Each year the AFL Grand Final packs out the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) for a sporting spectacle like no other. So how exactly did AFL become the game it is today? To answer that, let’s discuss the history a First Nations’ game commonly known as “Marngrook”. Play on!
Sure, there are nods to First Nations’ culture in modern Aussie Rules like annual Dreamtime at the ‘G game and the Indigenous jumpers designs worn in the Sir Doug Nicholls round.
But the AFL’s history intertwines deeply with that of First Nations’ cultures. These intersections between Marngrook and AFL have even caused an argument among historians about the extent to which the former was a precursor to the latter.
What does Marngrook mean?
According to Deadly Story, “Marngrook” is a Woiwurrung word that means “game ball”.
According to Reconciliation Manningham, over 300 Indigenous language groups had their own name for the game such as mingorm, mangoort, yoomkoort and pultja.
What were the rules of Marngrook?
Marngrook would be played by anywhere from 50 and 100 players with games lasting up to two days. Not gonna lie, some of the low-scoring AFL games in the 2022 season had me believing they’d trailed on for two fkn days. *yawn*.
Players would kick around a possum skin ball filled with charcoal and tied together by a kangaroo-tail sinw as per SBS. For those playing along at home, a sinw is a piece of fibrous tissue that attaches muscle to bone and I definitely didn’t just google that.
The purpose of Marngrook wasn’t to score goals. This is mainly because…there weren’t any! Instead, the main objective of the game was to mark the ball at its highest point in the air.
Was AFL influenced by Marngrook?
Historians reckon this high marking led to the normalization of what’s known today as the “specky”. Or as I like to call it a “howthefuckdidyougetupthathighcouldyoupleasedustthecobwebswhileyou’rethere?”.
Tanya Hoschthe AFL’s GM of inclusion and social policy confirmed this after the league commissioned an investigation into the game’s history and origins.
“Marngrook, a high-marking game played in Victoria’s western districts, pre-European settlement, undoubtedly influenced what we now understand as the modern AFL football code,” Hosch said as per the ABC.
“(Marngrook) is Australia’s only Indigenous football game — a game born from the ancient traditions of our country.”
Historic Jim Poulter added that “there is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that Australian Rules Football was in part derived from Aboriginal football.
“Settlers were seeing it all the time and recording it,” he said in an interview with the ABC in 2020.
One of the many settlers thought to have played Marngrook was a man named Thomas Wills. Wills grew up in Moysten near Victoria’s Grampian ranges alongside the local Djab Wurrung kids.
Many historians believe that Wills’ experiences playing Marngrook influenced (at least in part) the first official set of recorded AFL rules penned by the Victorian in 1859 alongside six other members of the Melbourne Cricket Club.
Why is there debate about the connection between Marngrook and AFL?
Some folks contest the theory that Wills was in fact influenced by Marngrook when drafting the AFL rules.
Historic Dr Greg de Mooreauthor of the book A National Game is one such critical.
“There is an evidence gap … I’ve seen nothing in recent years to change my view,” he told the ABC.
Roy Haythe author of Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century argues that the game Wills envisioned was based on his seven years spent overseas at a UK boarding school.
“The things that he wanted to introduce into the game derived from his background at Rugby School in England and the sorts of games that people were playing in the public schools,” Mr Hay said.
However, when analyzing First Nations’ history through primary sources like diary entries, rule books and letters, it’s important to remember that these are documents produced by colonisers.
Indigenous language and culture in Australia, on the other hand, is often passed down orally.
First Nations’ oral traditions have a history of not being considered “accurate” by colonisers.
Therefore, when discussing Marngrook’s influence on AFL it seems only fair to assess both oral First Nations’ sources as well as settler colonial sources.
As the Old El Paso taco ad girl one said “porque no los dos?”
An excellent example of Marngrook’s oral history comes from a Mukjarrawaint man named Johnny Connolly.
In the State Library of Victoria, historian Jenny Hocking found a transcribed conversation where Connolly “describes actually playing the game in the Grampians region as a child in the 1830s to 40s,” as per the ABC.
“We’ve later found connections between Johnny Connolly and the area in which Tom Wills actually lived,” Hocking said.
“The most important thing is it situates the game in its local version in the Grampians region at the same time as Tom Wills. There’s now no doubt about that.”
Regardless of whether Wills chose to disclose that Marngrook inspired his AFL rules, we now know Wills existed at the same time and place as the First Nations people playing the game.
This info was only accessed by utilizing oral primary sources that otherwise might’ve been lost or discredited had they not been transcribed in an accessible format deemed “legitimate” to settler historians.
So as Oprah would say, “what’s the truth?”
At the end of the day, all sports are essentially “made up”.
They’re inspired by pre-existing games, adapted to new environments or created by combining a bunch of other sports.
The AFL played today is almost unrecognizable from that which would’ve been played in 1859 according to Wills’ first written rules.
I mean, Robbie “Bones” McGhie literally punched a dart during Richmond’s 1973 granny win. Could you imagine one of today’s granny players doing the same thing?
The game, much like our understanding of its history, is always evolving. And there will likely be continued debate about the exactly origins of Aussie Rules football for years to come.
One thing’s for certain though, whenever you see a jaw dropping specky, you can thank Marngrook!
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Image: Mike Owen/AFL Photos/via Getty Images