Australian Aboriginal Enumeration
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Australian Aboriginal Enumeration

The Australian Aboriginal counting system was used together with message sticks sent to neighbouring clans to alert them of, or invite them to, corroborees, set-fights, and ball games. Numbers could clarify the day the meeting was to be held (in a number of "moons") and where (the number of camps' distance away). The messenger would have a message "in his mouth" to go along with the message stick.

A common misconception among non-Aboriginals is that Aboriginals did not have a way to count beyond two or three. However, Alfred Howitt, who studied the peoples of southeastern Australia, disproved this in the late nineteenth century,[] although the myth continues in circulation today.[1]

The system in the table below is that used by the Wotjobaluk of the Wimmera (Howitt used this tribal name for the language called Wergaia in the AIATSIS language map). Howitt wrote that it was common among nearly all peoples he encountered in the southeast: "Its occurrence in these tribes suggests that it must have been general over a considerable part of Victoria". As can be seen in the following tables, names for numbers were based on body parts, which were counted starting from the little finger. In his manuscripts, Howitt suggests counting commenced on the left hand.

Wotjobaluk counting system

Aboriginal name literal translation translation number
Giti m?nya little hand little finger 1
Gai?p m?nya from gai?p = one, m?nya = hand the Ring finger 2
Mar?ng m?nya from marung = the desert pine (Callitris verrucosa).
(i.e., the middle finger being longer than the others,
as the desert pine is taller than other trees
in Wotjo country.)
the middle finger 3
Yolop-yolop m?nya from yolop = to point or aim
index finger 4
Bap m?nya from Bap = mother the thumb 5
Dart g?r from dart = a hollow, and gur = the forearm the inside of the wrist 6
Boib?n a small swelling
(i.e., the swelling of the flexor
muscles of the forearm)
the forearm 7
Bun-darti a hollow, referring to the hollow of the inside of the
elbow joint
inside of elbow 8
Gengen dartch?k from gengen = to tie, and dartchuk = the upper arm.
This name is given also to the armlet of possum
pelt which is worn around the upper arm.
the biceps 9
Borpor?ng the point of the shoulder 10
Jarak-gourn from jarak = reed, and gourn = neck,
(i.e. is, the place where the reed necklace is worn.)
throat 11
Ner?p wremb?l from ner?p = the butt or base of anything,
and wremb?l= ear
earlobe 12
W?rt wremb?l'' from w?rt = above and also behind,
and wremb?l = ear
that part of the just above
and behind the ear
Doke doke from doka = to move 14
Det det hard crown of the head 15

A similar system but with one more place was described by Howitt for the Wurundjeri, speakers of the Woiwurrung language, in information given to Howitt by the elder William Barak. He makes it clear that once counting has reached "the top of the head. From this place the count follows the equivalents on the other side."

Other languages

Language 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Anindilyakwa[2] awilyaba ambilyuma abiyakarbiya abiyarbuwa amangbala ememberrkwa
Gumulgal[2] urapon ukasar ukasar-urapon ukasar-ukasar ukasar-ukasar-urapon ukasar-ukasar-ukasar
Gurindji[3] yoowarni garndiwirri nga-rloo-doo
Kokata[2] kuma kutthara kabu wima ngeria
Kunwinjku[2] na-kudji boken danjbik kunkarrngbakmeng kunbidkudji kunbidboken
Ngaanyatjarra[4] kutja kutjarra marnkurra kutjarra-kutjarra kutjarra-marnkurra
Nunggubuyu[2] anyjabugij wulawa wulanybaj wulalwulal marang-anyjabugij marang-anyjabugij wula marang-anyjabugij marang-anyjabugij
Tiwi[2] natinga jirara jiraterima jatapinta punginingita wamutirara
Wangka[2] kuja kujarra kujarra kuju kujarrakujarra marakuju marakujarra
Yorta Yorta[5] iyung bultjubul bultjubul iyung bultjubul bultjubul bultjubul bultjubul iyung bultjubul biyin-n
Yolngu[2] wanggany marrma' lurrkun marrma' marrma' gong wangany gong marrma'

See also


  1. ^ "Explainer: how does the Aboriginal numeric system work?". The University of Sydney. Retrieved .
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h John Harris, Australian Aboriginal and Islander mathematics, Australian Aboriginal Studies, 1987.
  3. ^ William B. McGregor, (2013). Languages of the Kimberley, Western Australia, Routledge. ISBN 9781134396023
  4. ^ Stephanie Fryer-Smith, (2002). Aboriginal Benchbook for Western Australian courts Archived 2013-10-12 at the Wayback Machine, Australian Institute of Judicial Administration Incorporated. ISBN 1875527427
  5. ^ 'Yorta Yorta Language Heritage Dictionary', Heather Bowe, Lois Peeler,Sharon Atkinson,copyright 1997, Hawker Brownlow Education, 2005.


  • Howitt, A.W. 1904. The native tribes of south-east Australia. London: McMillan and Co. Reprinted. 1996. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. pp696-699 describe the system in Wotjobaluk, while p700-703 describe the Wurundjeri system.

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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