Skip to main content

The Dialectal Tribe and the Doctrine of Continuity

  • Josh Berson (a1)

In Australia, applicants for native title—legal recognition of proprietary interest in land devolving from traditions predating colonization—must meet a stringent standard of continuity of social identity since before the advent of Crown sovereignty. As courts and the legislature have gravitated toward an increasingly strict application of the continuity doctrine, anthropologists involved in land claims cases have found themselves rehearsing an old debate in Australian anthropology over the degree to which post-contact patterns of subsistence, movement, and ritual enactment can support inferences about life in precontact Australia. In the 1960s, at the dawn of the land claims era, a handful of anthropologists shifted the debate to an ecological plane. Characterizing Australia on the cusp of colonization as a late Holocene climax human ecosystem, they argued that certain recently observed patterns in the distribution of marks of social cohesion (mutual intelligibility of language, systems of classificatory kinship) could not represent the outcome of such a climax ecosystem and must indicate disintegration of Aboriginal social structures since contact. Foremost among them was Joseph Birdsell, for whom linguistic boundaries, under climax conditions, would self-evidently be congruent with boundaries in breeding pools. Birdsell's intervention came just as the Northern Territory Supreme Court was hearing evidence on the value of dialect as a marker of membership in corporate landholding groups in Yolngu country, and offers an object lesson in how language, race, mode of subsistence, and law come together in efforts to answer the questions “Who was here first?” and “Are those people still here?”

Corresponding author
Hide All
Angelbeck Bill and Grier Colin. 2012. Anarchism and the Archaeology of Anarchic Societies: Resistance to Centralization in the Coast Salish Region of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Current Anthropology 53, 5: 547–87.
Australian Indigenous Law Reporter, eds. 2006. Jango v Northern Territory of Australia [2006] FCA 318. Australian Indigenous Law Reporter 10, 2: 2340.
Beardsley Richard K., Holder Preston, Krieger Alex D., Meggers Betty J., Rinaldo John B., and Kutsche Paul. 1956. Functional and Evolutionary Implications of Community Patterning. Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology, no. 11, Seminars in Archaeology: 1955, 129–57.
Berndt Ronald M. 1959. The Concept of “the Tribe” in the Western Desert of Australia. Oceania 30, 2: 81107.
Berndt Ronald M. 1976. Territoriality and the Problem of Demarcating Sociocultural Space. In Peterson Nicolas, ed., Tribes and Boundaries in Australia. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 133–61.
Birdsell Joseph B. 1958. On Population Structure in Generalized Hunting and Collecting Populations. Evolution 12, 2: 189205.
Birdsell Joseph B. 1967. Preliminary Data on the Trihybrid Origin of the Australian Aborigines. Archaeology & Physical Anthropology in Oceania 2, 2: 100–55.
Birdsell Joseph B. 1970. Local Group Composition among the Australian Aborigines: A Critique of the Evidence from Fieldwork Conducted since 1930. Current Anthropology 11, 2: 115–42.
Birdsell Joseph B. 1976. Realities and Transformations: The Tribes of the Western Desert of Australia. In Peterson Nicolas, ed., Tribes and Boundaries in Australia. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 95120.
Brown [Radcliffe-Brown] A. R. 1913. Three Tribes of Western Australia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Association of Great Britain and Ireland 43, 1: 143–94.
Burke Paul. 2007. The Problem When Flexibility Is the System. Anthropological Forum 17, 2: 163–65.
Carpenter Kristen A., Katyal Sonia K., and Riley Angela R.. 2009. In Defense of Property. Yale Law Journal 118, 6: 1022–25.
Clastres Pierre. 1974. La société contre l'état: recherches d'anthropologie politique. Paris: Minuit.
Coon Carleton S., Garn Stanley M., and Birdsell Joseph B.. 1950. Races: A Study of the Problem of Race Formation in Man. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas.
Dixon R. M. W. 1976. Tribes, Languages and other Boundaries in Northeast Queensland. In, Peterson Nicolas, ed., Tribes and Boundaries in Australia. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 207–38.
