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Aboriginal Astronomy & the Natural World

Credit: Barnaby Norris

An “Emu in the Sky” is formed by the dark spaces between stars in the Milky Way. In April and May, when emus lay their eggs, this perfectly aligns with an image engraved in the rock at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, north of Sydney. The emu’s folded legs signify that it is sitting on its nest.

By Carl Williams

Australia’s magnificent night sky is a fresco of narratives that has inspired and informed Aboriginal peoples’ exploration and understanding of the natural world.

The Milky Way arcs across the vast Australian night sky, a disk-shaped, spiral galaxy containing billions of stars and planets. For Australia’s Aboriginal peoples it is a fresco abounding with images, portents and narratives that chronicles the creation of the universe, lays down laws and moral codes, stipulates kinships and societal relationships, and possesses a wealth of information on the natural world.

It’s hardly surprising then, that traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, living under a dazzling canopy of constellations, would have absorbed the night skies into their cultural, social and spiritual life. The position of the stars, the motion of the planets, and astronomical events such as comets, meteorites and eclipses have informed their cosmology and traditions – known as the “Dreaming”.

Closer examination of Aboriginal legends and narratives, which have been developed, refined and promulgated since the arrival of the “first people” as long as 50,000 years ago – is uncovering the extent and complexity of interconnections between the celestial and terrestrial spheres observed by Aboriginal peoples.

Research is revealing that within these ancient customs and traditions, which have been passed down through the generations for millennia, is a complex and functional astronomical knowledge used by Aboriginal people to navigate, find food and mark seasonal changes. And we may have only just begun to tap in to this wellspring of knowledge.

“Spirituality, sacred law, kinship, cultural rules about who you can marry, where you can go, what you can do, how society works… all of this social structure is written in the stars,” says Dr Duane Hamacher, a lecturer at the Nura Gili Indigenous Programs Unit at the University of NSW. “And it’s all intertwined with practical knowledge – finding food sources, navigating across the land and sea, and predicting animal behaviour and seasonal change.”

Hamacher, working closely with Aboriginal and Islander elders, is uncovering a wealth of astronomical knowledge. “Take, for example, the Pleiades. They rise early in the morning, just before the sun comes up, and are visible for about 15 minutes. This signals the blooming of the wattle, the start of winter, and the orca migrating north.” This example demonstrates how the position of the Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters) – an open star cluster located in the constellation of Taurus, and among the closest clusters to Earth – is employed to predict natural cycles.

Using astronomical observations in this way indicates that the early Aboriginal astronomers took an intellectual approach that sought meaning in, and application of, astronomical phenomena. And no more is this evidenced in how they used this knowledge to navigate their vast, and sometimes featureless, island-continent.

“Bill has this fantastic mental map of the sky,” says Prof Ray Norris as he recounts an occasion while bushwalking with Bill Yidumduma Harney, an elder of the Wardaman people of the Northern Territory, “and can name about 5000 stars. Most western astronomers can name only 20 or 30 on a good day.” Norris laughs at this humbling acknowledgement. “He looks up at the sky and knows how it changes with the seasons, with the time, in ways I don’t actually quite understand. And for him it’s completely intuitive… he looks at the sky and knows it reflects what’s on the land.”

Norris is an astrophysicist based at the CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility in Sydney and an adjunct professor in Indigenous Astronomy at Macquarie University. He considers the study of Aboriginal astronomy as an opportunity for Aboriginal communities to gain access to information that may have been lost after European colonisation of Australia. “This giving back of knowledge,” as Norris describes it, “could promote community pride and provide educational material for young Aboriginal people”.

This “giving back” of knowledge to Aboriginal communities could also provide an opportunity to help foster a greater understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal culture among the wider Australian public. Playing a significant role in this endeavour is William Stevens, a Murruwarri man and an Aboriginal astronomy guide who conducts the Dreamtime Astronomy tour at Sydney Observatory.

Stevens explains how the Murruwarri people use the constellation of Scorpius for navigation: “We don’t see a scorpion; it’s actually a map for us,” says Stevens, as he sketches out the Scorpius constellation to show how the Murruwarri people use the stars that comprise the body to travel from one clan to another. “The reason we travel from those stars is because in the night sky we see a dark spot here and a dark spot there. If you put this star pattern on a map it lines up with depressions in the ground that should be avoided, because when it rains in my country it can flood.”

The Murruwarri and Wardaman people are employing a form of inverted “positional astronomy” – a branch of astronomy used to determine the location of celestial objects, as seen at a particular date, time and location on Earth. This demonstrates that their knowledge of the heavens extends well beyond just symbolism and could be considered, within a cultural context, as a scientific understanding of astronomy.

