Paul Curnow [B.ED]
For some 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; this early connection to the stars above has been
fundamental in reaching a greater understanding of the universe in which we
reside, and this need to be able to comprehend the heavens still drives the
passions of contemporary astronomers to this day.
1991, I made my first serious effort into learning more about astronomy. I
had the good fortune of meeting up with a gentleman named Michael O’Leary,
who had been teaching astronomy at the Adelaide Planetarium for many years.
As part of my study at the planetarium, we spent a great deal of time
learning the 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? Therefore, I
made it my objective, to reach a better understanding of how early cultures
perceived the heavenly waltz of stars above.
(Picture 1: From left - Michael
O'Leary, John Dobson and Paul Curnow)
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 focussed directly on
Aboriginal Astronomy. There had been a number of books published at the time
that had chapters on how the sky was perceived, but most sources were
scattered. Also back in those early days, 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
and he replied “it’s an Aboriginal constellation?” It was at this point, I
was to realise that most people I met, actually thought of Aboriginal
Australians as one large homogenous group, however this was, and still is,
an inaccurate view of indigenous cultures within Australia.
It must be noted
that before the European occupation of Australia began in 1788, there were
some 270+ distinct Aboriginal languages in Australia. Furthermore, allowing
for dialectal diversity that number can be expanded to around 600 language
areas. Accordingly, along with language diversity between groups other
aspects of cultural diversity such as astronomy can vary widely. In other
words, stars and constellations can be seen in many different ways
throughout Australia, while at the same time we also find many connections
between groups as well.
venture into the stellar realm of Aboriginal Australians, we need to have a
brief explanation of ‘The Dreaming’. ‘The Dreaming’ is not the same as
someone going to sleep and telling you the following day what they dreamt.
In Australian Aboriginal cultures ‘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, rules to live by and is considered an ongoing process. In
such it contains many stories that offer explanations that deal with the
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. In addition, in line with 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.
the Kaurna People of South Australia call the bright band of stars overhead
Wodliparri and 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, therefore, 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. 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 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. Furthermore, the Yakuts in Siberia say the Milky Way is
a trail of snow, made by a great hunter who is pursing a celestial stag
through the sky.
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 &
Beta Centauri in the constellation of Centaurus are seen as two sharks the
Narakani 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 & B, with the closest of the three Proxima Centauri, completing
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 Peoples
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 addition of the Coalsack Nebula as his nest and the pointers as 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.
(Picture 2: The footprint of the Eagle)
In the Dreaming
of the Boorong People of north-western Victoria, there is an Emu called
Tchingal who was pursing 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 which
contemporary astronomers call Gacrux. Gacrux (or Gamma Crucis) is a close
red giant star that is located at a distance of approximately 88 light years
and appears with an apparent magnitude of 1.6. Bunya’s life was eventually
saved by two hunters; the pointer stars Alpha & Beta Centauri, which the
Boorong referred to as Berm Berm-gle.
We can also
contrast how it was seen by other groups in the southern hemisphere. For
example, in New Zealand, or Aotearoa, many Māori tribes or iwi,
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 along with the pointer stars as part of a giant Llama constellation.
without doubt, would be one of the best constellations known 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 north-east 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, which are
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 and the Kaurna see the stars as a group of men called
the Tinniinyaranna hunting emus and kangaroos on the banks of a
(Picture 3: The rugged Finders Ranges in
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 intern sacrifice the thief to four circling
vultures - 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.
America, the Inuit Peoples of northern Canada and the state of Alaska call
some of the stars of Orion
and see them as four hunters chasing a polar bear. The Chinook Peoples who
come from the north western 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.
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?
Well 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.
Also, it 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 that when
transitioning onto the scientific aspects of modern astronomy the students
are primed and keen. Also, one of the big debates amongst academics now is,
is this really astronomy, at least in the scientific sense?
at the moment, the jury is still out, but with ongoing studies looking at
locations where there are petroglyphs at Ngaut Ngaut and Ketchowla in S.A.
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. Furthermore, 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. (Picture 4: Sun
petroglyph at Ngaut Ngaut)
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, it has been used by Aboriginal
Australians as a form of navigation, and this is echoed on the oceans as
Polynesians used the stars to navigate their way around the Pacific.
today we are left with just a taste of the incredibly complex knowledge and
understandings shared by the indigenous cultures of our world. This early
drive to comprehend the night sky still fires the enthusiasm of many
contemporary astronomers. Optimistically, efforts will continue to safeguard
these remaining snippets of stellar knowledge for future generations of
indigenous descendants and night sky enthusiasts.
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updated 4th of December 2011