Over the years, numerous observers have commented on the uniqueness of Australian rules football, and there have been several theories as to how the game was developed. I’ve already touched on Gaelic football being a major influence on footy, but one of the more intriguing — and controversial — theories is that the development of Aussie rules was influenced by Marn Grook, an indigenous game that was popular among Aboriginal communities in rural Victoria.
Very few concrete details have survived about Marn Grook, but based on a handful of eyewitness accounts, the game was very fast-paced and placed a large emphasis on kicking and catching a ball. Many players took spectacular leaps over each other to catch the ball and focused on never letting the ball touch the floor. Like modern footy, the game was played by numerous athletes over a very large area.
The 1878 book The Aborigines of Victoria quoted William Thomas, a local politician who represented Aboriginal groups at the time. He saw a game of Marn Grook and was very intrigued:
The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played…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, using the instep for that purpose. …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.
The game was reportedly quite popular among Aboriginal tribes on the outskirts of what is now Melbourne. Robert Brough-Smith, a 19th-century author and geologist, saw a game of Marn Grook played at Coranderrk Mission Station, where Aboriginal elder William Barak encouraged the playing of indigenous sports over the country’s imported sports, such as cricket.
In 2007, an image was accidentally discovered at a Melbourne museum that portrayed a group of Aborigines playing Marn Grook. The caption described the sketching as being taken in 1857 and stated that the purpose of the game was to never let the ball touch the ground.
“What I can say for certain is that it’s the first image of any kind of football that’s been discovered in Australia,” footy historian Greg de Moore said at the time. “It pre-dates the first European images of any kind of football, by almost ten years in Australia. Whether or not there is a link between the two games in some way, for me, is immaterial, because it really highlights that games such as Marn Grook — which is one of the names for Aboriginal football — were played by Aborigines and should be celebrated in their own right.”
Fellow historian Geoffrey Blainey has also commented that the feature of spectacular marking in footy was first started in the late 19th century after players observed Aborigines in South Australia performing the high leaps required to take a “spekkie.” However, this theory is mostly circumstantial.
Another prominent theory revolves around Tom Wills, the acclaimed Melbourne cricketer who was one of the pioneers of Aussie rules in the 19th century. Wills grew up on a large colonial ranch near modern-day Moyston, Victoria, where he was the only white child for miles around and grew up playing sports with Aboriginal kids. Therefore, many historians have believed that Wills was influenced by sports such as Marn Grook when developing the laws of Aussie rules football. Footy historian Col Hutchison was a major proponent of this theory, and a quote from him is featured at a monument to Wills in Moyston:
While playing as a child with Aboriginal children in this area, [Wills] developed a game which he later utilised in the formation of Australian Football.
Many of Wills’s descendants still adhere to this belief, noting that Wills was frequently caught in the middle of cultural upheaval in the world of Australian sport — having to constantly reconcile his unique multicultural upbringing against what was then a largely segregated society, especially in sports.
They also have claimed that Wills used his childhood experiences as a basis for a similar, fast-paced game of football that is known and loved by Aussies of all backgrounds to this day. This has arguably been the biggest lightning rod in the debate over the roots of modern-day footy, with many arguing that the evidence surrounding Wills is purely circumstantial.
Here’s what we do know:
- While Marn Grook appears to have been very popular with indigenous tribes in the rural fringes of modern-day Melbourne, there’s no immediate, conclusive evidence that specific ball game was played as far north as Moyston (although it’s likely that similar ball games were played by numerous Aboriginal tribes, including in New South Wales and Central Australia). This was backed up (somewhat controversially) by AFL historian Gillian Hibbins in 2008, stating that “understandably, the appealing idea that Australian Football is a truly Australian native game recognising the indigenous people, rather than deriving solely from a colonial dependence upon the British background, has been uncritically embraced and accepted. Sadly, this emotional belief lacks any intellectual credibility.”
- The fact that the anthropological evidence is so thin regarding the actual details of Marn Grook gameplay have proven to be a roadblock for historians who want to make the case that footy was born out of a prior, uniquely Aboriginal sport.
- The debate over the spectacular mark being a strictly indigenous creation is inconclusive, as the “spekkie” itself did not become a staple of Australian football until the 1880s.
- Other historians, such as Barry Judd and Chris Hallinan, have stated that allowing or admitting the Mark Grook connection would certainly have been frowned upon, especially amid the ongoing racial tensions between Anglos and Aborigines in 19th-century Australia. In 2008, writer and commentator Jim Poulter even went as far as to say, “If Tom Wills had have said ‘Hey, we should have a game of our own more like the football the black fellas play,’ it would have been killed stone dead before it was even born.”
In my opinion, footy is an exciting blend of multiple sports, with early forms of rugby, Gaelic football, and various indigenous influences combining to create a truly unique and distinctly Australian sport.
Regardless of the possible Marn Grook connection, Aboriginal players have long played a huge role in the popularity of Aussie rules — only about three percent of Australians identify as Aboriginal, but roughly 10 percent of AFL players are of at least partial Aboriginal descent. Some of the game’s biggest names in the modern era are indigenous players, including Eddie Betts, Lance “Buddy” Franklin, Cyril Rioli, Travis Varcoe, Steven Motlop, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Chad Wingard, and Patrick Ryder.
So in conclusion, regardless of the sport’s origin, Aussie rules football has proven to — perhaps inadvertently — help give indigenous players a spotlight and bridge the gap among various races and backgrounds in Australia.