Placing ideas in the land: practical and ritual training among the Australian Aborigines

Simon Holdaway*, Harry Allen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Maurice Bloch (1991) divides learning into the acquisition of two forms of knowledge: linguistic-like knowledge and nonlinguistic, practical knowledge, involving the acquisition of skills. The division between knowledge and skill is extended by François Sigaut (1993, 111-112), who differentiates between the practical side of learning associated with an apprenticeship system and the formal learning that takes place in a school room. She notes that an apprenticeship system implies a contract between the master and the apprentice and often involves payment in cash, kind, or service in return for training. Much knowledge transmission in Aboriginal Australia is informal, taking place between younger and older brothers, between sons-in-law and their fathers-in-law, between girls and their mothers, or between junior and senior wives in a polygamous household. Nonetheless, within such informal learning situations, there are elements of contractual relations where payments in service or kind move from juniors to seniors (Love 2009 [1936], 113-114; Peterson 1997, 181-184). The acquisition of hunting and gathering skills by young Australian Aboriginal boys and girls mostly involves informal learning combined with apprentice-type learning as a minor element. Ritual training for boys more formally involves both apprentice- and school-type learning. Girls and women acquire much of the same knowledge indirectly (Kaberry 1939, 227-234). Bloch (1991, 186) observes that these different forms of learning relate dialectically, involving the way things look, sound, taste, and feel, so that knowledge is constantly tested against bodily experience (Bloch 1991, 193; Povinelli 1995; Tamisari 1998). Here we discuss two forms of learning in Australian Aboriginal society: action-based learning and a more formal system of imparting knowledge that is restricted to young males. These involve different combinations of informal and formal (apprentice and school-like) learning systems. The strength of the Aboriginal system of knowledge transmission comes from how these forms of learning resonate with each other throughout the lives of individuals and the life of the community. Following this, we present studies based on the archaeology of western New South Wales (NSW) that offer differing views concerning continuity of occupation of this semiarid part of central eastern Australia. The conclusions of these studies have implications for our understanding of the past, regarding whether occupation, and hence traditions, were continuous or, alternatively, intermittent. If knowledge and human relationships in this environment have to be reestablished at different points through time, then this affects the nature of the information provided to young people, the manner in which it is imparted, and its effectiveness through time.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationArchaeology and Apprenticeship
Subtitle of host publicationbody knowledge, identity, and communities of practice
EditorsWilleke Wendrich
Place of PublicationTucson, AZ
PublisherUniversity of Arizona Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9780816599301
ISBN (Print)9780816507672
Publication statusPublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes


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