Australian Aboriginal astronomy

Australian Aboriginal astronomy

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Australian Aboriginal astronomy is a name given to indigenous Australian culture
Culture
Culture is a term that has many different inter-related meanings. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions...

 relating to astronomical
Astronomy
Astronomy is a natural science that deals with the study of celestial objects and phenomena that originate outside the atmosphere of Earth...

 subjects — such as the Sun
Sun
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields...

 and Moon
Moon
The Moon is Earth's only known natural satellite,There are a number of near-Earth asteroids including 3753 Cruithne that are co-orbital with Earth: their orbits bring them close to Earth for periods of time but then alter in the long term . These are quasi-satellites and not true moons. For more...

, the star
Star
A star is a massive, luminous sphere of plasma held together by gravity. At the end of its lifetime, a star can also contain a proportion of degenerate matter. The nearest star to Earth is the Sun, which is the source of most of the energy on Earth...

s, planet
Planet
A planet is a celestial body orbiting a star or stellar remnant that is massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity, is not massive enough to cause thermonuclear fusion, and has cleared its neighbouring region of planetesimals.The term planet is ancient, with ties to history, science,...

s, and the Milky Way
Milky Way
The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains the Solar System. This name derives from its appearance as a dim un-resolved "milky" glowing band arching across the night sky...

, and their motions on the sky. Because the Australian Aboriginal culture is the oldest continuous culture in the world, it is probable that the Australian Aboriginal people are the world's oldest astronomers.

One of the earliest records of indigenous astronomy was made by William Edward Stanbridge, an Englishman who emigrated to Australia in 1841 and befriended the local Boorong people.

Some Aboriginal groups use the motions of celestial bodies for calendar
Calendar
A calendar is a system of organizing days for social, religious, commercial, or administrative purposes. This is done by giving names to periods of time, typically days, weeks, months, and years. The name given to each day is known as a date. Periods in a calendar are usually, though not...

 purposes. Many attribute religious or mythological meanings to celestial bodies and phenomena. There is a diversity of astronomical traditions in Australia
Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

, each with its own particular expression of cosmology
Cosmology
Cosmology is the discipline that deals with the nature of the Universe as a whole. Cosmologists seek to understand the origin, evolution, structure, and ultimate fate of the Universe at large, as well as the natural laws that keep it in order...

. However, there appear to be common themes and systems between the groups.

Emu in the sky


A tradition that is widespread in Australia is that of the "Emu
Emu
The Emu Dromaius novaehollandiae) is the largest bird native to Australia and the only extant member of the genus Dromaius. It is the second-largest extant bird in the world by height, after its ratite relative, the ostrich. There are three subspecies of Emus in Australia...

 in the sky", a 'constellation
Constellation
In modern astronomy, a constellation is an internationally defined area of the celestial sphere. These areas are grouped around asterisms, patterns formed by prominent stars within apparent proximity to one another on Earth's night sky....

' that is defined by dark nebula
Dark nebula
A dark nebula is a type of interstellar cloud that is so dense that it obscures the light from the background emission or reflection nebula or that it blocks out background stars . The extinction of the light is caused by interstellar dust grains located in the coldest, densest parts of larger...

s (opaque clouds of dust and gas in outer space) that are visible against the milky way background, rather than by stars. The Emu's head is the very dark Coalsack nebula, next to the Southern Cross; the body and legs are other dark clouds trailing out along the Milky Way to Scorpius
Scorpius
Scorpius, sometimes known as Scorpio, is one of the constellations of the zodiac. Its name is Latin for scorpion, and its symbol is . It lies between Libra to the west and Sagittarius to the east...

.

Just North of Sydney
Sydney
Sydney is the most populous city in Australia and the state capital of New South Wales. Sydney is located on Australia's south-east coast of the Tasman Sea. As of June 2010, the greater metropolitan area had an approximate population of 4.6 million people...

, in the Kuringai National Park, are extensive rock engravings
Sydney rock engravings
Sydney rock engravings are a form of Australian Aboriginal Rock Art consisting of carefully drawn images of people, animals, or symbols, in the sandstone around Sydney, New South Wales, Australia...

 of the Guringai people who live there, including representations of the creator-hero Daramulan and his emu-wife. An engraving near the Elvina Track shows an emu in the same pose and orientation as the Emu in the Sky. constellation. On autumn evenings, the emu in the sky stands directly over her portrait, just at the time when it's time to gather emu eggs.

