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The Diyari, alternatively transcribed as Dieri, is an Indigenous Australian group and language of the South Australian desert originating in and around the delta of Cooper Creek to the east of Lake Eyre.


The Diyari had a highly developed sign language, which was first noticed by Alfred William Howitt in 1891, who first mistook them for defiant or command gestures until he they realized formed part of an integral system of hand signs, of which he registered 65.[1] One of their functions was to allow women to communicate during mourning, when a speech taboo prevailed.[2]


The traditional lands of the Diyari lay in the delta of the Barcoo River (Cooper Creek) to the east of Lake Eyre.[3][4] The southern boundary was marked by Mount Freeling, its most northern reach by the Pirigundi Lake, on the Cooper Creek. The most easterly edge was constituted by Lake Hope, and the western limits lay some 80 miles west of Lake Hope. Their neighbouring tribes were the Yandruwandha and Yawarrawarrka, respectively to their east and north-east and, to the north, the Ngameni. To their north-west were the Wangganguru, to their west the Thirrari and Arabana, while on the southern fringes were the Kuyani and Adnyamathanha.[5]

The environment was harsh, and foraging for vegetables was a staple since the kangaroo was absent from their terrain and the emu, their favourite food, quite rare. Native 'rats', snakes and lizards were, however, abundant.[6][7]


The Diyari creation story imagined Mooramoora, the good spirit, making small black lizards at first, and delighted with them, they decided should hold sway over all other created beings. It was by remodulating this variety of lizard, cutting off the tail, and using his forefinger to create a nose, that man was created, and then divided into male and female.[8] Mooramoora then had the Moon create all creatures. Man could not run down the fleet, tasty emu, and the deity was asked to make heat so that it would tire and allow men to catch up and trap it. Men were asked to perform certain ceremonies, considered obscene by Gason, and after their compliance, Mooramoora created the sun.[8]

History of contact[edit]

Lutheran missionaries established the Bethesda or Killalpaninna Mission among the Dieri in 1866. The first ethnographic reports regarding the Diyari were written by a police trooper, Saamuel Gason (1845–1897) in 1874.[9] He estimated the numbers of aborigines in the Cooper Creek area at 1,000-1,200 of which the Diyari were the most prominent, with an estimated 230 members. By the end of WW2, they were estimated to number around 60.[4]

Kinship system[edit]

The Diyari foundational myths stated that originally man was incestuously promiscuous, fathers, mothers, sons and daughter all marrying each other. To overcome the strife that ensued, the Elders petitioned the Mooramoora creator for a solution, which consisted in splitting the tribe into distinct branches, each designated by an animal or natural name, and then disallow marriage among members of the same branch.[10]

Before the white intrusion on their lands made its impact, the Dieri were divided into two tribal groups, the Ku'na:ri around Cooper Creek and the Pandu in proximity of Lake Hope.[7]

Their kinship system was first studied by Alfred William Howitt, who took it as exemplifying a form of one of the most socially backward of Australian tribes.[11] Alfred Radcliffe-Brown analysed the Diyari kinship structure as a variant of the Arrernte system.[12]

Social system[edit]

Gason thought the Diyari extremely treacherous, nourished by suspicion from infancy. At the same time, he said they displayed exemplary hospitality, revered the aged, and adored their children. Any stranger who passed through their camp, was provided with food. Infanticide was widespread, by Gason's calculation, affecting some 30% of births and was performed by the mother.[13] They were very attached to their camp dingos, treating them as they would a human.[6]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ Kendon 1988, pp. 17–18.
  2. ^ Kendon 1988, p. 48.
  3. ^ Howitt 1904, pp. 44–45.
  4. ^ a b Korn 1971, p. 41.
  5. ^ Austin 2004, p. 1491.
  6. ^ a b Gason 1879, p. 259.
  7. ^ a b Korn 1971, p. 42.
  8. ^ a b Gason 1879, p. 260.
  9. ^ Gason 1879.
  10. ^ Gason 1879, p. 160-161.
  11. ^ Howitt 1904, p. 43.
  12. ^ Korn 1971, p. 39.
  13. ^ Gason 1879, p. 258.