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The Milky Way is important in Australian Aboriginal astronomy

Looking to the Stars of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy

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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 Australian Aboriginal astronomy -  which is 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.

For example, Torres Strait Islanders tell the story of a fisherman named Tagai. One day he set out with a crew of 12 zugubals (powerful spirits who influence the seasons, wind, and water). They weren’t having much success in catching fish that day, so Tagai left his crew and went to search for fish in a nearby reef. The day grew hot and the crew was thirsty, but there was nothing to drink in the canoe except for their leader’s water. They decided to drink it.

Tagai. (Glen Mackie)

But when Tagai returned he was furious that they had drank all his water and he killed them, sending them back up into the sky. He divided the crew in two groups – six of the men were placed in Usual (the Pleiades) and the other six in Utimal (Orion) and told them to stay away from him.

The Tagai constellation is depicted as a man standing in a canoe (Scorpius) in the Milky Way. He holds a spear in his left hand (the Southern Cross) and his right hand (Corvus) he holds a fruit called Eugina. This constellation is still used in navigation today.

Star map of the constellation Tagai, used by the Torres Strait Islanders of northern Australia. (CC BY SA 3.0)

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.

Milky Way "The Emu." (Siegfried /Adobe Stock)

The Emu and the Saucepan – Key Points of Focus in Australian Aboriginal Astronomy

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), while 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, while 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.

Starry saucepan constellation. (Ross /Adobe Stock)

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 Warlpiri, believed that wise men traveled 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 of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy

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.

Top Image: Much of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy concerns the Milky Way shown here arching over El Questro National Park in Western Australia. Source: Alex /Adobe Stock

By: Ḏḥwty


Brennan, B., 2010. Aboriginal astronomers: world's oldest?. [Online]
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Fireballs in the sky, 2015. Australian Aboriginal Interpretations of the Night Sky. [Online]
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Hamacher, D., 2014. Stories from the sky: astronomy in Indigenous knowledge. [Online]
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Norris, R., 2007. Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. [Online]
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Steffens, M., 2009. Australia's first astronomers. [Online]
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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

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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