Looking to the Stars of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy
Astronomy played an important role in many ancient societies. Through this natural science, the ancients were able to make calendars, navigate during the night, and even explore the nature of the universe through mythology and philosophy. Some civilizations well-known for their astronomical developments include the Babylonians, the ancient Egyptians, and the ancient Greeks. The astronomy of many other cultures, however, has been side-lined, as a result of the prevailing Euro-centric view of astronomy, and civilization, in general. One of these is the astronomy of the Australian Aboriginal people, considered by some to be the oldest in the world.
Story Telling About the Night Sky
The first thing to note about Australian Aboriginal astronomy is that it was not just a science, but also involved story-telling. Stories were used to provide explanations for the heavenly bodies and the natural phenomena that happened to them.
The next thing to point out is that there are many rich and vibrant Aboriginal cultures across Australia - with over 400 different language groups, according to one source. Each of these cultures developed their own astronomical point of view, and the stories told have different meanings and importance to each group. Nevertheless, there are some stories that are common to many Aboriginal groups.
The Great Rift in the Milky Way. Some Aboriginal groups identify this as a river in the sky, while others identify it as the Rainbow Serpent. (CC BY SA 3.0)
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The Emu and the Saucepan
One of the most common of these shared stories is the ‘Emu in the Sky’. This constellation can be described in Western astronomical terms as such: the head of the Emu is the Coalsack nebula, which is located next to Crux (a constellation also known as the Southern Cross), whilst its neck, body and legs are formed from the dust trails stretching across the Milky Way until the constellation of Scorpius.
The Coalsack nebula. (ESO/S. Brunier/CC BY 4.0)
Numerous stories have been told by different Aboriginal groups for thousands of years regarding the Emu in the Sky. For example, the Boorong people perceived the Southern Cross as a ringtail possum called Bunya, which is hiding in a tree from an evil emu called Tchingal.
For the Aborigines of the Western Desert, the orientation of the Emu in the Sky, which changes according to the time of the year, was once used to determine whether it was time to hunt for emus or to collect their eggs.
The Australian Aboriginal constellation of the Emu in the Sky. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Another constellation that helped the Australian Aboriginal groups organize their year is one that is known as ‘The Saucepan’, which is also called the ‘Djulpan’ by the Yolngu people of the Northern Territory. This is a part of one of the most recognizable constellations, which is known in Western astronomy as Orion, though the Australian Aboriginal people perceive it as a canoe.
The three stars in a row known as ‘Orion’s Belt’ form the middle of the canoe, whilst the stars Betelgeuse and Rigel are its bow and stern respectively. For the Kuwema people of the Northern Territory, the rising of Orion in the early morning during the winter signaled the start of the dingoes’ mating season. The puppies produced by the dingoes are an important source of livelihood for these people.
Major stars of the constellation Orion. (Anirban Nandi/CC BY 3.0)
Meteors of Destruction or Creation
In addition to the constellations, other heavenly bodies played important roles in Australian Aboriginal astronomy as well. For example, meteors were regarded by some groups as ‘fiery demon eyes’ or the ‘glowing eye of a celestial serpent flying across the sky,’ and were thought to be omens of death and disease.
Other Aboriginal groups, such as the Walpiri, believed that wise men travelled as meteors and gave them knowledge of the spiritual and natural world in the form of stories. As for the Arrente and Luritja peoples, they believe that life on earth began thanks to an animal named Kulu, who carried the egg of life, which landed on earth as a meteorite, and split in three ways.
A meteor during the peak of the 2009 Leonid Meteor Shower. (Navicore/CC BY 3.0)
An Uphill Battle to Retain Knowledge
Sadly, much of the richness of Australian Aboriginal astronomy has already disappeared. Some cultures were so badly destroyed since the colonization of Australia that only fragments of this knowledge are left.
As for those groups who are still preserving this traditional knowledge, an uphill battle is being faced as young Aboriginal people tend to be more attracted to the modern way of life than their traditional lifestyle. Thus the astronomy of their forefathers is slowly being pushed to extinction. Nevertheless, some efforts have begun to preserve this knowledge.
Featured image: The Comet Lovejoy and the Milky Way in 2011, Roma, Queensland, Australia. (CC BY SA 3.0) Insert: Star map of the constellation Tagai, used by the Torres Strait Islanders of northern Australia. (CC BY SA 3.0)
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