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 Wotjoballum. 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:

Wotjoballum 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 possum
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'

In the Yorta Yorta language, iyung=1, bultjubul=2, bultjubul iyung=3, bultjubul bultjubul=4, bultjubul bultjubul iyung=5, bultjubul biyin-n=10 (2 hands)[4]

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 Archived 2013-10-12 at the Wayback Machine, Australian Institute of Judicial Administration Incorporated. ISBN 1875527427
  4. ^ 'Yorta Yorta Language Heritage Dictionary', Heather Bowe, Lois Peeler,Sharon Atkinson,copyright 1997, Hawker Brownlow Education, 2005.


  • "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