Ancient Australian Indigenous Astronomy

Thanks to the amazing grant of £1000 given to us by the Royal Astronomical Society, we’ve been able to hire writers for our blog posts on POC science. This incredible article was written by the wonderful Abigail Frost!

When you think of ancient astronomy, your mind may quickly go to the ancient Greeks. The influence of ancient Greek astronomy runs deep in western society, with the nomenclature we use for the constellations based on their constellations and mythology, and the names we give to stars often derived from Greek. As a result, ancient Greeks are often presented as the quintessential ancient astronomers. To an often much lesser degree, the contributions of Babylonians and Islamic astronomers are also noted, but most POC contributions to ancient astronomy are overlooked. Despite this, indigenous civilisations also looked up to the stars and did astronomy. In this blog post I want to highlight the observations of one such indigenous population – the First Nations peoples of Australia.

Also known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the culture of the First Nations people of Australia is rich and ancient, stretching back approximately 50,000 years. Astronomy is and has been a rich part of their culture, potentially making them some of most ancient astronomers to ever have existed. An instance of this is the Kaurna people, who use stellar brightness to govern seasons: for example, they recognise when autumn (Parnatti) is coming due to the star Parna (Formalhaut) being visible in the morning. The Boorong tribe of Victoria had the star Arcturus represent the spirit of Marpeankurrk who pointed them to where to find wood-ant pupa to eat in times of drought and for whom the star Vega represents the spirit of the Mallee hen who pointed the way to her eggs (Stanbridge 1861). The Euahlayi and Kamilaroi Aboriginal people used patterns of stars on the skies as references for travelling close to 1000km distances for festivals, with each star marking an important point on a route such as a waterhole or turning place on the landscape (Fuller 2014). For the Torres Strait Islander people, the stars of the Tagai (represented by the stars of a number of constellations including Scorpius, Lupus and Hydra, amongst others) were of great importance, as their cycle provided them with a seasonal calendar that allowed them to organise their fishing and agriculture as well as social, ritual and cultural activities (Bhathal 2006).

The First Nations people did not just use the stars for orientation and as markers of time, however. They observed stellar behaviour and recorded this by weaving what they found into their oral traditions. An oral tradition is a collection of spoken words used to convey information down the generations. As such, oral traditions form a sort of inheritance, taking the form of poetry, prayers, speeches, songs, stories, history and more. Oral traditions are regularly repeated and are thought to be a primary method of cultural transmission. Within the oral traditions of the First Nation people of Australia, astronomical information has been passed down over tens of thousands of years.

One example of an astronomical phenomena being incoprorated into oral traditions concerns the variability of stars. Stars change over extremely long timescales as they evolve and grow. As an example, our Sun is currently in its longest life-cycle phase, called the ‘main sequence’, but will eventually swell into a so-called ‘red giant’ star which will change its colour and brightness. Some stars also undergo other kinds of variability within their different evolutionary stages depending on their internal processes. One star, Betelgeuse, went through a dimming event in 2019-2020 which gained a lot of media attention (Dupree et al 2020). Betelgeuse is one of the brightest reddest stars in the sky and is easily distinguishable in the constellation Orion. Ultimately researchers determined that the dimming event was due to a large ejection of plasma from the star in a direction towards the Earth. When this material cooled it formed dust which in turn caused the dimming.