To the Wardaman
Wardaman
The Wardaman people are a small group of Indigenous Australians living about 200km South-West of Katherine in the Northern Territory of Australia...

, however, the Coalsack is the head of a lawman.

Canoe in Orion


The Yolngu
Yolngu
The Yolngu or Yolŋu are an Indigenous Australian people inhabiting north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. Yolngu means “person” in the Yolŋu languages.-Yolŋu law:...

 people of northern Australia say that the constellation of Orion
Orion (constellation)
Orion, often referred to as The Hunter, is a prominent constellation located on the celestial equator and visible throughout the world. It is one of the most conspicuous, and most recognizable constellations in the night sky...

, which they call Julpan, is a canoe
Canoe
A canoe or Canadian canoe is a small narrow boat, typically human-powered, though it may also be powered by sails or small electric or gas motors. Canoes are usually pointed at both bow and stern and are normally open on top, but can be decked over A canoe (North American English) or Canadian...

. They tell the story of three brothers who went fishing, and one of them ate a fish that was forbidden under their law. Seeing this, the Sun carried the three brothers and their canoe up into the sky. The three stars in the constellation's centre, which form Orion's Belt
Orion's Belt
The term Orion's Belt or the Belt of Orion may refer to:* Orion's Belt, an asterism consisting of three bright stars in a row in the constellation Orion* Orion's Belt, a 1985 film* Orion's Belt, a browser game...

 in Western mythology, are the three brothers; the Orion Nebula
Orion Nebula
The Orion Nebula is a diffuse nebula situated south of Orion's Belt. It is one of the brightest nebulae, and is visible to the naked eye in the night sky. M42 is located at a distance of and is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth. The M42 nebula is estimated to be 24 light...

 above them is the forbidden fish; and the bright stars Betelgeuse
Betelgeuse
Betelgeuse, also known by its Bayer designation Alpha Orionis , is the eighth brightest star in the night sky and second brightest star in the constellation of Orion, outshining its neighbour Rigel only rarely...

 and Rigel
Rigel
Rigel is the brightest star in the constellation Orion and the sixth brightest star in the sky, with visual magnitude 0.18...

 are the bow
Bow (ship)
The bow is a nautical term that refers to the forward part of the hull of a ship or boat, the point that is most forward when the vessel is underway. Both of the adjectives fore and forward mean towards the bow...

 and stern
Stern
The stern is the rear or aft-most part of a ship or boat, technically defined as the area built up over the sternpost, extending upwards from the counter rail to the taffrail. The stern lies opposite of the bow, the foremost part of a ship. Originally, the term only referred to the aft port section...

 of the canoe. This is an example of astronomical legends underpinning the ethical and social codes that people use on Earth.

Pleiades


The Pleiades
Pleiades (star cluster)
In astronomy, the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters , is an open star cluster containing middle-aged hot B-type stars located in the constellation of Taurus. It is among the nearest star clusters to Earth and is the cluster most obvious to the naked eye in the night sky...

 also figures in the Dreaming
Dreaming (spirituality)
The Dreaming is a common term within the animist creation narrative of indigenous Australians for a personal, or group, creation and for what may be understood as the "timeless time" of formative creation and perpetual creating....

s of several language groups. For example, in the central desert region, they are said to be seven sisters fleeing from the unwelcome attentions of a man represented by some of the stars in Orion. The close resemblance of this to Greek mythology
Greek mythology
Greek mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece...

 is believed to be coincidental - there is no evidence of any cultural connection.

