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Norman Barnett Tindale (1900–1993)

by Philip Jones

This article was published:

Norman Tindale, after Mann Range expedition, 1933

Norman Tindale, after Mann Range expedition, 1933

South Australian Museum Archives, AA338/5/9/160

Norman Barnett Tindale (1900–1993), anthropologist, archaeologist, entomologist, and linguist, was born on 12 October 1900 in Perth, eldest of four sons of English-born James Hepburn Tindale, Salvation Army officer, and his South Australian-born wife, Mary Jane, née Kingston. In 1907 the family travelled to Tokyo, Japan, where James took up a position as an accountant with the Salvation Army mission. Norman attended the Tokyo School for Foreign Children, spending his free time with the children of Japanese neighbours, speaking street Japanese, and exploring the surrounding countryside where he developed his lifelong interest in entomology and natural history.

The Tindales returned to Perth in 1915 and relocated to Adelaide two years later. Aware of a possible entomology vacancy at the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia, and set on a career as an entomologist, Tindale took up a position as a library cadet in 1917. A few months later he lost the sight of his right eye in an acetylene gas explosion while assisting his father with limelight photographic work. The accident dulled none of his enthusiasm or ambition; in 1919 he secured a position as assistant to museum entomologist Arthur M. Lea. That year he enrolled part time at the University of Adelaide (BSc, 1932) where his lecturers included the geologist Sir Douglas Mawson. He studied geography under (Sir) Archibald Grenfell Price and was influenced by the work of Alfred Russell Wallace, the British naturalist, and by the Adelaide naturalist and ecologist, (Sir) J. B. Cleland. It was axiomatic that he would adopt a strongly ecological approach to his field observation and collecting, reinforced by his contact with Aboriginal people for whom the distribution and habits of plant and animal species were crucial data.

In 1921 Tindale took leave from the museum to undertake an eighteen-month entomological collecting trip for the Church Missionary Society to Roper River and Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Before leaving he consulted with Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer, taking his advice to keep a field journal with a daily record, even if the following day’s events invalidated a previous entry. Tindale would later say that he set out to Groote Eylandt as an entomologist and returned as an anthropologist. His comprehensive collection of well-documented natural history and ethnographic objects was the first in a long series gathered in partnership with Aboriginal people before cultural change wrought by colonisation. During the expedition a Ngandi man, Maroadunei, had introduced Tindale to the concept of bounded tribal territories, ‘beyond which it was dangerous to move without adequate recognition’ (Tindale 1974, 3). This insight provided the germ of his commitment to producing a continental map of Aboriginal territories, challenging the conventional view of shiftless nomadism.

Returning to Adelaide and the museum, Tindale became a member of an informal group of scientists and medical men whose interest in Aboriginal Australia had been encouraged by Sir Edward Stirling and by Frederic Wood Jones, who laid the groundwork for the Board for Anthropological Research. Tindale joined the board’s annual August expeditions to remote Central Australian localities, commencing in 1925. His role was essentially that of a social anthropologist with a material culture brief. He became proficient at film and sound recording, creating interlinear textual records of Aboriginal mythology and documenting artefacts and their use. Driven by a sense of urgency, the board’s rapid survey approach soon attracted criticism from A. P. Elkin, professor of anthropology at the University of Sydney, and members of his department. Tindale and his colleagues were conscious of the marked difference between their short-term, data-oriented team approach and that of the ‘Sydney school,’ which favoured long-term immersive studies. Gathering sufficient data to describe, as scientifically as possible, continental variation in Aboriginal culture and traits was Tindale’s primary objective. His methodology was to work in partnership with key informants, creating verifiable records in diverse media, from maps, audio, and film recordings to sketches and field-notes, placing his observations onto a record that could be used by later researchers, including Aboriginal people. This salvage ethnography did not preclude more focused studies, such as investigations into initiation practices, Western Desert art and mythology, or a detailed description of a coastal and riverine society on South Australia’s Lower Murray and Coorong. The last was undertaken in the 1930s with Tindale’s friend and informant, the Tanganekald man Clarence Long Milerum.

