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.

‘Impossibly Beautiful Sky – Milky Way over Australia’ by Ed Webb via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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)

Sky Calendar

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 Coalsack Nebula’ Image Credit: Naskies via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi peoples from Northern NSW tracked the movement and orientation of this nebula across the sky to keep pace with the breeding season of the emu on land.

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.

‘Emu in April – May’. Image Created by Bob Fuller using Stellarium Software. Emu artwork by Ghillar Michael Anderson. (Many thanks to Bob Fuller for his permission to use his images in this post)

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.

Seasonal Eating

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.

Scientific Stories

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.

10 Responses to “Aboriginal Astronomy: Navigating Seasons by the Stars”

  1. Michelle Quach says:

    Hi Nancy – that’s great that you grew up reading aboriginal stories. I imagine there is still so much to learn about the science and history of our land from these stories that we are just beginning to uncover now! It seems like indigenous cultures had the right idea in terms of inspiring children to learn about science and the world around them by telling stories. Thanks for taking the time to read and for your comment.

  2. Nancy Rivers Tran says:

    Thank you for the wonderful content on your blog. When I was younger, I used to read quite a lot of Aboriginal stories. They are always fascinating, and much more creative than a lot of children books. Your blog inspired me to find these books again and give them a good read!

  3. Michelle Quach says:

    Hi Yang – thank you for your comment. Yes, I do find it amazing that they connected the science of the land to the science of the night sky. It is a really clever, effective, beautiful and creative way of science communication! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  4. Michelle Quach says:

    Hey Megan – thanks for your comment. I also was unaware of these stories until I took a visit to the planetarium last week and was lucky to hear a talk by Arweet Carolyn Briggs who is a Boonwurung elder and is so knowledgeable and passionate about ensuring this knowledge is shared and not lost.

    Yeh, the images by Bob Fuller are great for visualising the changes in position throughout the year. He himself is a phd candidate in the field of archaeoastronomy. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

  5. Michelle Quach says:

    Hey Debbie – thanks for your comment. I have to agree – we do have an incredible cultural history here in Australia. I feel like we are slowly getting to the point of giving it the respect it deserves. So heartening to read about researchers working hard to ensure that it’s not lost to history. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  6. Michelle Quach says:

    Hey Kellen – thanks for comment. Yes, Bob’s images are great aren’t they? Don’t worry, I also find it tricky to imagine the constellations! I find them beautiful enough on their without having to superimposing our own pictures onto them. The planetarium is pretty awesome, this post was actually inspired after a recent visit. You should try and go see a show if you get a chance. Thanks again for your comment.

  7. Kellen Lowrie says:

    Awesome post. Really interesting how we focus on the bright things in the sky and ignore the dark parts. Bob Fuller’s images are really enlightening! I remember going to the planetarium as a kid and learning about constellations. I couldn’t see them without the lines superimposed on top and I still can’t. I guess I’d be a bad astronomer.

  8. Megan Clarke says:

    This is a great article Michelle, and I feel like many Australians (including myself) wouldn’t know this! It’s really fascinating as Debbie said, we don’t focus so much on the dark spaces in the sky.
    The pictures really helped tell the story & I feel this would be a good way to engage people from all ages, including as a children’s book!

  9. Debbie says:

    Wow! I’m definitely guilty of trying to connect the dots in constellations, and have never even considered the dark space between! I’m never going to look at the stars the same way again! It’s incredible the culture and history we have in Australia, thanks for enlightening me a little bit more.

  10. Xuexiao Yang says:

    Thanks for the extremely attractive contents, Michelle! I’ve learned a lot from your post. Of course, the aboriginals did not really know what is astronomy but they have found the laws of nature, which is also a special kind of science. Just like you say, we should take time to learn them and pass those ‘experience’ on whatever we can!