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Aboriginal Skies

Aboriginal group gazing towards the Southern Cross.

Artwork depicting an Aboriginal group gazing towards the Southern Cross. Artwork by Gail Glasper

By Paul Curnow

How do indigenous cultures interpret the constellations above?

For 45,000 years or more, Aboriginal Australians have gazed at the celestial dance of stars above. This fascination with the night sky extends to almost all indigenous cultures throughout the world, and this early connection to the stars above has been fundamental in reaching a greater understanding of the universe in which we reside. This need to be able to comprehend the heavens still drives the passions of contemporary astronomers to this day.

In 1991 I made my first serious effort into learning more about astronomy. I had the good fortune of meeting up with Michael O’Leary, who had been teaching astronomy at the Adelaide Planetarium for many years. As part of my studies at the planetarium we spent a great deal of time learning how to identify constellations in the sky, about the names of stars, and the origins of early astronomy.

During these early days it occurred to me that we had a reasonably good understanding of how constellations were viewed in Ancient Greece and Rome. However, I thought to myself: surely Aboriginal Australians didn’t all see the constellation Orion as a great hunter in the sky, and surely the Maori people of New Zealand didn’t see Scorpius as the scorpion that stung Orion to death? I made it my objective to reach a better understanding of how early cultures perceived the heavenly waltz of stars above.

The study of cultural astronomy is known as ethnoastronomy, and generally speaking this term refers to non-western astronomy. I first started investigating how indigenous Australians viewed the night sky in the early 1990s and, to my surprise, there was little material around that focused directly on Aboriginal astronomy. A number of books published at the time had chapters on how the sky was perceived, but most sources were scattered.

I remember meeting another astronomer who said: “I can show you some Aboriginal constellations”. However, following his guidance around the sky I asked him which Aboriginal group he was referring to? Sadly, my question was met with a blank stare. It was at this point I realised that most people I met actually thought of Aboriginal Australians as one large homogenous group. However, this is an inaccurate view of indigenous cultures within Australia.

Before the European occupation of Australia began in 1788, there were more than 270 distinct Aboriginal languages in Australia. Allowing for dialect diversity, that number can be expanded to around 600 language areas.

Along with language diversity between groups, other aspects of cultural diversity – such as astronomy – can vary widely. Stars and constellations can be seen in many different ways throughout Australia, but we also find many connections between groups as well.

The Dreaming
Before we can venture into the stellar realm of Aboriginal Australians we need to have a brief explanation of “The Dreaming”. The Dreaming is an explanation of how things came into being: how mountains were formed, how rivers came into existence and how the cosmos was formed. It offers a behavioural code of laws to abide by, and is considered an ongoing process. It contains many stories that offer explanations that deal with the night sky.

In The Dreaming of Aboriginal Australians, stars and planets often represent ancestral heroes, Dreaming spirits, creator beings and sometimes inanimate objects. For example, the Boorong People of Victoria saw the stars Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris) and Rigel (Beta Orionis) as two wedge-tailed eagles in the sky. Sirius was called Warepil and Rigel, his wife, was Collowgulloric Warepil.

The Milky Way
Like many other indigenous cultures throughout our world, the band of our galaxy, the Milky Way, has often been seen as a river in the sky. For instance, the Kaurna People of South Australia call the bright band of stars overhead Wodliparri. It is seen as a celestial river, with some of the bright stars representing huts along the banks.

Conversely the Khoisan, who come from the Kalahari Desert region in southern Africa, believe that long ago a time existed when there were no stars in the heavens, and the sky was very dark. They believe that a young girl, who was lonely, wanted to be able to visit other people so she threw the embers from a fire into the sky and created the people who are the stars in the Milky Way.

The Pokomo People of eastern Africa believe that the stars of the Milky Way are camp fires, and the misty white haze of the galaxy is said to be the smoke coming from the campfires of the “ancient ones”.

Interestingly, the Euhalayi of New South Wales have a very similar belief. They also believe that the stars are campfires and the haze is smoke. These campfires are said to belong to the dead as they make their celestial journey across the sky.

The Yuman Tribes who come from southern Arizona in the United States believe that the Milky Way is a trail left in the sky by an antelope who was in a race with a deer across the heavens.

And the Yakuts in Siberia say that the Milky Way is a trail of snow made by a great hunter who is pursing a celestial stag through the sky.

The Southern Cross
One of the best known constellations in the southern hemisphere is the Southern Cross, also known as Crux. The Ngarrindjeri People who come from the Coorong and lower Murray valley region of South Australia see the Southern Cross as a stingray swimming across the sky named Nunganari. The pointer stars Alpha and Beta Centauri in the constellation of Centaurus are seen as two sharks pursuing the stingray across the sky.

Contemporary astronomers now know that Alpha Centauri is our closest neighbouring star system, and is part of a tri-star system containing two main components designated A and B, with the closest of the three Proxima Centauri completing the system.

The Kaurna, from the Adelaide region, call the Southern Cross Wilto, and it is seen as the footprint of the wedge-tailed eagle. This is echoed by groups further north, like the Ngadjuri, Nukunu and Adnyamathanha People who all see Crux as the footprint or talons of the eagle. In fact the Adnyamathanha often refer to it as Wildu mandawi, and it is viewed as the place where deceased spirits travel up into the heavens.

