the study of the kicking components within sports

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Marn Grook: The (Ab)original Punters

punt [puhnt] -noun
A kick in which the ball is dropped and then kicked before it touches the ground.

Various methods of kicking a ball are used in the various kicking games played around the globe. While punting is best known to our North American audience via American and Canadian football and the players applicably called punters, this particular method is (and probably always has been) especially prevalent in Australia. The Djabwurrung and Jardwadjali Aboriginal clans from western Victoria played Marn Grook, which means "game ball". Technically, it was more a group activity than a game. There were no teams or scoring. It was simply a group of players punting and catching a ball repeatedly. It compares more so to the traditional game of Kemari in Japan or the modern day hacky sack, than it does to any current games known as football. The Marn Grook ball was typically made from possum or kangaroo skin.

The first unanswered question is the age of Marn Grook. It may very well date back thousands of years, however since Aboriginal history is oral we don't know for certain. The first documented evidence dates back to the nineteenth century and the arrival of the Europeans. Robert Brough-Smyth, in an 1878 book The Aborigines of Victoria, quoted William Thomas, a Protector of Aborigines in Victoria, who stated that in about 1841 he had witnessed Wurundjeri Aborigines playing the game.
"The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played. One makes a ball of possum skin, somewhat elastic, but firm and strong. The players of this game do not throw the ball as a white man might do, but drop it and at the same time kicks it with his foot. The tallest men have the best chances in this game. Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it. This continues for hours and the natives never seem to tire of the exercise."
An 1857 sketch found in 2007 describes an observation by Victorian scientist William Blandowski, of the Nyeri Nyeri people playing a football game at Merbein, on his expedition to the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers. The image is inscribed:
"A group of children is playing with a ball. The ball is made out of typha roots (roots of the bulrush). It is not thrown or hit with a bat, but is kicked up in the air with a foot. The aim of the game – never let the ball touch the ground."

The second question is whether Marn Grook influenced the creation of Australian Rules football. The debate is ongoing. Those who feel it did factor into the modern game look to the common sense circumstantial evidence.
The historical link commonly made between Marn Grook and Australian football is through the experiences of Thomas Wills, the man widely regarded as the father of what used to be called Australian Rules. According to journalist and author Martin Flanagan, who wrote a biography of Wills, there is no definitive proof that Wills used Marn Grook as a model for the game first played between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College in Melbourne in 1858. However, at the very least, Wills's life story gives grounds for strong speculation that he was influenced by Aboriginal culture.

Wills was raised in Victoria's Western Districts where he regularly played with Aboriginal children. Later, he was to recall watching a game in which they kicked a possum skin about the size of an orange stuffed with charcoal. The game was played between large groups on a totemic basis - the white cockatoos versus the black cockatoos, for example - with the greatest honour going to those who could leap or kick the highest. Later Wills was educated at Rugby School where Flanagan says he was bemused by the English game. Wills's grazier father was killed by Aboriginal tribesmen in 1861 yet, fives years later, he coached the Aboriginal team before it toured England in 1866.

It is this strong and frequent exposure to Aborigines and their culture that has led some to draw the conclusion Australian football is derived largely from a game that could have been played up to 40,000 years ago. However, despite his exhaustive research on the topic, Flanagan prefers not to enter the debate. "What I can say for a fact is that there are a lot of Aboriginal people convinced that it is an Aboriginal game," he says. "There are plenty who will tell you the white fellas just added some rules."
The counter argument looks to the lack of any definitive evidence:
The main proponent of [the first] theory is Jim Poulter, a descendant of settlers who saw Marn Grook played at the goldfields near Warrandyte1 in the 1850s; several years before AFL was established. However, the historian interviewed for the report, Gillian Hibbins, disagrees on the basis that the celebrated inventor of AFL football, Tom Wills, never mentioned the indigenous sport in any of his writings, either personal or professional.

One aspect of the evidence that Poulter refers to is that the ‘Aboriginal’ word for ‘catch’ was mumark. As the story goes, this became the ‘mark’ of the modern game. Although, using the term ‘mark’ to refer to an unequivocal catch and subsequent free kick had apparently been well attested in England for years already. The word ‘mark’ comes from at least two public schools where they marked and ground and shouted ‘mark’ so that everybody would clear away and give them a free kick.

The official history of the AFL maintains that Wills invented the game with direct inspiration from English Public – that is, Private – schools, and not from the indigenous people of the area in which he spent much of his time.
Regardless of the answers, we do know one thing for certain...

Australians know how to punt the ball.

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