Last night’s 7:30 Report featured a report on the origins of AFL footfall, and specifically that it may have been inspired by a game played by the Aborigines of western Victoria called Marn Grook.

The main proponent of this 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.

I personally like the idea that Marn Grook was the inspiration behind the game, but beyond mere contemporaneous probability – Wills grew up in the area in which Mark Grook was reported to have been played and, by all reports, was inducted into the local indigenous culture, making it unlikely that he never knew about it – the evidence is a little thin.

One aspect of the evidence that Poulter refers to is that the ‘Aboriginal’ word2 for ‘catch’ was mumark3. 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 ALF 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. However, the AFL today appear quite happy to capitalise on its purported Aboriginal roots, which presents an obvious paradox as far as another writer, Martin Flanagan, is concerned:

If the official history of the AFL is true, the AFL has got no more claim to having a connection with Indigenous culture than Rugby Union does and so all these big games it has like the Marn Grook Trophy and ‘Dreamtime at the G’, what are they? Are they just marketing exercises?

I don’t have anything novel to add to this debate, though I lean, probably as a result of romanticism, toward the indigenous roots story.

If anyone knows of any more conclusive evidence either way, then by all means, let me know in the comments.

  1. Spelled Warendight in the transcript []
  2. That he can’t name a language is a bit of weak point in his argument, if you ask me. []
  3. Mumark is the 7:30 Report‘s transcription, but Poulter clearly pronounces it [məma:k] []