On 27 December 1924, at the Salvation Army Hall, Unley, Tindale had married Dorothy May Gibson, a shop assistant. They would have two children. During late 1926 Tindale travelled to Princess Charlotte Bay on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula with museum zoologist Herbert Hale. They collected natural history specimens, bartered for more than six hundred well-documented artefacts with Aboriginal groups of the region, and made film, photographic, and manuscript records. In 1929, with Hale, he excavated a five-thousand-year-old Aboriginal rock shelter at Devon Downs on the Murray River, presciently collecting carbon samples before the Carbon-14 dating technique was developed, and thus pioneering systematic archaeology in Australia.

Tindale received a Carnegie fellowship in 1936 to study international museum collections of Aboriginal material culture and methods of storage, conservation, and display. His conversations with Earnest A. Hooton, Harvard University’s leading physical anthropologist, led to an important collaboration between Harvard and Adelaide universities: a year-long expedition during 1938 and 1939 to examine the demographic history of the Aboriginal population since European arrival. Tindale’s collaborator, the geneticist Joseph Birdsell, became a lifelong friend. Their expedition through the missions and settlements of Aboriginal Australia, undertaken with their wives as support staff and fellow researchers, resulted in detailed genealogical and photographic records of around three thousand individuals, supplemented by a similar number during their subsequent joint expedition during 1952–53. These data subsequently became the foundation of the South Australian Museum’s Aboriginal Family History project, digitally repatriated to Indigenous communities and individuals across Australia. Hair samples obtained during these expeditions have formed the basis of DNA research in collaboration with communities, helping to confirm the longevity and original distribution of Aboriginal populations and reinforcing their abiding and ancient connections to country.

Early in World War II, Tindale was rejected for military service because of the loss of sight in his right eye. After Japan entered the war in December 1941, he informed the authorities of his rare facility in Japanese. On 23 February 1942 he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force and the following month was commissioned and posted to the Directorate of Military Intelligence in Melbourne. He was soon leading a team that translated, decoded, and analysed manufacturers’ information plates retrieved from crashed or abandoned Japanese military aircraft, enabling the Allied bombing campaign to attack precise industrial targets.

In July 1942 Tindale’s operation was incorporated as the Air Industry Section within the Directorate of Intelligence at Allied Air Forces Headquarters in Brisbane. He was promoted to acting squadron leader in December 1943. As AIRIND’s strategic importance grew, it was transferred to the Military Intelligence Service in Washington in mid-1944 and expanded under Tindale’s direction. As an acting wing commander he took part in the United States Strategic Bombing Survey of Japan between August 1945 and May 1946, reporting on the campaign’s effectiveness against Japan’s aircraft industry. He visited the bombed remains of his family’s former Tokyo home. The United States of America sought the Australian government’s approval to appoint him to its Legion of Merit for his outstanding contribution to the war effort; the request was refused as his service had been non-operational. He was demobilised in Australia on 13 August 1946.

In 1940 Tindale had published his first continental map of Aboriginal territories, based on historical sources and his own fieldwork. Following his return to civilian life and the South Australian Museum, he began working on a more comprehensive map and accompanying gazetteer, eventually publishing it in 1974. His data ranged from original manuscript sources from explorers and missionaries to his own field observations and the direct contributions by Aboriginal men (in particular) who mapped out their ancestral countries and mythological trajectories with brown paper and crayon supplied by Tindale during his Central Australian expeditions. Tindale’s map has generated its own controversies, partly through misunderstanding of its stated purpose—to represent Aboriginal countries at the moment of first contact, rather than at a later phase—and partly because of Tindale’s decision to apply the singular term ‘tribe’ to language groups that were often heterogeneous in nature.