However, as the stars are connected with time, being the way that time was measured and daily activities were regulated before written culture, and long after in various cultures. And the myths of the Australian Aborigines are, as around the world, to do with moral lessons and various reminders such as when to eat certain types of food, which is itself a cultural connection in the general form of the stories. And also therefore that the study of the stars is probably the oldest knowledge on earth, such that whatever mechanism leads to the creation of certain races and national groups, it remains an intriguing possibility that aboriginal star knowledge does contain some fragments of a much older original culture. The Australian Aborigines came to this country from Asia 50,000 years ago (well before Greek culture formed 3-4,000 years ago), and presumably the Aboriginies originally came from Africa, they have been cut off and have continued an old stone age culture (notwithstanding some trading, and intermarriage, with Indonesian fishermen in the north, and the possibility of some secondary trade and dissemination of culture with adjacent tribal groups). While there is no hard evidence of cultural connection, the possibility should not be written off and the door is open to research to possibly reconstruct that original culture through other means as well such as linguistics.

Milky Way and other stars


When Yolngu people die, they are taken by a mystical canoe, Larrpan, to the spirit-island Baralku in the sky, where you can see their camp-fires burning along the edge of the great river of the Milky Way. The canoe is sent back to earth as a shooting star, letting their family on Earth know that they have arrived safely in the spirit-land.

The Boorong people see in the Southern Cross a possum
Possum
A possum is any of about 70 small to medium-sized arboreal marsupial species native to Australia, New Guinea, and Sulawesi .Possums are quadrupedal diprotodont marsupials with long tails...

 in a tree.

Sun and Moon


Many traditions have stories of a female Sun
Sun
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields...

 and a male Moon
Moon
The Moon is Earth's only known natural satellite,There are a number of near-Earth asteroids including 3753 Cruithne that are co-orbital with Earth: their orbits bring them close to Earth for periods of time but then alter in the long term . These are quasi-satellites and not true moons. For more...

.

The Yolngu say that Walu
Walu
Walu may refer to:*Walu, Burma*Hawaiian term for escolar, a fish*WaLu Martial arts, a Chinese Martial Arts System...

, the Sun-woman, lights a small fire each morning, which we see as the dawn. She paints herself with red ochre, some of which spills onto the clouds, creating the sunrise. She then lights a torch and carries it across the sky from east to west, creating daylight. At the end of her journey, as she descends from the sky, some of her ochre paints again rubs off onto the clouds, creating the sunset. She then puts out her torch, and throughout the night travels underground back to her starting camp in the east.

The Yolngu tell that Ngalindi, the Moon-man, was once young and slim (the waxing Moon), but grew fat and lazy (the full Moon
Full Moon
Full moon is a lunar phase.Full Moon may also refer to:- Literature :* Full Moon , a novel by P. G. Wodehouse* Full Moon o Sagashite or Full Moon, a manga* Full Moon Press, an American small-press publisher...

). His wives chopped bits off him with their axes (the waning Moon); to escape them he climbed a tall tree towards the Sun, but died from the wounds (the new Moon
New moon
In astronomical terminology, the new moon is the lunar phase that occurs when the Moon, in its monthly orbital motion around Earth, lies between Earth and the Sun, and is therefore in conjunction with the Sun as seen from Earth...

). After remaining dead for three days, he rose again to repeat the cycle, and continues doing so till this day. The Kuwema people in the Northern Territory
Northern Territory
The Northern Territory is a federal territory of Australia, occupying much of the centre of the mainland continent, as well as the central northern regions...

 say that he grows fat at each full Moon by devouring the spirits of those who disobey the tribal laws.

The Yolngu also associated the Moon with the tides.

Eclipses


The Warlpiri
Warlpiri
The Warlpiri are a group of Indigenous Australians, many of whom speak the Warlpiri language. There are 5,000–6,000 Warlpiri, living mostly in a few towns and settlements scattered through their traditional land in Australia's Northern Territory, north and west of Alice Springs...

 people explain a solar eclipse
Solar eclipse
As seen from the Earth, a solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, and the Moon fully or partially blocks the Sun as viewed from a location on Earth. This can happen only during a new moon, when the Sun and the Moon are in conjunction as seen from Earth. At least...

 as being the Sun-woman being hidden by the Moon-man as he makes love to her. This explanation is shared by other groups, such as the Wirangu. On the other hand, a lunar eclipse
Lunar eclipse
A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes behind the Earth so that the Earth blocks the Sun's rays from striking the Moon. This can occur only when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned exactly, or very closely so, with the Earth in the middle. Hence, a lunar eclipse can only occur the night of a...

 is caused when the Moon-man is pursued and threatened by the Sun-woman.

