Australian Aboriginal Astronomy: The World’s First Astronomers?
I acknowledge the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and community. I pay my respects to them and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present.
After having lived and traveled in Australia for over 2-and-a-half years on three separate occasions, I’m a bit obsessed with the country. One of my best memories are the times I slept outside in nature, rolled up in a swag (a portable sleeping roll) and looking at the stars. Coming from a light-polluted part of the Northern Hemisphere, the amount of stars and new constellations that I could see there were incredible!
What I didn’t know was that the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people were considered by some people as the world’s first astronomers! With origins dating back to over 50.000 years, they had deep interest in the different phenomena in the sky. They recognized certain stars and their patterns and told stories about what would cause the motion of the Sun and Moon, eclipses and comets.
Understanding Aboriginal Culture
It is important to realize than in Australia, there are over 400 indigenous cultures and most of them have a different language, mythology, unique ceremonies, laws and forms of art. But while there are distinct differences between the communities, there are definitely some common threads running through many of them.
Most Aboriginal cultures, for example, are centered around the idea that the world was created in the ‘Dreaming’ by ancestral spirits who left their symbols all around us to help us make sense of the meaning of life and the rules by which we should live. Understanding the night sky is an important part of that culture.
Stars were commonly used to measure time, give directions and follow the seasons to regulate daily activities, such as knowing when to eat certain types of food. Aboriginal calendars are slightly different than Western calendars, as many communities use a calendar with six seasons, and some groups mark the seasons by the stars which are visible during them.
Many objects in the sky also had stories attached to them, retold from generations to generations, teaching about values and morality of the community.
The Southern Hemisphere
The constellations that you can see in certain parts of the world differ from those in the sky of the Southern Hemisphere, where Australia is.
The Australian Aboriginal people also looked at the constellations in a different way than we do in the West. Where we connect the stars with imaginary lines, for example, Aboriginal people rather look at the clouds around the stars and therefore see entirely different things in the sky.
While there is no space for me to share all of the Aboriginal constellations and stories that come with them in depth, here are a few well-known stories that are sure to amaze you:
1. Emu in the Sky
The ‘Emu in the Sky’ is defined by the dark nebulae (opague clouds of dust and gas in outer space), that are visible against the Milky Way background, rather than by stars. When you’re far away from artificial light and have a good look at the mighty Milky Way, you can spot the Emu’s head in the very dark nebula (called the ‘Coalsack’ by locals) next to the Southern Cross. The body and legs are other dark clouds trailing out along the Milky Way to Scorpius.
The Southern Cross itself, which is only visible in the Southern Hemisphere, is seen by the Australian Boorong people as a possum in a tree, the Wardaman people see it as the head of a lawman.
2. The Canoe in the Milky Way
The Australian Yolngu people believe that when they die, they are taken by a mystical canoe (‘Larrpan’) to the spirit-island ‘Baralku’ in the sky. Here, their campfires can be seen burning along the edge of the great river of the Milky Way. The canoe is then sent back to earth as a shooting star, letting their family on earth know that they have arrived safely in the spirit-land.
Another canoe story can be found around the constellation of Orion (which the Yolngu call ‘Julpan’. Three brothers went fishing and one of them ate a fish that was forbidden under their law. The Sun-woman ‘Walu’ made a waterspout that carried him and his two brothers and their canoe up into the sky. You can spot the three brothers in the tree stars of what we call ‘Orion’s Belt’ and the nebula above them is the forbidden fish. The bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigel are the bow and stern of the canoe.
3 – Female Sun and Male Moon
Many of the Aboriginal cultures have stories about a female Sun (‘Walu’ for the Yolngu people and ‘Wuriupranili’ for other Aboriginals of the Northern Territory) and a male Moon (‘Ngalindi’ for the Yolngu people).
The moon is often associated with the tides: when the tides are high, water fills the moon and when the tides fall, the moon is empty for three days until it fills up again and rises. The Warlpiri and Wirangu people explain a solar eclipse as being the Sun-woman being hidden by the Moon-man as he makes love to her. A lunar eclipse is, according to the Walpiri people, caused when the Moon-man is threatened by the Sun-woman who is pursuing him and perhaps catching up.
Another story by the Aboriginals of Cape York involves the making of a giant boomerang that is thrown into the sky and becomes the Moon.
4 – The Seven Sisters
The Pleiades that we know in the Western world also figure in the Dreamings of several language groups in Australia. For example, in the central desert region, they are said to be seven sisters fleeing from the unwelcome attentions of a man represented by some of the stars in Orion.
The close resemblance of this to Greek mythology is believed to be coincidental — there is no evidence of any cultural connection as far as we know.
5 – The Morning Star Ceremony
The rising of planet Venus marks an important ceremony of the Yolngu peoples, who call it ‘Barnumbirr’ (‘Morning Star and Evening Star’). People gather after sunset to await the rising of the planet and as she approaches, she draws behind her a rope of light attached to the island of Baralku on Earth. Along this rope, with the aid of a decorated ‘Morning Star Pole’, people are able to communicate with their dead loved ones, showing that they still love and remember them.
You might recognize the rope that binds the two heavenly bodies together as something that Isaac Newton called ‘gravity’.
Keep on Learning
A lot of contemporary Aboriginal art these days still has an astronomical theme, reflecting the elements of the artist’s culture. You can also book several Aboriginal stargazing tours, where you get to know much more about the stories I mentioned in this article.
The stories of the Aboriginal people, although unfortunately not many of them remain these days, can help everyone around the world to think differently about how we live and to consider the intricate connections between living things and the environment.
Navigating the boundaries between Indigenous knowledge and Western science can show how these ways of understanding the natural world are beneficial to both.