Tindale’s appetite for fieldwork was unabated. He and Birdsell recommenced their Australia-wide field investigations among Aboriginal mission and settlement communities in 1952, funded mainly by the University of California. During the 1950s and 1960s he undertook fieldwork at Yuendumu (1951), Lake Eyre (1955), Haasts Bluff (1956, 1957), South Australia’s north-west (1957, 1966), Mornington and Bentinck Islands (1960), the Simpson Desert (1962–63), Gulf of Carpentaria (1963), Rawlinson Range (1963), and other Western Australian localities (1966, 1968). Each expedition’s results were meticulously documented in his journals and cross-referenced to related media.

An impressive polymath, Tindale followed numerous overlapping research paths beyond anthropology, ethnology, archaeology, and cartography. In entomology, his first love, he studied the Hepialidae ghost moths, the grub of which figured prominently in some Aboriginal people’s diets. As a geologist he specialised in the study of Pleistocene shorelines and types and sources of stone tools. In linguistics he joined a small committee at the University of Adelaide under the professor of classics, J. A. FitzHerbert, applying a modified form of the Geographic I script to his record of 150 parallel Aboriginal vocabularies from across Australia, several recorded from the last language speakers. He published more than sixty scholarly papers on natural history and more than 130 papers on anthropology and archaeology.

A tall, energetic man with blue eyes and a ‘boyish sense of humour’ (Jones 1995, 168), Tindale was known to friends and colleagues as ‘Tinny.’ He spent more than seven years of his professional career in the field and, following his retirement from the South Australian Museum in 1965, he continued his fieldwork in Western Australia with the American anthropologist and folklorist John Greenway. Moving to the United States in 1965, Tindale took up a teaching position at the University of Colorado, organised by Greenway, who also gathered testimonials for the university’s 1967 award to Tindale of an honorary doctorate in science. In 1980 he would receive an honorary doctorate in anthropology from the Australian National University. He had been awarded the Royal Society of South Australia’s Verco medal in 1956 and the Australian Natural History Society’s medallion in 1968, followed by the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia’s John Lewis medal in 1980.

Dorothy Tindale died in 1969 and, on 1 August 1970, at Santa Clara, California, Norman married Muriel Nevin, whom he had met in Hawaii during 1936. Palo Alto became their home for the next twenty-three years. Following the 1974 publication of his Aboriginal Tribes of Australia and accompanying map, Tindale continued to undertake research and publish, drawing upon his own voluminous manuscript data and contributing particularly to the rising field of place name research in Australia. He lived long enough to see his research data actively used by descendants of his Aboriginal informants, both for their family histories and to support land claims and native title cases. Critiques and occasional errors aside, Tindale’s empirical data has formed a durable substrate for the reinvigoration of Indigenous cultures across much of Aboriginal Australia. Survived by his wife and the son and daughter of his first marriage, he died on 19 November 1993 at Palo Alto, having received unofficial notification of his appointment as AO. He bequeathed his large collection of expedition journals, papers, sound and film recordings, drawings, slides, correspondence, maps, photographs, genealogies, and vocabularies to the South Australian Museum, where, in 2013, the Norman Barnett Tindale Collection was inscribed onto the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization Australian Memory of the World register.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Jones, Philip. ‘Norman B. Tindale.’ Records of the South Australian Museum 28, no. 2 (December 1995): 159–76
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, Tindale, N. B
  • South Australian Museum Archives. AA 338, N. B. Tindale
  • Tindale, Norman B. Interview by P. G. Jones. Tapes and notes in author's possession
  • Tindale, Norman B. Aboriginal Tribes of Australia: Their Terrain, Environmental Controls, Distribution, Limits, and Proper Names. Berkeley, USA: University of California Press, 1974
  • Walter, Karen. ‘The Proper Breadth of Interest: Norman B. Tindale: The Development of a Fieldworker in Aboriginal Australia 1900–1936.’ MA thesis, Australian National University, Canberra, 1988

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Philip Jones, 'Tindale, Norman Barnett (1900–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Norman Tindale, after Mann Range expedition, 1933

Norman Tindale, after Mann Range expedition, 1933

South Australian Museum Archives, AA338/5/9/160

Life Summary [details]


12 October, 1900
Perth, Western Australia, Australia


19 November, 1993 (aged 93)
Palo Alto, California, United States of America

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
Key Organisations