In the Kuringai National Park there are a number of engravings showing a crescent shape, with sharp horns pointing down, and below it a drawing of a man in front of a woman. While the crescent shape has been assumed by most researchers to represent a boomerang, some argue that it is more easily interpreted as a solar eclipse, with the mythical man-and-woman explanation depicted below it.

Venus


The rising of Venus
Venus
Venus is the second planet from the Sun, orbiting it every 224.7 Earth days. The planet is named after Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty. After the Moon, it is the brightest natural object in the night sky, reaching an apparent magnitude of −4.6, bright enough to cast shadows...

 marks an important ceremony of the Yolngu, who call it Barnumbirr
Barnumbirr
Barnumbirr is a creator-spirit in the Yolngu culture of Arnhem Land in Australia, who is identified as the planet Venus. She guided the first humans, the Djanggawul sisters, to Australia. The rising of Barnumbirr in the sky before sunrise marks an important ceremony of the Yolngu...

 ("Morning Star") They gather after sunset to await the rising of the planet. As she approaches, in the early hours before dawn, the Yolngu say that she draws behind her a rope of light attached to the island of Baralku on Earth, and along this rope, with the aid of a richly decorated "Morning Star Pole", the people are able to communicate with their dead loved ones, showing that they still love and remember them.

Astronomical calendars


Aboriginal calendars tend to be more complex than European calendars. Many groups in northern Australia use a calendar with six seasons, and some groups mark the seasons by the stars which are visible during them. For the Pitjantjatjara, for example, the rising of the Pleiades at dawn (in May) marks the start of winter.

Many stories exist where the heliacal rising
Heliacal rising
The heliacal rising of a star occurs when it first becomes visible above the eastern horizon for a brief moment just before sunrise, after a period of time when it had not been visible....

 or setting of stars or constellations are used to tell Aboriginal Australians when it's time to move to a new place and/or look for a new food source.

The Boorong people in Victoria
Victoria (Australia)
Victoria is the second most populous state in Australia. Geographically the smallest mainland state, Victoria is bordered by New South Wales, South Australia, and Tasmania on Boundary Islet to the north, west and south respectively....

 know that when the Malleefowl
Malleefowl
The Malleefowl is a stocky ground-dwelling Australian bird about the size of a domestic chicken...

 constellation (Lyra
Lyra
Lyra is a small constellation. It is one of the 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy, and remains one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union. Its principal star, Vega — a corner of the Summer Triangle — is one of the brightest...

) disappears in October, to "sit with the Sun", it's time to start gathering her eggs on Earth. Other groups know that when Orion
Orion (constellation)
Orion, often referred to as The Hunter, is a prominent constellation located on the celestial equator and visible throughout the world. It is one of the most conspicuous, and most recognizable constellations in the night sky...

 first appears in the sky, the Dingo
Dingo
The Australian Dingo or Warrigal is a free-roaming wild dog unique to the continent of Australia, mainly found in the outback. Its original ancestors are thought to have arrived with humans from southeast Asia thousands of years ago, when dogs were still relatively undomesticated and closer to...

 puppies are about to be born. When Scorpius
Scorpius
Scorpius, sometimes known as Scorpio, is one of the constellations of the zodiac. Its name is Latin for scorpion, and its symbol is . It lies between Libra to the west and Sagittarius to the east...

 appears, the Yolngu know that the Macassan
Makassar
Makassar, is the provincial capital of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and the largest city on Sulawesi Island. From 1971 to 1999, the city was named Ujung Pandang, after a precolonial fort in the city, and the two names are often used interchangeably...

 fisherman would soon arrive to fish for trepang
Trepang
Trepang may refer to:*trepang, a marine invertebrate harvested by trepanging, thus:**a common name for species of the holothuroidea class of animals*Trepang , a World War II submarine sunk in 1967....

.