Engle Karen L. 2010. The Elusive Promise of Indigenous Development: Rights, Culture, Strategy. Durham: Duke University Press.
Evans Nicholas. 2007. Warramurrungunji Undone: Australian Languages in the 51st Millennium. In Brenzinger Matthias, ed., Language Diversity Endangered. Berlin: De Gruyter, 342–73.
Firth Raymond. 1931. Anthropology and Native Administration. Oceania 2, 1: 18.
Fleming Luke. 2011. Name Taboos and Rigid Performativity. Anthropological Quarterly 84, 1: 141–64.
Fulcher Jonathan. 1998. The Wik Judgment, Pastoral Leases and Colonial Office Policy and Intention in NSW in the 1840s. Australian Journal of Legal History 4, 1: 3356.
Gannett Lisa. 2003. Making Populations: Bounding Genes in Space and Time. Philosophy of Science 70, 5: 9891001.
Glasgow David I., Hocking F. M., and Steiner W. L.. n.d. [1971]. Linguistic Survey of N. E. Kimberleys Survey [sic], October 1970. Transcription of Conversations on Languages and Tribes. Library of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, PMS 1766.
Gowlett John, Gamble Clive, and Dunbar Robin. 2012. Human Evolution and the Archaeology of the Social Brain. Current Anthropology 53, 6: 693722.
Hale Ken 1980. Warlpiri: Traditional Aboriginal Owners. ARC [Aboriginal Resource Center] Newsletter 4, 4 (Dec.): 5. In Kenneth Hale Papers, Institute Archives and Special Collections, MIT Libraries, Cambridge, Mass., MC 523, box 2, folder labeled with the paper's title.
Harrison Rodney. 2002. Archaeology and the Colonial Encounter: Kimberley Spearpoints, Cultural Identity and Masculinity in the North of Australia. Journal of Social Archaeology 2, 3: 352–77.
Haviland John B. 1979. Guugu Yimidhirr Brother-in-Law Language. Language in Society 8, 2–3: 365–93.
Henderson John and Nash David, eds. 2002. Language in Native Title. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
Hiatt L. R. 1962. Local Organization among the Australian Aborigines. Oceania 32, 4: 267–86.
Hiatt L. R. 1984. Your Mother-in-Law Is Poison. Man 19, 2: 183–98.
Kesaba Reşat. 2009. A Moveable Empire: Ottoman Nomads, Migrants, and Refugees. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Lee Richard B. and DeVore Irven, eds. 1969. Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine.
Lydon Jane. 2005. Eye Contact: Photographing Indigenous Australians. Durham: Duke University Press.
Maddock Kenneth. 1981. Warlpiri Land Tenure: A Test Case in Legal Anthropology. Oceania 52, 2: 85102.
McNeil Kent. 2010. The Sources and Content of Indigenous Land Rights in Australia and Canada: A Critical Comparison. In Knafla Louis A. and Westra Haijo, eds., Aboriginal Title and Indigenous Peoples: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 146–70.
Meggitt Mervyn J. 1962. Desert People: A Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
Merlan Francesca. 2005. Indigenous Movements in Australia. Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 473–94.
Morphy Frances. 1977. Language and Moiety: Sociolectal Variation in a Yu:lngu Language of North-East Arnhem Land. Canberra Anthropology 1, 1: 5160.
Mulvaney John. 2008. WEH Stanner and the Foundation of the Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies, 1959–1964. In Hinkson Melinda and Beckett Jeremy, eds., An Appreciation of Difference: WEH Stanner and Aboriginal Australia. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 5875.
Myers Fred R. 1986. Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place, and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Nettheim Garth. 2008. The Influence of Canadian and International Law on the Evolution of Australian Aboriginal Title. In Foster Hamas, Raven Heather, and Webber Jeremy, eds., Let Right Be Done: Aboriginal Title, the Calder Case, and the Future of Indigenous Rights. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 177–99.
