Australian Aboriginal enumeration

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The Australian Aboriginal counting system was used to send messages on message sticks 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.

The systems below are those of the Wurundjeri (Howitt called them after their language, Woiwurung) and the Wotjoballuk. 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, whose names themselves were metaphorical and often quite poetic:

Wurundjeri counting system[edit]

Aboriginal name literal translation translation number
Būbūpi-mŭringya child of the hand little finger 1
Būláto-rável a little larger the ring finger 2
Būláto larger the middle finger 3
Urnŭng-mélŭk from Urnŭng = direction
and Mélŭk = a grub found in the holes
of some Eucalyptus
index finger 4
Babŭngyi-mŭringya mother of the hand the thumb 5
Krauel the wrist 6
Ngŭrŭmbul a fork the divergence of radial
Jerauabil the swelling of the radial
Thánbŭr a round place the inside of the elbow joint 9
Berbert the ringtail possum, also the name of the armlet
made of the pelt of that animal, hence used to
designate that part of the arm where the armlet is
biceps 10
Wūling the shoulder joint 11
Krakerap the bag place, or the place whence the bag
hangs by its band
the collar bone 12
Gūrnbert reed necklace, or the place where the necklace
made of pieces of reed is worn
the neck 13
Kŭrnagor the point or end of a hill, or of a spur or ridge earlobe 14
Ngárabŭl a range or the ridge of a hill the side suture of the skull 15
Bŭndale the cutting place, i.e., the place where a mourner
cuts themselves with some sharp instrument,
from bundaya=to cut
top of the head 16

Howitt writes "from this place the count follows down the equivalent places on the other side, thus giving a considerable scope for enumeration." and would therefore allow numbers up to 31.

Wotjoballuk counting system[edit]

Aboriginal name literal translation translation number
Giti mŭnya little hand little finger 1
Gaiŭp mŭnya from gaiŭp = one, mŭnya = hand the ring finger 2
Marŭng mŭnya 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 mŭnya from yolop = to point or aim
index finger 4
Bap mŭnya from Bap = mother the thumb 5
Dart gŭr from dart = a hollow, and gur = the forearm the inside of the elbow joint 6
Boibŭn 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 dartchŭk from gengen = to tie, and dartchuk = the upper arm.
This name is given also to the armlet of opossum
pelt which is worn around the upper arm.
the biceps 9
Borporŭng 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
Nerŭp wrembŭl from nerŭp = the butt or base of anything,
and wrembŭl= ear
earlobe 12
Wŭrt wrembŭl'' from wŭrt = above and also behind,
and wrembŭl = 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

Note that both numbers 6 and 8 here appear to be represented by the elbow. Howitt has perhaps misinterpreted the wrist in the translation of 6, since 7 is the forearm.

Other languages[edit]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h John Harris, Australian Aboriginal and Islander mathematics, Australian Aboriginal Studies, 1987.
  2. ^ William B. McGregor, (2013). Languages of the Kimberley, Western Australia, Routledge. ISBN 9781134396023
  3. ^ Stephanie Fryer-Smith, (2002). Aboriginal Benchbook for Western Australian courts, Australian Institute of Judicial Administration Incorporated. ISBN 1875527427


  • "Notes on Australian Message Sticks and Messengers", AW Howitt, FGS, Journal of the Anthropological Institute, pp 317–8, London, 1889, reprinted by Ngarak Press, 1998, ISBN 1-875254-25-0