While this variability of Betelgeuse resulted in a number of recent press releases, Aboriginal Australians have long detected the variability of Betelgeuse and other red-giant stars like it. The variability of Betelgeuse is encoded in an oral tradition of the Kokatha people of the Great Victoria Desert. Nyeeruna (Orion) is considered a hunter or a group of hunters, whilst the star cluster Yugarilya (Pleiades or colloquially known as the Seven Sisters) describes a group of women or sisters. The Kambugudha stellar cluster (Hyades) lies between the two, serving as a barrier. The story goes that Nyeeruna wants to make the women of Yugarilya his wives and eventually becomes enraged as he is prevented from reaching them. As he becomes angry, the club in his right-hand fills with fire magic. This club in the story refers to the star Betelgeuse. Additionally, the story continues that Kambugudha, standing between Nyeeruna and Yugarilya defensively lifts her left foot and fills it with fire magic too. Her foot here is represented by the star often referred to as Aldebaran, which is also a variable star. It continues that Kambugudha kicks dust into Nyeeruna’s face causing his fire magic to dissipate. Eventually, Nyeeruna’s magic returns and Betelgeuse increases in brightness again. This tradition is found across Australia, with similar traditions present in (White 1975) and across the Central Desert (Mountford 1976). Similar traditions are also associated with another variable giant star, Antares. Subsequent measurements of the stars by astrophysicists are in agreement with the variability described in oral traditions (Hamacher et al 2017). This documentation of the brightening and dimming of red-giant stars within the oral traditions of the First Nations people therefore constitutes some of the most ancient records of stellar variability.


A piece by Walpiri artist Alma Nungarrayi Granites entitled ‘Seven Sisters Dreaming’. Alma paints the stories from previous generations passed down to her by her father. Her parents were founders of the contemporary Aboriginal Art Movement.

Other astrophysical phenomena have also been incorporated into oral traditions. One such star, Eta Carinae, is marked by its huge nebula (the Homunculus Nebula) and the explosion that created it. This ‘Great Eruption’ was documented across the globe and was included in the oral traditions of the Boorong clan of the Wergaia people of western Victoria (Hamacher & Frew 2010). The retrograde (backwards) motion of the planets is also described in the oral traditions of the Wardaman people, who depict their motion as old spirits who walk a path both forwards and backwards (Hamacher & Banks 2019).

Through the practice of oral traditions, the First Nations people have a view of the Universe that modern astronomy cannot touch. All of this highlights the value in considering non-written methods of a data transfer and displays how the ancient astronomy of the First Nations supports and can assist modern astronomy. Given the huge history of the Aboriginal Australian people, there is potentially huge untapped resource of Aboriginal astronomical knowledge within the oral traditions of the First Nations people. By working to understand and appreciate the history, culture and practices of indigenous cultures, we may better understand the history of many interesting astrophysical phenomena.

References

  1. 💻 Stanbridge W. `Some particulars of the general characteristics, astronomy and mythology of the tribes in the central part of Victoria and South Australia’, Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, 1861, vol. 1 (22) (pg. 286-304)

2. 💻 Fuller, R.S., Trudgett, M.M., Norris, R.P., and Anderson, M.G. (2014). Star maps and travelling to ceremonies: the Euahlayi People and their use of the night sky.Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Vol. 17(2), pp. 149–160, 2014.

3. 💻 Bhathal. R, 2006 Astronomy & Geophysics, Volume 47, Issue 5, Pages 5.27–5.30, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-4004.2006.47527.x

4. 💻 Norris, R.P. and Harney, B.Y. (2014). Songlines and navigation in Wardaman and other Australian Aboriginal culturesJournal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Vol. 17(2), pp. 141–148.

5. 💻 Dupree et al (2020), The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 899, Issue 1, id.68, DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/aba516

6. 💻 White, I. M. 1975 Sexual conquest and submission in the myths of central Australia, in (ed) L. R. Hiatt Australian Aboriginal Mythology. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, pp. 123–42.

7. 💻 Mountford, C. P. 1976 Nomads of the Australian Desert. Adelaide: Rigby.

8. 💻 Hamacher, D.W. (2018). Observations of red-giant variable stars by Aboriginal AustraliansThe Australian Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 29(1), pp. 89-107.

9. 💻 Hamacher, D.W. and Frew, D.J. (2010). An Aboriginal Australian record of the Great Eruption of Eta CarinaeJournal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Vol. 13(3), pp. 220-234.

10. 💻 Hamacher, D.W. and Banks, K. (2019). The Planets in Indigenous Australian TraditionsOxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science.

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