The Aranda of central Australia also see the Southern Cross as the talon of an eagle, with the Coalsack Nebula representing his nest and the pointers depicting his throwing stick. However, the Yankunytjatjara of Central Australia view it not as the footprint of an eagle, but a footprint of an Emu in the sky.

In the Dreaming of the Boorong People of north-western Victoria, there is an emu called Tchingal who was pursuing a character named Bunya. In great fear Bunya laid his spears at the base of a tree and ran up it to avoid his pursuer. According to William Stanbridge, who wrote a paper on the Boorong in 1857, Bunya can still be seen as the top star in the cross that contemporary astronomers call Gacrux. Gacrux (or Gamma Crucis) is a close red giant star in Crux that is located approximately 88 light years away and appears with an apparent magnitude of 1.6. Bunya’s life was eventually saved by two hunters represented by the pointer stars Alpha and Beta Centauri, which the Boorong referred to as Berm Berm-gle.

We can also contrast how the Southern Cross was seen by other groups in the southern hemisphere. For example, in New Zealand many Māori tribes see it as an anchor in the sky called Te Punga. When it is low in the sky some South African groups see it as a group of giraffes feeding on trees. And in South America the descendants of the Inca see the Southern Cross and the pointer stars as part of a giant llama constellation.

Orion, without doubt, would be one of the best-known constellations worldwide. In Aboriginal Australia the stars in Orion are often seen as a group of men that are either hunting, fishing in canoes or taking part in a corroboree.

For example, in the north-east of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, the three belt stars of Orion are seen as three fishermen hunting a kingfish in the sky. A number of groups in New South Wales see Orion as a group of men called the Berai-Berai who are pursuing a group of women represented by the Pleiades star cluster. To the Adnyamathanha, from the Flinders Ranges, the stars are called Miaridtja and represent a group of men returning to camp after a day’s hunting. Additionally, the Aranda see an emu in the stars of Orion, while the Kaurna see the stars as a group of men called the Tinniinyaranna hunting emus and kangaroos on the banks of a celestial river.

In South America, the Chimu Indians of Peru see the centre belt star as a thief. Their moon goddess was angry with this thief so she sent two pata to restrain the thief, who would in turn sacrifice the thief to four circling vultures represented the stars Rigel, Saiph, Bellatrix and Betelgeuse. In Brazil, the Bororo Indians see the constellation as a turtle they call Jabuti, while in Japan the rectangular shape of Orion has been seen as the sleeve of a woman’s kimono hanging from her outstretched arm.

In North America, the Inuit of northern Canada and the state of Alaska call some of the stars of Orion Ullaktut and see them as four hunters chasing a polar bear. The Chinook People who come from the north-west of the United States see Orion’s belt as a big canoe in the sky and Orion’s sword as a small canoe. Both canoes are in a race to catch a big fish that is swimming in the band of the Milky Way, a celestial river. Moreover, to the Lakota the stars are part of a large constellation called Tayamni the Buffalo.

Cultural Importance
It was unlikely that these early peoples knew about the true nature of our galaxy and universe. However, this early cosmogonic pondering of the heavens fired the passions of early humans to reach greater understandings of the environment, and how things came into being.

One may ask what value this all has today? From my own personal experience it has aided in the cultural, social and spiritual reclamation by indigenous peoples across the world. For example, I often have indigenous groups and indigenous based-schools coming to the Adelaide Planetarium now in order to learn more about their heritage. It also offers insight into the minds of our early ancestors and how they explained the various natural phenomena around them.

In addition I have found that when someone first begins their studies in astronomy, these stories are what first captures their imaginations and intrigues them. I have often found that if I lead in with stories of the night sky the students are primed and keen when I discuss the scientific aspects of modern astronomy.

One of the big debates among academics now is whether this really is astronomy, at least in the scientific sense. At the moment the jury is still out, but with ongoing studies of petroglyphs at Ngaut Ngaut and Ketchowla in South Australia and the Wurdi Youang stone arrangement in Victoria, we are slowly learning more about the important role that observations of the night sky played in the lives of our ancestors.

During my time looking through the files of early explorers, missionaries, ethnographers and speaking to Aboriginal elders, there is at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that Australian Aboriginal groups had more than just a spiritual understanding of the night sky. The sky had very practical purposes. It served as a celestial timepiece that could be used to follow the passing of the night, the onset of seasons, and the seasonal availability of foods.

At Ngaut Ngaut the elders tell me that records of the full moon were kept in the form of dots on the cliff face in order to know when to hold ceremony. Additionally, astronomy has been used by Aboriginal Australians as a form of navigation, and this is echoed by the Polynesian use of the stars to navigate their way around the Pacific.

Today we are left with just a taste of the incredibly complex knowledge and understanding shared by the indigenous cultures of our world. This early drive to comprehend the night sky still fires the enthusiasm of many contemporary astronomers. Efforts will continue to safeguard these remaining snippets of stellar knowledge for future generations of indigenous descendants and night sky enthusiasts.

Paul Curnow is a lecturer in astronomy at the Adelaide Planetarium, University of South Australia.