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Material Culture of the North Wellesley Islands

Cover of 'Material Culture of the North Wellesley Islands' book

This monograph, written by Professor Paul Memmott, provides an ethnographic description of the material culture traditionally employed by the Aboriginal people of the North Wellesley Islands. These islands are located in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria and are occupied by two Indigenous groups – the Lardil and the Yangkaal. A third group, the Kaiadilt, occupy the South Wellesley Islands and a fourth group, the Ganggalida are on the adjacent mainland. This paper focuses on the Lardil who are the traditional owners for Mornington Island or Gununa (which is by far the largest of the islands), as well as Sydney Island (Langunganji) and Wallaby Island (Lingunganji). Mornington Island is 65km long and from 7 to 26km wide and is linked to the mainland by a number of smaller ‘stepping-stone‘ islands. These intervening islands are home to the Yangkaal people, and approach the mainland at Bayley Point. There is clear visibility between these islands at all seasons, with easy crossings (maximum 3.5km of open sea) for watercraft. 

One of the factors contributing to the cultural unity of the Lardil group was a common language (Leerdil), now also known as Lardil (Ngakulmungan 1997). The Lardil language, along with the Yangkaal, Ganggalida and Kaiadilt (also Kayardilt) languages are closely related, and on the basis of linguistic analysis constitute a ‘Tangkic‘ subgroup, the latter term deriving from the common word, tangka, meaning ‘person‘ (Evans 1995:9).

This monograph commences with an introductory sketch of the physical environment of the North Wellesley Islands. The main part of the analysis then follows, outlining the material culture items and their properties, which is organised on a human activity basis. The categories thus start with subsistence activities (hunting, gathering, fishing), followed by shelter provision, fire production, food preparation and cooking.  After these settlement-based activities, transport, travel, communication and meetings for duals and fights are described within the island archipelago.  Traditional dance material culture is then examined followed by a range of ritual and ceremonial activities (resolution of grievances, initiation, increase rituals, love magic, sorcery, curing illness and response to death). The categories then return to more domestic themes, namely personal clothing and body decoration, children‘s play, and the storage, maintenance and personal possession of artefacts.  The last two activity categories are artefact manufacture and trade of artefacts.  Finally a brief consideration is made of change in the Lardil material world since the advent of missionary influence, starting in 1914.

The ethnographic data on which this monograph is based were largely collected in the field by the author in the 1970s and expand on earlier writings from this period (Memmott 1979a, 1979b). The manuscript was initially drafted in the mid-1980s, but not prepared for publication until 2006–2009. In the interim, very little attention has been paid to this aspect of Lardil culture. However, Trigger (1987) prepared an important account of a large body of material culture items for the Ganggalida on the adjacent mainland coast, making preliminary comparisons on technology and usage with both the Lardil and Kaiadilt in the Wellesleys and with the Garawa and Waanyi to the inland and west.

The ongoing function of the current ethnography therefore is to assist in the anthropological comparison of the North and South Wellesley groups and to understand their cultural differences (including material) in a pre-European model of cultural change which needs to link to rising sea-levels and transforming coastal environments during the period 6000 to 200 BP. The conclusion to the monograph points the way to how and why this broader cultural problem should be tackled and its ultimate anthropological significance.

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Last updated: Nov 9, 2010