Aboriginal Astronomy: Navigating Seasons by the Stars
Not sure what to have for dinner tonight? What if the answer to this everyday question could be found in the night sky? You just need to know how to read the language of the stars.
Language of the Stars
Did you know that there are 150 indigenous languages in daily use today across Australia? This incredible diversity is also reflected in indigenous stories and knowledge systems relating to the night sky. Like the languages, these also differ from region to region in Australia.
Archaeoastronomy (a bit of a linguistic mouthful!) is the study of how societies in the past interpreted the stars and other phenomena in the sky. It also studies the historical role of astronomy in culture and everyday life. Researchers such as Dr Duane Hamacher and his students are working with indigenous communities around Australia to piece together stories and artifacts to gain a better understanding of Aboriginal Astronomy.
A petroglyph (suggested to depict a lunar eclipse event) in Ku-ring-gai National Park, NSW. Photo Credit: By Poyt448 Peter Woodard via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Stories and knowledge systems relating to the night sky were significant to Aboriginal cultures in a number of different ways including: guiding relationships between people; cultural and ceremonial practices; and guiding relationships between people and the land (nature).
In terms of the latter, Indigenous Australians tracked the movement of stars to predict the changing of seasons and linked them to important natural events on earth. For example, in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia, the appearance of the M45 star cluster (you might know it as the Subaru logo) rising three hours before dawn signaled the arrival of the coldest nights of the year.
‘A colour-composite image of the M45 star cluster. Image Credit: By NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory The science team consists of: D. Soderblom and E. Nelan (STScI), F. Benedict and B. Arthur (U. Texas), and B. Jones (Lick Obs.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tracking and prediction are made possible by understanding ‘how the sky works‘. Different stars appear in the night sky at different times of the year due to the Earth’s rotation around the sun (and the Earth’s tilted axis). On any given day (at a certain position of the earth’s orbit) we are facing out towards a different section of the galaxy. The stars that we can’t see at that point in time are the ones that are hidden behind the sun.
As we orbit 180 degrees (over 6 months) around to the other side of the sun, the stars that were obscured can now be seen and vice versa.
Emu in the Sky
Interestingly Western interpretations of astronomy focuses mainly on the bright objects in the sky – the stars. Constellations you might be familiar with such as the Southern Cross or Orion’s belt are imagined by drawing lines between the stars, like a dot-to-dot exercise.
Aboriginal astronomy on the other hand also takes into account the ‘negative spaces’ of the sky. The Coalsack nebula is a dark patch that stretches across the southern section of the Milky Way – our galaxy. Many indigenous groups across Australia see this nebula as an emu, though they have different names and stories associated with it. The Boorong people from Victoria call it Tchingal; in Northern NSW it is known as gao-ergi.
The emu’s first full appearance in the sky is in April – May (before this, you can only see the head and neck of the emu). During this time the emu is angled in a way to appear to be running. This coincides with the mating season of the emu on land, where the female emu must run to pursue the male in courtship.
In June – July, the emu moves into a horizontal position, signalling the nesting season. This is when emu eggs are available for collection and become an important food source during the winter.
‘Emu in June – July’. Image Created by Bob Fuller using Stellarium Software. Emu artwork by Ghillar Michael Anderson. (Used with Permission)
In August, the emu in the sky leaves the nest and heads West – signalling that it is too late to collect eggs, as they begin to hatch.
‘Emu in August – September. Image Created by Bob Fuller using Stellarium Software. Emu artwork by Ghillar Michael Anderson. (Used with Permission)
There is a large rock engraving of an emu in Ku-ring-gai National Park, NSW. It is in Kamilaroi country and is thought to be significant to the story of the emu traversing the sky. The emu in the sky aligns with the emu engraving on the rock during the significant months of June-July, when the eggs are collected.
Another example of Aboriginal astronomy being used to guide relationships between people and nature can be found in Victoria. In Western Victoria natural food sources are scarce during the winter drought. The Wergaia people have a story about a woman called Marpeankurric who set out to search for food during this difficult time. She followed some ants that were marching into a bush and then disappearing underground. Curious, she started to dig to see where they were going. Marpeankurric uncovered a termite’s nest and dug up highly nutritious larvae (which they called bittur in their language). This food source sustains the Wergaia people throughout winter. When Marpeankurric passed away, they believe she became the star that we now call Arcturus (its Western name). Arcturus is a red giant, the reddish colour of this star is thought to reflect the colour of the ants she discovered. When this star rises in the evening during the winter, it signifies time to begin harvesting the bittur.
In addition to being important indicators of seasonal changes and food source availability, indigenous Australians also used the stars for navigation, ceremony, and cultural traditions that continue on today. Indigenous Australians have been developing complex knowledge systems for tens of thousands of years and passing this information on through the art of oral storytelling. They are the original master science communicators in Australia.
These fascinating stories which connect culture, history, nature and science make gazing at the night sky all the more meaningful. Luckily some of these stories have survived through time. There are many researchers and indigenous groups working together to bring to light the rich cultural and scientific history we have here in Australia.
Telling stories seems to have the potential to stand the test of time (if tens of thousands of years is any indication!) – but only if we take the time to learn them, to listen and to continue to pass them on however we can.