Cultural Overview1

The Mardu are part of Aboriginal Australia's largest single culture area, the Western Desert bloc, which is an extremely difficult environment for human survival. The region is notable for its homogeneity in language, social organization, and culture, and the very low population densities necessitated by aridity and resource scarcity. Deriving in large part from the latter conditions, particularly the unreliability of rainfall, was a major cultural characteristic: the open and highly permeable nature of social and ecological boundaries that facilitated movement and access to resources across large areas of desert. A host of norms and social conventions favored cooperation over conflict, particularly in intergroup relations, reflecting the primacy of unfettered movement in ensuring survival.

Traditionally, the Mardu practiced a hunter-gatherer economy and were seminomadic. Movement was essential for subsistence, and religious obligations also entailed travel over wide areas. Men usually covered more ground areas than women in fulfilling their ceremonial responsibilities, such as accompanying initiates or transporting sacred objects. Social organization was based on the (sometimes polygynous) nuclear family, and several families, generally closely related, constituted the band, which was the basic economic unit. Above the level of the band and of kinship-based local groups that, along with their heartlands, were people's strongest basis for identity, were broader identities deriving from shared membership of the same dialect-named group— which, however, never acted corporately. The business of society writ large was conducted during periodic aggregations, "big meetings," where outstanding disputes were settled and there was much religious activity, centered most often on rituals associated with stages of male initiation.

Australian Aboriginal societies are notable for their complex social organizational forms and religion, founded on the concept of the Dreaming, the creative epoch in which ancestral beings fashioned the landscape, peopled it, and left behind language, culture, and rules for living. Despite their nomadism, people were tied by religion very strongly to their heartland "estates," over whose important sites they exercised guardianship, ownership, and ritual responsibilities. The Mardu live in a universe of kin, and the blueprint for proper behavior, obligation, and responsibility contained within the kinship system remains a major integratory mechanism, along with marriage alliances, shared values, and religion. In the absence of chiefs, leadership was context dependent and largely a function of age and gender, with older men ultimately controlling the religious life. However, the ethos of Mardu society is best described as egalitarian, with all mature adults regarding themselves as equal to all other members of the same gender, but with hierarchical tendencies that favor male social adults surfacing most strongly during domestic disputes and in the conduct of the religious life.

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Pregnancy And Childbirth

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