Ong Aihwa. 1999. Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Durham: Duke University Press.
Peterson Nicolas. 1976. The Natural and Cultural Areas of Aboriginal Australia: A Preliminary Analysis of Population Groupings with Adaptive Significance. In Peterson Nicolas, ed., Tribes and Boundaries in Australia. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 5071.
Peterson Nicolas. 2010. Common Law, Statutory Law, and the Political Economy of the Recognition of Indigenous Australian Rights in Land. In Knafla Louis A. and Westra Haijo, eds., Aboriginal Title and Indigenous Peoples: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 171–84.
Radcliffe-Brown A. R. [see also Brown]. 1930. The Social Organization of Australian Tribes, Part I. Oceania 1, 1: 3463.
Radcliffe-Brown A. R. 1931. The Social Organization of Australian Tribes. Melbourne: Macmillan, Oceania Monographs, no. 1. (Repr. from Oceania 1.)
Radcliffe-Brown A. R. 1935. Patrilineal and Matrilineal Succession. Iowa Law Review 20: 286303.
Radcliffe-Brown A. R. 1940. Preface. In Fortes Meyer and Evans-Pritchard E. E., eds., African Political Systems. London: Oxford University Press, xi–xxiii.
Rigsby Bruce and Sutton Peter. 1980. Speech Communities in Aboriginal Australia. Anthropological Forum 5, 1: 823.
Roberts Janine. 2007. Glitter and Greed: The Secret World of the Diamond Cartel. New York: Disinformation.
Ruggie John G. 1993. Territoriality and Beyond: Problematizing Modernity in International Relations. International Organization 47, 1: 139–74.
Sansom Basil. 1980. Statement on the Utopia Land Claim. Lander Warlpiri Anmatjirra Land Claim to Willowra Pastoral Lease, Exhibit 64. Darwin: Office of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner.
Sansom Basil. 2007. Yulara and Future Expert Reports in Native Title Cases. Anthropological Forum 17, 1: 7192.
Sassen Saskia. 2006. Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Schneider David M. 1984. A Critique of the Study of Kinship. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Scott James C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Shankman Paul. 2009. The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Shapiro Warren. 2008. What Human Kinship Is Primarily About: Toward a Critique of the New Kinship Studies. Social Anthropology 16, 2: 137–53.
Sheehan James J. 2006. The Problem of Sovereignty in European History. American Historical Review 111, 1: 115.
Stanner W. E. H. 1933. The Daly River Tribes: A Report of Fieldwork in North Australia. Oceania 3, 4: 377405.
Stanner W. E. H. 1965. Aboriginal Territorial Organization: Estate, Range, Domain and Regime. Oceania 36, 1: 126.
Strelein Lisa. 2009. Compromised Jurisprudence: Native Title Cases since Mabo. 2d ed.Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
Sutton Peter and Palmer Arthur B.. 1980. Daly River (Malak Malak) Land Claim. Darwin: Northern Land Council.
Sutton Peter and Rigsby Bruce. 1979. Linguistic Communities and Social Networks on Cape York Peninsula. In Wurm Stephen A., ed., Australian Linguistic Studies. Canberra: Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, 713–32.
Tiger Lionel and Fox Robin. 1972. The Imperial Animal. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Tindale Norman B. 1974. Aboriginal Tribes of Australia: Their Terrain, Environmental Controls, Distribution, Limits, and Proper Names. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tindale Norman B. 1976. Some Ecological Bases for Australian Tribal Boundaries. In Peterson Nicolas, ed., Tribes and Boundaries in Australia. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1229.
Weitz Eric D. 2008. From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions. American Historical Review 113, 5: 1313–43.
Williams Nancy M. 2008. Stanner, Milirrpum, and the Woodward Royal Commission. In Hinkson Melinda and Beckett Jeremy, eds., An Appreciation of Difference: WEH Stanner and Aboriginal Australia. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 198216.
Wilson Edmund O. 1975. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 3
Total number of PDF views: 37 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 220 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 16th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.