Norris supports this view: “The Yolngu people have this wonderful explanation of tides – they’re caused by the moon. [The moon] comes up through the oceans and empties and fills with water. When you have a full moon, a lot of water is going in but empties only a bit, which is why tides are much higher when you have a full moon.” He says that “given the information available to them at the time, it’s actually a really good scientific explanation, stood up to scrutiny, tied in with observational evidence and has predictive power”.

Aboriginal astronomical knowledge was not only employed for navigation. The rising and setting of certain stars correlates with the breeding and nesting cycles of certain birds.

The Boorong people from Lake Tyrrell in north-west Victoria, for instance, observed that the appearance of Vega (a star in the Lyra constellation, and the fifth-brightest star in the night sky) in March signalled that the malleefowl – a ground-dwelling bird about the size of a chicken – would start nesting. In October, Vega disappears from the night sky, which coincides with the time when the malleefowl lays its eggs.

Perhaps the most beguiling application of astronomical observation is associated with the behaviour of one of Australia’s most iconic animals. “The Emu in the Sky”, as it is called, describes a rock engraving located in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, north of Sydney. The carving depicts an emu in a somewhat unnatural position for a real emu, with its legs folded behind. That is, until you observe that the “Emu in the Sky” – formed by the dark spaces between stars in the Milky Way – perfectly aligns with the image engraved in the rock in April and May when emus lay their eggs. The folded legs signify that the emu is sitting on its nest.

The Emu in the Sky exemplifies one of the principal axioms of Aboriginal cultures: what is in the sky is a reflection of what is on Earth. Aboriginal people also apply this concept to construct calendars. Often based on six seasons, Aboriginal calendars can be more complex than Western ones, and are generally constructed from the heliacal rising of stars (i.e. when the star first becomes visible above the eastern horizon for a brief moment just before sunrise).

Dr Philip Clarke of Federation University Australia has written extensively on Aboriginal cultural knowledge. Clarke documented how the Kaurna people of South Australia use the heliacal rising of a star they call Parna (most likely Fomalhaut, one of the brightest stars in the night sky), whose appearance just before sunrise indicates that the hot, dry summer is ending and the autumn rains will soon arrive. The lands of the Kaurna include the Adelaide Plains, which are prone to flooding. Therefore, knowledge of when the arrival of autumn is imminent allows them time to build their large, waterproof huts, which are known as wurlies.

Not only were the positions and movements of individual stars used to predict seasonal changes, the scintillation (twinkling) of stars also informs Aboriginal and Islander astronomers of a change in the weather or season. “They can tell by the degree of how much the star twinkles or changes colour to gauge the amount of moisture in the atmosphere,” explains Hamacher. “They then know whether a storm is approaching or the wet season is coming.”

Research is revealing that traditional Aboriginal cultures have a deep and extensive knowledge of the world around them. But how, given the absence of a written language in Aboriginal cultures, was this knowledge passed from one generation to the next?

Paintings and rock art, such as the Emu in the Sky, are often used to document and convey knowledge. However, it’s through strong oral traditions, widespread throughout Aboriginal cultures, that knowledge is primarily transmitted. And it is through “songlines” – also referred to as “Dreaming tracks” or “strings” – that memorised knowledge is passed on.

Songlines are recorded in songs, stories and dances. Aboriginal people are able to navigate vast distances by singing or reciting them. Songlines on the ground are often mirrored by songlines in the sky, allowing the sky to be used as a compass and mnemonic for following a route on land.

Songlines have also played a part in the construction of modern-day highways. “Bill remembers his grandfather walking along and singing this song for navigation,” says Norris, recounting a story Bill Yidumduma Harney told him of the time, as a young boy, he accompanied his grandfather who, by reciting a Wardaman songline, guided a team of road surveyors. “Behind him were the whitefellas blazing their marks on the trees, followed by buffaloes dragging tree trunks that make the road. That road is now the Victoria Highway.” Norris believes that the Great Western Highway could also be based upon a songline, and that other examples will likely be uncovered.

It is clear that Aboriginal cultures contain a wealth of astronomical knowledge. This knowledge incorporates a deep and sophisticated understanding of celestial and terrestrial events, and how the relationships between them are used for exploration and to sustain their communities.

This should be viewed through the prism of an interconnected, interdependent and holistic world-view: a paradigm in which they saw themselves not as separate, external observers but as an integral part of nature and the universe.

Dr Carl Williams is an educator, writer and photographer.