The Comet Lovejoy and the Milky Way in 2011, Roma, Queensland, Australia.

Looking to the Stars of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy

(Read the article on one page)

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.

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 )

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.

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.

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.

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.

A meteor during the peak of the 2009 Leonid Meteor Shower. ( Navicore/CC BY 3.0 )

An Uphill Battle to Retain Knowledge

Comments

So even Hunter gatherers found uses for astronomy in their hunting seasons. This connection should go to show that astronomy, has been a focus on a lot of religion s because. An accurate clock is what allows a person to control the agricultural part of their environment.

Troy Mobley

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

The Sayhuite Monolith
Long ago, forgotten artists put their blood, sweat, and possibly even tears into creating more than 200 designs on a monolith in what is now Peru. They carefully engraved the forms of reptiles, felines, shellfish, and frogs and then surrounded the sacred animals with terraces, ponds, river, tunnels, and irrigation canals. The exact purpose and meaning behind these features remains a mystery.

Human Origins

Edgar Cayce (Credit: Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment, Author provided)
For nearly 30 years I have returned to the famous “Sleeping Prophet” Edgar Cayce’s readings as a road map to try and piece together the complex origins of civilization and the creation of Homo sapiens. Cayce (March 18, 1877 – January 3, 1945) was an American Christian mystic born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky who answered questions on subjects as varied as healing, reincarnation, wars, Atlantis, and future events while in a trance state.

Ancient Technology

Detail of a star chart dating to the Middle Kingdom.
The calendar is one of mankind’s most important inventions. Calendars allowed societies to organize time for religious, social, economic, and administrative purposes. The calendar, or rather, two sets of calendars, were invented by the ancient Egyptians. One of these was a lunar calendar, which was used mainly for the organization of religious festivals.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article