A confederacy of Koorie clans, the Kulin was comprised of four -urrung dialect groups. The basis of this confederacy was a commonality of language and spiritual belief. The name is derived from the term for human being, common to each of the dialects. Closely associated with these four groups were two others who spoke similar dialects and who were considered by the Kulin to be friendly and marriageable.
Although in traditional Koorie society the land-owning clan was the most important level of social organisation, a confederacy of the Kulin type provided a framework within which clan members could enlarge their social and physical worlds. At the time of European settlement in the Port Phillip District, Kulin clans were the traditional owners of a large area of central Victoria. This area included land on both sides of the Dividing Ranges: on the northern side stretching from present-day Benalla, touching the Murray River at Echuca, to past St Arnaud. On the southern side of the ranges, Kulin clans occupied the land from Wilsons Promontory to near Streatham, including both the Mornington and Bellarine peninsulas.
The little that is known of the structure of Kulin clans, and the nature of the relationships that existed between clans that were at some distance from each other, has been derived primarily from careful analysis of sometimes sketchy historical records compiled by European observers within 70 years of the settlement of Melbourne. The picture of the Kulin social networks that has been reconstructed thus cannot be regarded as complete but, rather, the best approximation currently available.
Relationships between clan members of the Kulin were based on familial and totemic class connections established over probably hundreds of years. All Kulin clans were patrilineal, that is, they traced their descent from the father (a rarity in Aboriginal Australia), and chose marriage partners according to a moiety system of totemic class. In the Kulin moiety system the two classes were referred to as Bunjil and Waa (Eaglehawk and Crow respectively). The intricate network of links established between individuals and groups through intermarriage in this way, allowed members of the Kulin 'nation' to exercise a variety of rights of access to resources in a large area of central Victoria.
Applying the most recently derived language names, the four groups that primarily comprised the Kulin were called Woi wurrung, Boon wurrung, Daung wurrung, and Ngurai-illam wurrung. The two groups of clans that spoke related -urrung languages and were considered honorary members of the Kulin 'nation' were Watha wurrung and Djadja wurrung. The clan estates of these six groups can be largely defined by reference to natural topographic features such as drainage basin boundaries. The groups can be characterised briefly in the following terms.
There were four clans whose language was Woi wurrung. Three of these clans were of the Waa class and one Bunjil. The contiguous estates of the Woi wurrung clans comprised the drainage basin of the Yarra River. These clans, and in particular the Wurundjeri-willam who lived along the sides of the Yarra, were thus the principal residents of the Melbourne area.
Boon wurrung was the language spoken by six clans (five Bunjil; one Waa) whose estates stretched in a broad band from Wilsons Promontory to the eastern side of the Werribee River. In the immediate vicinity of Melbourne, the Yalukit-willam clan identified with the strip of land that lay between the Yarra River and Port Phillip Bay, stretching from the junction of Gardiners Creek and the Yarra, to the Werribee River.
The Daung wurrung dialect was spoken by a group of nine clans (five Bunjil; four Waa). All of these clans lived to the north of the Dividing Range, their collective estates comprising the drainage basins of the Goulburn, Broken, Campaspe, Coliban and Delatite rivers.
The most northerly Kulin clans were the three that made up the Ngurai-illam wurrung dialect group. These clans (two Bunjil, one Waa) occupied areas adjacent to the lower Campaspe and Goulburn rivers. Although distinguishable as a separate group, the Ngurai-illam wurrung spoke the same language as their neighbours, the Daung wurrung, to whom they were closely related.
In the drainage basins of the Avoca and Loddon rivers there were 15 clans who together comprised the Djadja wurrung language group. Of these clans six were Bunjil, one was Waa, and the moiety of the remaining eight is uncertain.
The Watha wurrung language group, of 14 clans (of which five were Waa, seven were Bunjil, and the moiety of two is uncertain), lived on the western side of Port Phillip Bay, south of the Dividing Range, from the Werribee River to near present-day Streatham. Their territory included all of the Bellarine Peninsula, and the drainage basins of the Moorabool and Yarrowee rivers and upper Mount Emu Creek.
All Kulin clans were exogamous, that is, men always sought marriage partners from another clan, usually one from as far away as practical. In addition, partners had to be in the opposite marriage class. Both men and women from a Bunjil clan, for example, had to seek marriage partners from a Waa clan; if they were Waa they had to marry Bunjil. In this way it was common for alliances to be contracted between partners from the Daung wurrung and Woi wurrung (who also shared 75% of their respective vocabularies), and between the Boon wurrung and Watha wurrung (who had a 37% common vocabulary).
Each Kulin clan was essentially independent, and was governed by one or two headmen. These individuals had authority to speak on behalf of clan members at the councils of such clan heads, but otherwise had no special authority outside their clan. At the time of European settlement on Kulin land, however, Billibellary - the headman of the Wurundjeri-willam clan of Woi wurrung - was considered the pre-eminent Kulin headman, whose voice carried extra weight.
The connections that existed between Kulin clans - of both a social and spiritual nature - required regular meetings, to affirm and confirm these connections. Such time-honoured gatherings occurred at places throughout Kulin territory. One of these places was in Woi wurrung territory, along the lower reaches of the Yarra River. Thus, by an unfortunate coincidence, the settlement of Melbourne developed in what was a traditional meeting place for Kulin clans. As William Thomas wrote in 1840, 'long ere the settlement was formed, the spot where Melbourne now stands and the flat on which we are now camped [near the present-day Royal Botanic Gardens] was the regular rendezvous for the [Kulin] twice a year or as often as circumstances and emergencies required to settle their grievances, revenge deaths, etc.'
On such occasions it was the practice for the different language groups to camp in locations determined by tradition. Thus, in the vicinity of Melbourne, Watha wurrung groups generally set up on the western side of Sydney Road, close to the site of the Old Melbourne Cemetery. Boon wurrung clans chose sites in the area of today's Botanic Gardens; the Daung wurrung traditionally camped in the vicinity of Ryrie's Hill (now Clifton Hill); and Woi wurrung were found on the site now occupied by the Melbourne Cricket Ground and Richmond Oval.
Although they were united by a vast array of social connections, the members of the Kulin were not always cordial in their relationships with each other. Disputes between groups arose from time to time from a number of causes, and long-running feuds were not uncommon. During 1839, for example, there was a running sequence of conflicts between Woi wurrung and Watha wurrung clans, with the former group sometimes enlisting the help of Boon wurrung clans. In April a group of 72 Watha wurrung men and women arrived in Melbourne, determined to fight in order to redress a wrong done to them by the Woi wurrung. A small group composed of men from Boon wurrung and Woi wurrung clans set off for a return match in August of the same year, and a third round came in the middle of the following month. George Robinson, the Chief Protector, recorded then that Woi wurrung men were preparing spears and boomerangs in order to fight the Watha wurrung whom they expected in Melbourne in a few days. The basis of these disputes was usually access to resources and infringements of protocol.