The Social Organization of Aboriginal Australians dates back to the early period when Aborigines settled and organized themselves into various communities. Before the arrival of Europeans, Aboriginal societies were organized in a variety of ways, differing, for example, in the way they classified relatives, and in rules governing the choice of marriage partners. However, all Aboriginal societies also had certain characteristics in common. They were essentially egalitarian—that is, no one had significantly higher status than anyone else. There was, of course, some variation in people’s status and influence according to their age, gender, knowledge, skills, and personality. In addition, all Aboriginal people maintained exchange relationships with other groups to whom they had ties by blood or marriage. These relationships involved visits, the exchange of gifts, and participation in each other’s ceremonial life.
In popular writing, the word tribe is often used in reference to Aboriginal groups. This usage is misleading, however, as there were no tribes in the sense in which the term is used elsewhere in the world. Unlike tribes elsewhere, those in Australia had no overarching political or social organization, nor were the tribe a landowning group until after European contact. In Australia the term tribe usually refers to a group of Aboriginal people who speak a common language.
Aboriginal people spent most of their time living in small bands consisting of three to six families. Band size varied depending on climate and available resources. Recent studies suggest that bands averaged 40 to 50 people in the tropical woodlands of the north, 10 to 20 people in the central desert regions, and 40 to 80 people in the temperate woodlands of the south.
The basic social unit beyond the family was the clan, a group whose members were descended from a common ancestor. Clan membership was usually inherited from the father. Each clan had primary ownership of an area of land, called an estate by anthropologists that served as the clan members’ home base, although not all clan members lived on their own estate. For example, young men liked to travel widely, and when they first married they usually had to live with their wife’s band and hunt for her parents. An important natural feature, such as a watering hole or a grove of trees, often marked the focal point of the clan’s estate. This feature was usually the spot where the ancestral Dreaming spirit that founded the clan was believed to have emerged to create the land and the clan’s human ancestors. Residents of neighboring clans formed social bonds through marriage and participation in ceremonies. When people faced hardships, such as a lack of food resources, these bonds guaranteed them access to other clan estates and support by others.
Traditional Aboriginal societies had no well-defined positions of leadership. Usually the senior male of a clan would be the final authority on matters to do with the clan’s estate and ceremonies. However, the extent to which adults could exercise authority over one another day to day was very limited, because individuals were free to move from one band to another. Both men and women gained in authority as they aged, but when there was a clash of views men usually had the final say. The Social Organization of Aboriginal Australians enabled to exchange ideas, gifts and live together in peace.