurred the other band knew the culprit owing to the spearhead, who turned out to be, Birrinbirrin, but in the end Ridjimiraril admitted the crime. Therefore, in order to assuage the feelings of grudge the two brothers, Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil, were obliged by the law to perform the magarada, "a form of settlement by combat involving a ceremonial running of a gauntlet of spears, usually blunted."[5] When the ritual was performed, the relatives of the dead stranger were throwing spears at both brothers but aiming more at the elder brother, who in the end was injured and suffered death. Eventually, the band attributed the death of Ridjimiraril to the use of sorcery by the spear thrower. One of the maxims behind the story is that Ridjimiraril made a mistake when he acted unitarily instead of consulting the band, and even the band was not on consensus that the wife was kidnapped but they rather diverged as some said that she was running away. Among the Mardu, when a conflict broke out between two bands, they resort to the practice of gandulajanamaba a practice which is similar to Magarda upon which a transgressor is asked to "to stand in the open and face his punishers"[6] who throws spears at the transgressor. To put it in a nutshell, the basic aim of resorting to such rituals in case of conflicts eruption is to minimize them and marinating the peace and harmony in the band.

Dealing with Death and After Life

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Death is an event that both Mardu and the Yonglu treat with particular rituals that are based on their law that was formed during the dream time. The rituals include dancing, painting the dead man`s body and performing certain rituals to make sure that the soul does not stay in the body. The aim of these rituals is to " cope with the immortality of the spirit, which is thought to be so distressed as its separation from the living that it seeks to continue its close association with them."[7] Moreover, none of the relatives is allowed to bury his body or know its place in order to spare them the affliction of his bereavement.

The death ritual is performed with the presence of a sorcerer, a fact which underscores the place of magic in Aboriginal culture and how it is regulated by the law. Although using sorcery is being frowned at by the bands, there is always a person in the band that has the tile of a sorcerer and has experience with magic; he usually lives by himself while the band calls for him in case there is an evil spirit around or if somebody is sick. For instance, in the movie the sorcerer was consulted to find out if the stranger has done magic on the band and he advised them to avoid making their hair and excrement available for the stranger. What was suspicious about the stranger is the fact that he was hiding his penis as well as not carrying anything for trade, otherwise according the Aboriginal law an exchange would have occurred between the stranger and the band as it is stated by Robert Tokinson:

At all levels of society, the value system places great emphasis on reciprocal obligation and interdependence, reinforced through the sharing and exchange of religious and mundane elements.Sush exchange is promoted by conventions of hospitality, to be freely given as long as visitors are peaceful in their intentions and observe the correct etiquette.[8]


To conclude, in both societies the law acquired an important part in the daily lives of the Mardu and Yonglu as it serves to be the basis to have a meaning for their life and to pay tribute to their ancestors. The law served in protecting the environment and the land which is the course of livelihood for the Aborigines. Since there is no private property, everybody participated in the process of protecting and preserving their surroundings deterred by the fact that punishment will be mete out through natural disasters. The white settlers in Australia did not take into consideration the culture of Aborigines and transgressed their law by justifying their doings by the acephalous nature of the Aborigines and their assimilation policies. Through the Mardu and the Yolngu, we can see that primitive people lived in peace and harmony with their environment and in fact the introduction of civilization into Australia was culprit behind the destruction of their culture and their behavior such as binge drinking. The deep respect paid towards the law serves as a tribute that Aborigines paid to their ancestors who were the one according to their cosmology that built this world and although the bands are acephalous the law is respected and order is maintained.

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    De Heer, Rolf, director. Ten Canoes. With David Gulpilili and Jamie Gulipili. Fandago/Verigao Production in association with the South Australian Film Corporation, 2006.

    Rigney, Daryle, The Hon Elliott Johnston AO QC and Martin Hinton QC, ed. Indigenous Australians and the Law. New York: Routledge-Cavendish, 2008.

    Tokinson, Robert. The Mardu Aborigines: Living the Dream in Australia`s Desert. Mason, Ohio: Cengage Learning, 2008.