It is not known to what extent Aboriginal people were interested in the precise motion of the Sun, Moon, planets or stars. However, it has been suggested that some of the stone arrangements in Victoria
Victoria (Australia)
Victoria is the second most populous state in Australia. Geographically the smallest mainland state, Victoria is bordered by New South Wales, South Australia, and Tasmania on Boundary Islet to the north, west and south respectively....

 such as Wurdi Youang
Wurdi Youang
Wurdi Youang is an Aboriginal stone arrangement located at Mount Rothwell, near Little River, Victoria at .The arrangement takes the form of an irregular egg-shape or ovoid about 50m in diametre with its major axis East-West...

 near Little River, Victoria
Little River, Victoria
Little River is a town in Victoria, Australia, 51 km south-west from Melbourne's central business district. Its Local Government Area are the Cities of Wyndham and Greater Geelong. At the 2006 Census, Little River had a population of 375.-History:...

 may have been used to track the equinox
Equinox
An equinox occurs twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth's axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun, the center of the Sun being in the same plane as the Earth's equator...

es and/or solstice
Solstice
A solstice is an astronomical event that happens twice each year when the Sun's apparent position in the sky, as viewed from Earth, reaches its northernmost or southernmost extremes...

s. The arrangement is aligned with the setting sun at the solstices and equinox, but the age is currently unknown.

There are also rock engravings by the Nganguraku people at Ngaut Ngaut which, according to oral tradition, represent lunar cycles. Unfortunately, most of the Nganguraku culture (including their language) has been lost because of repression by Christian missionaries
Missionary
A missionary is a member of a religious group sent into an area to do evangelism or ministries of service, such as education, literacy, social justice, health care and economic development. The word "mission" originates from 1598 when the Jesuits sent members abroad, derived from the Latin...

 over a hundred years ago.

In contemporary culture


A great deal of contemporary Aboriginal art has an astronomical theme, reflecting the astronomical elements of the artist's culture. Prominent examples are Gulumbu Yunupingu
Gulumbu Yunupingu
Gulumbu Yunupingu is an Aboriginal artist and women's leader from the Yolngu people who live in Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory of Australia. She is a member of the Gumatj clan and speaks the Gumatj language. She was born between 1943 and 1947 in Biranybirany, in North-east Arnhem Land...

, Bill Yidumduma Harney
Bill Yidumduma Harney
Bill Yidumduma Harney is a senior elder of the Wardaman people whose homeland is near Katherine in the Northern Territory of Australia. He is also known as an artist, storyteller, and musician.-Early life:...

, and Nami Maymuru, all of whom have won awards or been finalists in the Telstra Indigenous Art Awards. In 2009 an exhibition of Indigenous Astronomical Art from WA, named Ilgarijiri was launched at AIATSIS in Canberra
Canberra
Canberra is the capital city of Australia. With a population of over 345,000, it is Australia's largest inland city and the eighth-largest city overall. The city is located at the northern end of the Australian Capital Territory , south-west of Sydney, and north-east of Melbourne...

 in conjunction with a Symposium on Aboriginal Astronomy.

Other contemporary painters include the daughters of the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri was an Australian painter, considered to be one of the most collected and renowned Australian Aboriginal artists...

, who have the seven sisters as one of their Dreaming
Dreaming (spirituality)
The Dreaming is a common term within the animist creation narrative of indigenous Australians for a personal, or group, creation and for what may be understood as the "timeless time" of formative creation and perpetual creating....

s. Gabriella Possum and Michelle Possum paint the Seven Sisters Dreaming in their paintings. They inherited this Dreaming through their maternal line.

See also


  • Australian Aboriginal Astronomy Project
    Australian Aboriginal Astronomy Project
    The Australian Aboriginal Astronomy Project is a collaboration of academics, educators, and Indigenous Elders researching the astronomical traditions and knowledge of Indigenous Australians, commonly termed Australian Aboriginal astronomy...

  • Archaeoastronomy
    Archaeoastronomy
    Archaeoastronomy is the study of how people in the past "have understood the phenomena in the sky how they used phenomena in the sky and what role the sky played in their cultures." Clive Ruggles argues it is misleading to consider archaeoastronomy to be the study of ancient astronomy, as modern...

  • Indigenous Australian art
  • List of archaeoastronomical sites by country
  • Pleiades (star cluster)
    Pleiades (star cluster)
    In astronomy, the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters , is an open star cluster containing middle-aged hot B-type stars located in the constellation of Taurus. It is among the nearest star clusters to Earth and is the cluster most obvious to the naked eye in the night sky...


Further reading