Martu fieldsite in western Australia

Primary Site Researcher

Brooke A. Scelza

Dr Brooke Scelza is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received her PhD from the University of Washington in 2008.

She has worked with the Martu of western Australia since 2004 and her work there has focused on parent-child relationships across the lifespan, particularly during the post-adolescent period. She has also worked on projects related to female foraging strategies, grandmothering and women’s reproductive health. | Website


The Martu (alternately spelled Mardu in older orthographies) are a desert-living group of aboriginal Australians, residing across the northwest portion of the Western Desert. The Western Desert is a cultural area and therefore does not have official boundaries, but is commonly used as a general term for the area encompassing the Gibson, Great Sandy and Little Sandy deserts.

Western Desert


There are about 800-1,000 aborigines who identify themselves as Martu. Many Martu live in remote settlements and outstations, including Jigalong, Parnngurr, Punmu and Kunawarji. Others live in town, mainly Newman in the Pilbara and Port Hedland on the north-western coast. There is a continuous flow of people between towns and outstations, however, so that most Martu regularly spend time in rural areas.


The Martu are identified with a few extant language groups including Kartujarra, Manyjilyjarra, Warnman and Nyangajarra. Most Martu speak at least one of these languages, although almost everyone in the younger generations also speaks English as a second language.

Martu children posing with a camel

Ethnic identity and history

Martu were traditionally full-time hunter-gatherers who lived in small, kin-based bands. Although mobile, individuals retained strong ties to particular areas of the desert, inheritance (but not ownership) of which was passed down through the generations. Daily life in the bush was mainly egalitarian, despite strongly gendered ideologies that pertained to religious life and Jukurrpa, or 'Dreamtime Law.'

Until the 1930s the only non-Aborigines in the desert were a few explorers, travellers and missionaries, keeping contact with the desert groups at a minimum. From the 1940s to the 1960s the last groups of Martu came in from the desert, some picked up by desert patrols, others coming in voluntarily due to the drought and increasingly limited social and familial contacts, necessary for both everyday living and important ceremonial and religious events.

Many Martu settled at a mission in Jigalong, where they were subjected to strict behavioural guidelines, work requirements, attempted religious indoctrination, and separation of children from their parents. Children were required to live in dormitories, attend school and speak only in English; while adults maintained more traditional camps on the outskirts of the settlement. Although they were introduced to many features of modern Australian life, the Martu retained a strong link to their culture and traditions during their time away from the bush.

In the 1980s two major forces prompted the establishment of 'outstation' communities within the western desert. The first was the movement of mining companies into traditional homelands and the second was the gazetting of Rudall River National Park without aboriginal consent over a large area of Martu homeland.

The move to Parnngurr and its sister outstations has allowed Martu to revive many of the traditional foraging and religious practices that had been in abeyance during their time away from the bush. Many residents continue to hunt and gather on a regular basis and have resumed managed burning regimes, which are essential both for their own foraging economy and for the general health of the land.

Happy group of Martu people

Kinship and family

Family is an extremely important part of Aboriginal culture and everyday life. The presence of a classificatory kinship system means that familial terms and relationships are present between any two individuals, whether or not they are related by blood.

The Martu have a four-section kinship system with only two sets of marriageable groups (Burungu to Milanka and Jangala to Garimarra). Each type of kin relationship falls along a spectrum of behavioural guidelines ranging from open, 'joking' relationships to ones of more measured behaviour and respect to avoidance relationships where both physical and verbal contact is prohibited.

Children live with their parents well into adulthood. Sons may stay in the household until they marry, typically in their mid to late twenties, although some choose to live in bachelor houses with other young males. Daughters may continue to live at home through their early childbearing years, though this is most common if they are single mothers.

When children do move out, they tend to stay close to home if their parents are present and stable. This ensures continued regular contact and assistance, particularly from grandmothers.


The core of Aboriginal religion is the concept of the Dreaming. Although it is often used to refer to the period of creation when ancestral beings were roaming the land and creating the major landforms, it continues to be part of everyday reality. When Martu sing and dance, they are re-telling stories of the Dreamtime, and are also adding to their religious repertoire with new Dreamings.

The integration of the Dreamtime with everyday life for Martu has diminished somewhat since the time of contact. For young adults, as the bounds of 'normal activity' have expanded, religious activity is no longer integrated with all behaviour, and instead is primary only during special events and rituals.

In contrast, for elders, most of whom lived significant portions of their lives in the bush, traditional 'Law' continues to influence almost all aspects of their lives.

Person walking in the desert

Political and social organisation

Like most other hunter-gatherers, the Martu have a largely egalitarian social structure. Women have a high degree of autonomy, often travel without their husbands, and participate in secular decision-making along with men. In everyday life, sharing is widespread, both within and between households. The title of miltilya, or 'good hunter', refers not only to someone who works hard and regularly brings in meat, but who also is generous with what he/she acquires.

While widespread sharing is prominent in everyday life, within the ritual religious context, knowledge is restricted and the power structure is largely gerontocratic. Elder men and women control information relevant to their respective ritual activities, and parse this information out to the younger generation only after they have completed years of religious training and physical initiations.

Economic activities

Since leaving the bush and forming sedentary communities, first at Jigalong and later at the outstations, Martu have transitioned from a full-time foraging economy to one of mixed-mode subsistence. While hunting and gathering continue to be prominent daily activities for many adults, all Martu now engage to some extent with the market economy: purchasing food, paying rent, and acquiring a variety of material goods and services.

Interactions with the market economy can come either through paid work, mainly with local mining companies, or from welfare payments of various types, including a government-funded community work program. There is also a burgeoning art market in the Western Desert and several Martu artists have sold their paintings and baskets on both the national and international markets.

An elder sitting with a young child

Formal and informal education

Access to formal education is limited for Martu living at the outstations. There is an independent community school for students aged 3 to 18, which most children in the community attend, at least sporadically. Most of the teachers at these schools are not Aborigines, but there is a school council made up of Martu adults who work with the staff to develop school policies and assist with the everyday running of the school.

Students are taught mainly in English, although portions of the day are devoted to lessons on Martu wangka. These lessons are limited, however, by the fact that the teachers themselves speak only the basics of the language.

Basic arithmetic and reading are the mainstays of the curriculum, but even these are often taught in creative ways. For example, students may play 'shop' with the goal of learning how to count change. In addition to classroom activities which emphasise local flora and fauna, students regularly go on 'bush trips' to local swimming and foraging areas, accompanied by elder Martu.

Another important form of cultural transmission occurs through storytelling. Particularly in the wintertime when fires are lit almost every night, elders and children will gather and share stories. Some of these will be about current gossip and community politics, but often Dreamtime and other historical stories will be recounted by elders. No serious effort is made to ensure that children pay strict attention to these stories, but by their teens most individuals can name the major landmarks in the area and explain any associated lore.

Since Martu mobility is now by vehicle instead of on foot, stories also tend to be told while driving, especially in areas further away from the community that are visited only rarely.


In almost every measurable health statistic, Aborigines fare worse than the Australian population at large. The most common health problems for children in the communities are skin infections (mainly boils and scabies), earaches (otitis media), gastrointestinal infections, coughs and the common cold.

Close-up of hands stitching

Adults also suffer from coughs and colds as well as some diet-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes and obesity are on the rise as people shift from eating a complete diet of foraged foods to one that incorporates significantly more fat and sugar.

There is a clinic in each Martu community, staffed by a nurse and an aboriginal health worker. A doctor visits the outstations every other week and dentists and other specialists make sporadic visits. The closest hospitals are in Newman and Port Hedland, and this is where women go to give birth and where people are airlifted in case of emergency.

Daily life

Daily life at Parnngurr depends largely on a person's age and, as they age, their gender. Very young children live lives that are essentially gender-neutral. There is no obvious favouritism toward one sex and almost no efforts to stress gender identity in early childhood. Babies spend their days within arm's reach of at least one adult, nurse on demand, and are picked up quickly upon fussing or crying. Weaning occurs anywhere from age one to age three, often dependent on the timing of the birth of a new sibling.

Once children reach the age where they can run around (2-3 years) they achieve a large degree of independence. Often, small groups of children of various ages will travel around the community together, playing and visiting various households. They often get fed by relatives during these stopovers, typically small meals of damper and jam or tea and biscuits. At night, young children sleep with their parents or other caretakers.

Adults spend their time either foraging, at work in the community or in the household, or socialising. Both men and women hunt, although their choice in game varies. Men tend to hunt larger game, such as kangaroo, bustards and camel, whereas women tend to hunt small game, mainly several species of lizard. Women also gather fruits and tubers and men and women both gather grubs and honey, depending on the season.

On any given day, at least one group in the community typically goes out hunting. Food is shared among households and most families cook their evening meal at an outside hearth, which is also a central gathering point for sharing stories and gossiping late into the evening.

Children looking out into the desert

Explore this fieldsite with Google Earth

Google Earth allows you to explore sites anywhere in the world using satellite images of those sites. Navigate the fieldsite and explore it in detail using the files below:

Google Earth files for Parnngurr (KMZ, 626B)


Brooke Scelza (forthcoming). Father’s presence speeds the social and reproductive careers of sons. Current Anthropology.

Brooke Scelza (2009). The grandmaternal niche: Critical caretaking among Martu Aborigines (170KB). American Journal of Human Biology, 21(4):448-454.

Brooke Scelza and Rebecca Bliege Bird (2008). Group structure and female cooperative networks in Australia's Western Desert. Human Nature 19:231-248.

Robert Tonkinson (1991). The Mardu Aborigines: Living the Dream in Australia’s Desert, Second Edition, Fort Worth, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Back to top