Following the travelling Tjitjingalla

by Jason Gibson
Publish date
9 September 2011
Comments (5)

Jason Gibson is a Senior Research Coordinator with the Australian National University and the Indigenous Cultures Department at Museum Victoria.

In 1894 Walter Edmund Roth heard about a performance, called the 'Molong-go' that had been shared by the Wakaya people from the upper reaches of the Georgina River in the Northern Territory with the Pitta Pitta people in outback Queensland. As an ethnographer, Roth was fascinated to hear that the dance had 'originated from a point east or south-east of Darwin'; some hundreds of kilometres from the Queensland desert country where he was stationed. Two years later in 1898 Alice Springs Special Magistrate F.J. Gillen wrote to his friend and collaborator in anthropological studies, the then Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne Walter Baldwin Spencer, explaining that a corroboree almost identical to the one seen by Roth had appeared in Alice Springs. Gillen explained to Spencer that the dance, known as the Tjitjingalla altharte (corroboree) to the local Arrernte people, had been 'brought down' into the region by a 'northern group'.

Tjitjingalla Corroboree performed in Alice Springs, 1901 Tjitjingalla Corroboree performed in Alice Springs, 1901. The picture depicts one of the dance sequences of the Tjitjingalla as performed by Arrernte people at Alice Springs.
Image: Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer
Source: Museum Victoria

After attending the performance, which extended over five nights, Gillen reported that the repertoire had indeed originated 1500kms north, in the 'country of the Salt water' and that 'the implements carried by the performers' were 'in all cases the same as described by Roth'. Three years later, during the Spencer and Gillen Expedition of 1901 Spencer collected two of the dancing sticks used in the performance.

Two Tjitjingalla dancing sticks Two Tjitjingalla dancing sticks wrapped in human hair string. These dancing sticks were used in one of the dance sequences of the altharte or what Spencer called an ‘ordinary corroboree’.
Image: Justine Philip
Source: Museum Victoria

Tjitjingalla dancing stick detail Detail of a Tjitjingalla dancing stick.
Image: Justine Phillip
Source: Museum Victoria

Earlier in the expedition, whilst camped by the Stevenson Creek in the remote north of South Australia, Spencer and Gillen were visited a small group of Lower Arrernte men. Gillen writes, 'we gave them a good feed and after tea rigged the phonograph up and got them to sing into it a number of corroboree songs' and Spencer also noted that the men 'were very much excited and interested, especially as we let them hear the instrument repeating what they had said.' It was here, almost by accident, that one of the Tjitjingalla song verses was recorded. A few weeks later when the expedition reached Alice Springs Spencer spent considerable time photographing and filming the altharte using his Warwick motion film camera. The sound and film recordings made of the Tjitjingalla are some of the earliest ever made on the Australian continent.

Listen to Baldwin Spencer's introduction to the recording, courtesy of the Gillen Collection, Royal Geographic Society of South Australia  (Length 0:29)  
(Download MP3)

"This corroboree, the Tjitjingalla corroboree, was first described by Dr. Roth in north central Queensland. Subsequently was performed by the natives of central Australia [unknown] the Arrernte tribe at Alice Springs. This corroboree was sung on the Stevenson River on March 22nd, 1901."

The peregrination of the Tjitjingalla/Molongo, which was subsequently documented at various locations in South Australia, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland, later became important to theories regarding the exchange of ideas, songs, dances and mythologies amongst the Australian Indigenous population.

More stories like this are being uncovered in a joint research project between the Australian National University, Museum Victoria and the South Australian Museum. The Reconstructing the Spencer and Gillen Collection Project will produce an online database of the W.B. Spencer and F.J. Gillen collaboration, including objects they collected, their photographs, manuscripts, diaries, correspondence and other material held in over 20 institutions, both in Australia and overseas.

Comments (5)

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Charlie Ward 9 September, 2011 13:42
Fascinating vignette; the country really was 'alive with song'! Do we know where the dance was recorded around Alice?
Jason 15 September, 2011 10:46
The song was recorded on the Stevenson River in South Australia but the dance was filmed and photographed near the Telegraph Station in Alice Springs.
John Kean 3 January, 2012 12:22
Spencer mentions that Roth also recorded the Tjitjingalla ceremony, it would be fascinating to see the iconography of both ceremonies together. Where and when was the ceremony recorded in WA? Did it morph into something else or did Tjitjingalla just go out of fashion?
Jason Gibson 12 January, 2012 16:36
Yes, F.J. Gillen took photos of the Tjitjingalla when it first appeared in Alice Springs. He then compared his photographs with the illustrations of the ceremony that appeared in Roth's book 'Ethnological Studies Among the North-west-central Queensland Aborigines' (1897). Although there were some differences in the body paint and aspects of the performance it was mostly very similar. The dance was recorded in Penong (in 1915) and on the Nullabor Plain via Streaky Bay (in 1918). Apparently, it made its way back into Central Australia in the 1930s and was last recorded at Maryvale Station in the 1950s.
Ricky Orr 16 February, 2017 17:55
Hi Jason, I'm trying to contact you in relation to my ancetors belief and customs from the southern Aranta and Mututjara/Luritja regions aoround Titjikala and Finke area, I sent you and email today if you can get back to me that wouild be great
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