Organising knowledge - Yolŋu classification

The Yolŋu world is [also] divided into things which are walngamirr (life-having) and things that are walngamiriw (life without).

There are three different kinds of 'life-having' things: things that move themselves, including the sun and celestial bodies, fire and water; things that breath and reproduce, including all plants and animals except humans; and humans.

The category of living things is further divided on the basis of three questions:

"Nhädhuwal?" (What is this?),
"Nhaku dhuwal?"
(What’s this for?) and
"Wanhanguwuy dhuwal?" (Where does this come from?)

Yolŋu generally agree on the existence of nine sets of living things:

  1. dharpa… plants with woody stems.
  2. mulmu… plants without woody stems.
  3. warrakan… all land or freshwater mammals and reptiles except snakes, plus birds.
  4. bäpi… all snakes, legless lizards and worms.
  5. miyapunu… marine turtles and marine animals with bones.
  6. maranydjalk… stingrays and sharks.
  7. guya… fish.
  8. maypal… shellfish, crustaceans and some insect larvae.
  9. guku… native bees and bee products.

A number of species are known only by their own names and are not grouped with others e.g. centipedes, spiders, trepang, sea urchins and other insects. Also there are whole groups of insects that are known only by a single term e.g. cicadas, grasshoppers, butterflies…

Further subdivisions are made within four of the sets of living things:

a. warrakan butthunamirr (flying warrakan)
b. warrakan marrtjinyamirr (walking warrakan)
c. warrakan gal’yunamirr (crawling warrakan)
d. warrakan djuryunamirr (sliding warrakan)

a. ngarakamirr miyapunu (miyapunu with shells)
b. balawalamirr / yangara’mirr / barrwanmirr miyapunu (miyapunu with horizontal flukes on their tails/with tails/ with skin i.e. dolphin, dugong and whales)

a. maranydjalk (stingrays)
b. mana (sharks)

a. maypal (molluscs and some insect larvae)
b. dhunggalmirr / gongmirr maypal (maypal with ‘hands’ i.e. crabs, shrimps, crayfish)


The second method of classifying relates to the uses that things have. Two major categories result: maranhu (food) and mirritjin medicine. Food can be further subdivided as follows:


- Ngatha
(vegetable food and honey)

- ngatha (all root foods,nuts and the growth centres of palms)


- borum (fruit)

- Guku (honey)


- Gonyil
(meat and eggs)

- Divided according to the same sets of living things listed as numbers 3,5,6,7 and 8 and subdivisions of these

The third way of describing differences between natural species relates them to the places where they are found:

retjapuy belonging to the monsoon forest or jungle
diltjipuy belonging to the open eucalyptus forest
baralapuy belonging to sand dune country
gulunbuy belonging to the freshwater holes, swamps and their fringes
rangipuybelonging to the beaches

Fish are known by a number of habitats identified in the water:

garrwarpuy guya fish that live near the surface
ngoypuy guya fish that live near the bottom
mayaŋbuyguya fish that live in the rivers
raypinybuy guya fish that live in fresh water
gundapuy guya fish that live among reefs and rocks

There are at least ten categories of habitat recognised in which maypal (shellfish and crustaceans) can be found, and a number of these have subcategories. For example, one of the ten groups is that of maypal associated with rocks called gundapuy maypal. There are four distinct sets of these:

gundapuy maypal… those attached to rocks and reefs
warraŋulpuy maypal
those that move over the outer surfaces
lirrapuy maypal
those that move around the edges of rocks
djinawapuy maypal
those attached beneath rocks or inside coral

1 The information here has been adapted with permission from: Rudder, J., (1999)The Natural World of the Yolŋu The Aboriginal people from North East Arnhem Land, Restoration House.. This book is available from Restoration House, email: